The  Wild Rican joins EDEN in FreshLAB food hall

May 30, 2018

BATAVIA — As a mid-morning session of yoga concluded on the Eli Fish Brewing Co.’s bocce courts, scents of authentic Puerto Rican food wafted through the air.

Dishes such as double fried and mashed plantains; flaky crusted empanadas stuffed with beef and cheese; roasted pork loin with a mojo marinade and creamy custard-y flan.

Soon, the sweet sounds of “La Borinqueña,” the official anthem of Puerto Rico, would join them.

The Genesee County Chamber of Commerce officially welcomed The Wild Rican into its ranks as an up-and-running restaurant on May 20, but not before patrons had steaming plates set before them.

Officials had to urge owner Victor Figueroa out of the kitchen for the ceremonial ribbon cutting — he was more concerned with making sure his customers were fed and happy than he was with the formalities.

The FreshLAB restaurant offering Caribbean island cuisine, backed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that requires menu items to be tied to the area’s agricultural products, has been much-anticipated — coming to fruition only after Victor and his wife, Michelle, won a five-way race to join vegan concept Eden inside the food hall at the downtown Eli Fish Brewing Company.

And now, with a week’s worth of business under its belt, rave reviews for the authentic eatery are pouring in.

“We were asked what makes our food taste so good,” Michelle said in a recent Facebook post to The Wild Rican page.

And, really, the secret’s in the sauce — or rather, the sofrito, a base for many Puerto Rican dishes that’s made from onions, peppers, garlic and a number of other ingredients.

“Now, remember, everyone has their versions,” Michelle proffered. “Ours comes from Victor’s mother and her mother and so forth. Now, we bring it to you.”

On opening day, friends gathered to sample an array of specialty empanadas, a house-made bread that’s “like a water bed” it’s so soft and Cuban sandwiches made with bone-in-shoulder pork — though the most anticipated item was, clearly, the cheeseburger empanada.

“The empanadas look interesting,” said Esther Leadley, who knows Michelle through Community Action, as her eyes scanned a freshly minted menu. “I’m sick of chicken and the pizza, well, that’s not especially (on my palette today). I’ll probably try the cheeseburger with a fruit drink.”

She hadn’t quite decided on what flavor — there’s guava, apricot, peach, passion fruit or pear to choose from — because she’s not had much experience with Puerto Rican food, she admitted. Instead, she came mainly to support her friend.

“Michelle was very excited about the opening and I don’t blame her,” Leadley explained. “She said, ‘Are you coming?’ And I said yes. So, I’m here.”

The Community Action connections, which helped Michelle to forge close relationships with local farms such as Lee Farms, Bannister Beef and Kern’s Farm Market — all of which serve as sources of the high-quality produce and products offered at the restaurant — brought in another couple for the grand opening, too.

“I know Michelle through community action,” said Skip Helfrich.

“And I’m with him,” his wife, Laurie, laughed.

Over their cheeseburger and chicken empanadas — served up with a mound of fresh coleslaw — they said the opening was “exciting” and labeled the food “delicious.”

They’re in good company, too — the restaurant offers scoop-and-serve dishes meant for the downtown workers looking to eat well and fast, along with rotating daily specials and unique seafood dishes available Thursday through Saturday. It has received an overwhelming majority of 5-star reviews since opening to the public, something perhaps helped by Michelle’s tendency to mill about and offer up samples of flan.

“She was the sweetest thing,” said one patron, who cited their experience as “absolutely delicious” and “wonderful” after filling their belly with a friend chicken dinner and all three empanadas.

The Wild Rican is now open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on Sundays from 4 to 9 p.m.

More information can be found by visiting thewildrican.com.

By Jessica Dillon, Batavia Daily News