Joancarlo Parkhurst doesn’t want to take too many liberties with the Puerto Rican dishes he’s serving at La Famosa, the all-day cafe that opened this morning on the ground floor of the Bower condo building in Navy Yard. The fried finger foods, pressed sandwiches, tropical fruit pastries, and protein-heavy mains represent the foods he says he physically craves every time he lands on the island.
Parkhurst spent his early childhood in Hato Tejas, an industrial district in the city of Bayamón. That’s where his family founded, and eventually sold, a fruit canning company with the same name as his new restaurant. When his parents moved his immediate family to the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he still spent summers and holidays in Puerto Rico, totaling about four months of every year there from the time he was 6 through his high school years. At La Famosa, he’s veering away from tradition in a few spots, but the majority of his recipes are meant to mimic meals found at street carts, coffee shops, and diners, including the “Nuyorican” ones he grew to love in New York.
“The food is humble. The food is simple. I’m not going to say that it isn’t,” Parkhurst says. “It’s hearty, stick-to-your-ribs. I’m trying to make it as relevant and as fresh and as creative I can as long as I feel that it won’t be disingenuous to what my culture is.”
The chef’s pernil, or roasted pork shoulder, is brined ahead of time and roasted in an adobo spice blend the staff makes in the restaurant. The pork rounds out a trio of meats, with ham and sliced ribeye, on a tripleta sandwich full of garlic and a mayo-ketchup sauce. Melted Swiss cheese oozes out of the sides of the thin, crispy, pan de agua rolls that hold the combination.
For La Famosa’s inch-thick, semicircular bacalaitos — salt cod fritters that vary in shape and size on different parts of the island — Parkhurst brings in fresh fish to cure himself instead of using the dried product. The guava paste the kitchen crew makes La Famosa hews closer to beige than the bright red, canned version.
Parkhurst uses Berkshire pork for his chuleta kan-kan, a bone-in chop that features a “mohawk” of pork belly cut to expose three edges from each fatty piece. The chop gets cooked sous vide in an immersion circulator before it’s finished in the deep fryer. The habichuelas (pink beans) that come on the side with rice and fried, smashed plantain tostones get cooked from a dried product, not poured out of a can.
La Famosa (1300 Fourth Street SE #130) opens at 7 a.m. every day, pouring coffee from the roasters at Ceremony in Annapolis. Along with hot coffee and cold brew, there are espresso drinks like a cortado, a macchiato, and a “coco shakerato,” a blend of coconut water, coconut cream, and coffee over ice. Pastelillos de guayaba (fried guava empanadas) are available on the morning menu (7 a.m. to 11 a.m.) alongside sweet cream cheese pastries and toasted mallorcas, sweet, egg-based buns covered in powdered sugar. Batidos, or fruit and milk smoothies, come in mango, pineapple, soursoup, and tamarind. Later in the day, people can order tropical cocktails like a guava smash made with D.C. distiller Cotton & Reed’s mellow gold rum.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, La Famosa had already planned to offer carryout and use QR codes for remote ordering at individual tables. To start out, there’s limited indoor seating and a 58-seat patio. Customers can order carryout online, and the restaurant plans to add delivery on DoorDash and Uber Eats. A “fast-fine” model will include full service at the bar and dropoffs from food runners whenever coronavirus-era restrictions go away.
Throughout his career, Parkhurst has swung back and forth between cooking jobs and front-of-house positions that provided more stability. As a general manager at Ruth’s Chris, he led openings from Bethesda to Dubai and managed a location in Isla Verde. He arrived in D.C. nearly 20 years ago to oversee the steakhouse’s training operation in Bethesda and opened RPM Italian in Mt. Vernon Triangle for the Lettuce Entertain You Group. More recently, he was the director of operations for Blue Ridge Restaurant Group, the local outfit behind Stanford Grill and Copper Canyon Grill. He struck out on his own to open Lina’s Diner and Bar, an affordable spot in Silver Spring where Washington Post columnist Tim Carman praised the chilaquiles.
Parkhurst couldn’t make the finances work, and he closed Lina’s after less than two years. One of the lessons he learned, he says, was to drop an old position he took refusing to cater to vegan and vegetarian diets. At La Famosa, he offers a version of ground beef picadillo made with the burger substitute from Impossible Foods. Vegan customers can order it atop a mash of fried plantain mofongo or stuffed in sweet plantain canoes.
“I have been very receptive and listening,” Parkhurst says. “As I’ve gotten older, my tone and my position on my cuisine has become more open-minded.”
It’s rare to find a dedicated Puerto Rican restaurant in the D.C. area. The Borinquen Lunch Box truck has continued to roll out to breweries during the novel coronavirus pandemic, and La Casa del Mofongo makes Puerto Rican and Dominican dishes in Silver Spring. Barracks Row standby Banana Cafe closed in December 2017.