Puerto La Union offers Italian, Salvadoran menu
Winchester — When someone picks up a menu at Puerto La Union Restaurant and Pizza in Winchester, they might do a double take.
Italian and Salvadoran foods sit side-by-side as the cuisines of choice at the restaurant owned by Feliciano and Carmen Romero. The combination isn’t a gimmick; it’s just a way to give their customers more choices and cook the food they know and love, he said.
He wants customers to leave full and satisfied, and by providing a high quality eclectic mix of food, he feels he has a good shot at that outcome.
“It gives me energy to know that they are happy,” said Feliciano, 42, of Martinsburg, W.Va.
In March 2012, the Romeros opened Pupuseria Puerto La Union, a small restaurant at 2832 Valley Ave. specializing only in dishes from El Salvador. The name of the restaurant comes from a seaside city in El Salvador that is Feliciano’s favorite place in his homeland.
But since Feliciano started cooking in the 1990s, Italian food has been a huge part of his career. Driven by a desire to provide a wider array of dishes, the couple expanded Jan. 27 to offer an extensive Italian menu. They also more than doubled the restaurant’s space by expanding into the space next door.
Now, people eating at the same table can enjoy the cuisines of two countries an ocean apart, he said.
The Salvadoran food the restaurant started with has several dishes people will recognize, especially ones similar to food in various Spanish cultures, and others that are completely new, Carmen said.
One of the most typical dishes in El Salvador is the pupusa, a filled dough pocket cooked on the flattop grill, she said. The dough is made from Maseca corn flour. It is formed into a small bowl, filled with different combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables, closed up, flattened and then grilled.
Some of the combinations the restaurant serves are beans and cheese, pork and cheese, and the queso con loroco, which has all the other ingredients plus a green Salvadoran vegetable called loroco.
“It has a strong flavor. I compare it to spinach,” said Carmen, 37, who is from Honduras.
Carne asada la Brasa is another popular dish. It features a thin flank steak marinated in traditional Salvadoran spices for an hour before being cooked on a charcoal grill, Feliciano said. The restaurant serves it with refried beans, Spanish rice, salad and tortillas.
Sopa de res is a beef soup made with rib meat on the bone that is cooked for about an hour and a half in spices before vegetables are added and the soup finished off, Carmen said. The vegetables — yucca root, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and corn on the cob — make it a healthy dish that is a good source of energy.
“This is popular because it is typical in El Salvador,” she said. “They eat it every day for lunch.”
Surprisingly, the soup is also considered a good hangover remedy in El Salvador, she said.
The Italian side of the menu features all of the usual suspects — pizza, calzones, pasta — but what sets them and the other dishes apart is the original recipes and the ingredients, Feliciano said.
The marinara sauce featured in several of the dishes is a recipe he developed in 2005 for another restaurant he owned called Venice Italian Restaurant in Hedgesville, W.Va. The sauce is popular, and he has never found a reason to change. It is used with several of the pizzas, in the spaghetti, and as a dipping sauce for the stromboli and calzones.
A list of stromboli and calzone can be prepared almost interchangeably, the only difference being that the latter has ricotta cheese, he said. In the union deluxe, a large or small pocket of pizza dough is filled with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onion and mozzarella cheese.
The same combination plus black olives goes onto the house special pizza, which can be ordered small (10 inches), medium (14 inches), or extra large.
Some of the pizzas are made with Feliciano’s fresh garlic sauce, including the Margherita, which has fresh sliced tomatoes, red onions, olive oil and mozzarella cheese. Another is the Greek pizza, with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, feta cheese, black olives, roasted red peppers, mozzarella cheese and olive oil.
Fresh garlic is the key ingredient in several of the restaurant’s dishes, including the linguine di mare, Carmen said. The dish features clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari sautéed in either red or white sauce with garlic, oregano and other spices. The pasta is added to the pan in the last few minutes to sauté them together.
For people who want a salad that still has the taste of Italy, the ensalada a la mode du chef has fresh mixed lettuce, ham, salami, turkey, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, red onions, carrots, radishes, roasted red pepper, artichokes, boiled eggs and chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese.
The most popular dressing for the salad selections is Feliciano’s house Italian dressing, which has onions, carrots, oregano, salt, sugar, black pepper, red pepper, red vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
Italian food will always have a special place in Feliciano’s heart because it was his entrée into the world of cooking. When he came to the United States in 1990 from El Salvador, he had no cooking experience, nor did his future wife, who immigrated the same year from Honduras.
The couple met in 1993 in California and were working in the same factory. They married in 1996.
Feliciano got his start in the kitchen in a Mexican restaurant helping prepare salads and cut meat. But it wasn’t until the couple moved to New Jersey a few years later and he started working in his cousin’s Manhattan restaurant that he really started to learn the ins and outs.
In the Italian restaurant, he was responsible for three dishes — rigatoni, spaghetti and baked salmon. Within a few months, he was taking over more dishes and continually growing his culinary repertoire.
“While I was working, I was learning,” he said.
His cousin, Benito Martinez, gave him private lessons at home and in the kitchen at work, teaching him about not only Italian but Salvadoran and other foods.
In 2000, Feliciano was a partner in his first restaurant venture, the first Puerto La Union, a Salvadoran restaurant in New Jersey. He sold it after two years and moved to Virginia, working at Roma Casual Italian and Greek Dining in Stephens City for three years.
In January 2005, he opened Venice Restaurant in Hedesville, which he operated for six years. He opened Venice II in 2007 in Hancock, Md., and Venice III the same year in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. He sold all three in 2011.
It was in the Venice restaurants that Carmen started to really learn her way around the kitchen. She worked as a waitress in her husband’s restaurants, but she occasionally had to help out in the kitchen when someone wasn’t available. Like Feliciano, she fell in love with cooking and has been his co-chef ever since.
The couple had one more business before opening the restaurant in Winchester last year. They operated Feliciano’s Restaurant in Martinsburg before selling it, he said.
The couple still has a house there, but they are hoping to sell it and relocate to Winchester.
Puerto La Union Restaurant and Pizza, 2832 Valley Ave., is open from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For more information, contact 540-545-4118 or 540-545-7044 or email@example.com go to puertolaunionrestaurant.com.
— Contact Laura McFarland at firstname.lastname@example.org