CLEVELAND, Ohio – Losing a job can be stressful for anyone, especially for a young man newly married.
For Papo Ruiz, it was the beginning of a career change he never saw coming.
Ruiz had learned the basics of cooking from his grandmother as a child. After being laid off from the auto body job he was working, he wanted to contribute at home while looking for a new position, so he would make dinner for his wife, Nydvia, each day and have it ready when she arrived home from work.
With limited abilities in the kitchen, he was soon on the phone with his mother.
“I got tired of making fried chicken every night, so I called my mom and asked for some recipes,” he explained. “From there, I taught myself.”
To celebrate National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, we asked our readers where to find the best Caribbean food in Northeast Ohio. Nominations quickly filled our inbox, with Rincon Criollo receiving an overwhelming number of nods.
Ruiz found cooking very satisfying, and he was soon selling his dishes from his home kitchen. It didn’t take long for friends and family to begin encouraging him to open a restaurant. He and Nydvia did just that, taking over Rincon Criollo in Gordon Square in 2006.
Rincon Criollo was one of the first businesses to plant roots in the Gordon Square Arts District on Detroit Road before it grew into the West Side entertainment destination it has become.
Rincon – which translates to ‘the corner’ — is a small city in Puerto Rico – aptly named because it is situated in the top corner of the island. Criollo translates to ‘homemade.’ “I call it the ‘corner of the good stuff,’” Ruiz said, laughing.
“We were there before Gordon Square exploded,” Papo explained. “Everything that is there now, wasn’t there. It was kind of a ghetto with all sorts of questionable people on the street. When we started, not a lot of families came around. But little by little, they fixed the whole street and now everything is always open, and business is hopping.”
Today the family operates two locations — the original in Gordon Square, and a second location across town on Denison Avenue
Ruiz was born in Puerto Rico and was brought to Cleveland as a child. Nydvia was raised in Northeast Ohio.
Both grew up eating the traditional dishes of their families’ homeland – and are proud to share that flavorful heritage with the growing Puerto Rican population in Northeast Ohio – which Papo says “come in looking for a taste of home” — or with native Clevelanders looking for something a little different.
Every dish is made with their homemade spice blend, which they sell at the restaurants.
Many of the dishes are family recipes, while others are dishes he experienced while traveling, which he adapted to his own style of cooking. All ingredients are locally sourced.
Ruiz’s signature dish “jibarito” is a steak sandwich, but rather than wrapping the meat in bread, it is served up between two slices of plantain.
Most dishes at Rincon Criollo are heavy on the meat – pork, steak and beef – though there are plenty of seafood and veggie-based items to satisfy those looking for lighter fare. Adventurous eaters will want to try the stewed pigs ears, served over rice – which is one of the restaurant’s top sellers — or conch and octopus salads.
Three years ago, the Ruizes decided to expand when the owner of their favorite taco joint, on Denison, was looking to retire. Rincon Criollo Take 2 was born.
“We decided to take it over and change the entire concept of our other place,” explained Nydvia. “At first, we had a lot of complaints from regulars at the Gordon Square place because it was so different, but that was the whole point. Rather than a sit-down restaurant with limited parking, here we have plenty of parking and we cater to those workers who have a limited time for lunch.”
More of a cafeteria-style restaurant with limited seating, customers have plenty of parking and can grab a quick lunch in a matter of minutes.
In addition to the food service, Rincon Criollo Take 2 has two private rooms available for events – one which features a stage and with the coming approval of a liquor license will feature a small bar. In addition, the Ruizes are exploring the idea of full pig roasts during the summer months at the Denison location; as well as adding a drive-thru window in the near future.
Ready to expand again – Rincon Criollo is working with the Dave’s Supermarket on W. 65th to open a kiosk in the fall, which will be called Rincon Criollo Express. The kiosk will offer a cold deli and regular sides, but, will only serve one entrée a day.
Papo Ruiz even hinted at the possibility of a food truck in the near future.
How do they juggle all of this? Nydvia says “I eat and I clean, he cooks.” Their three children are also involved in the day-to-day operations of the family business — with the middle son, Ricardo, following in his father’s footsteps as a chef, while oldest son, Ivan, and daughter, Aria, are more interested in working in the front of house with customers.