Chocobar, a Beloved Restaurant from San Juan, Heads for the Bronx
When New Yorkers hunt for well-made chocolate, they go far beyond the tourist-clogged Hershey and M&M stores in Times Square to a wealth of purveyors in every borough. Carlos Cortés, the creative director of a 92-year-old family-owned chocolate company in Puerto Rico, hopes to create a new destination for chocolate enthusiasts in the Bronx.
On Friday, Chocobar Cortés plans to open its first brick-and-mortar location on the United States mainland, Chocobar NYC, on a busy block in the Mott Haven neighborhood. The restaurant and cafe will be not only an expansion, but also a reconnection with the Puerto Rican diaspora.
“We want to start where our community is, and then grow from there,” said Mr. Cortés, 34, the scion of the bean-to-bar company, which also operates in the Dominican Republic.
Mr. Cortés, who attended Columbia and New York University, said he chose Mott Haven because of its recent spurt of development, its large Puerto Rican and Dominican populations and its proximity to similar communities in Inwood, Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights. One in six New Yorkers is either Puerto Rican or Dominican, but in the Bronx that number soars to nearly one in two. “The Bronx is changing, and we’re here to be a part of it,” he said.
The original Chocobar Cortés restaurant, which opened in 2013 on a central thoroughfare in Old San Juan, routinely tops review and travel sites. (It was USA Today’s top Caribbean restaurant in 2017.) When Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York visited San Juan in November, Chocobar was one of her first stops.
In the Dominican Republic, Cortés has cocoa plantations and a popular brand, Embajador, that uses the Cortés logo. A visitor center, with a cafe led by Ricardo de Obaldía, the chef of the Chocobar in San Juan, opened in September at a Cortés factory in Santo Domingo.
The Bronx restaurant, modeled after the San Juan location, continues the company’s tradition of using chocolate in varied and often surprising ways. Its extensive menu includes an array of 10 hot chocolates; grilled cheese sandwiches with chocolate butter; burgers with chocolate ketchup; Bloody Marys made with chocolate bitters; serrano-Manchego croquettes with chocolate dipping sauce; and chalupitas de mofongo with grated chocolate guacamole.
There are steaks and chicken seasoned with chocolate rub, eggs sprinkled with chocolate salt and even salads dressed in chocolate vinaigrette. A tradition from rural Puerto Rico pairs hot chocolate with Cheddar. The overall effect has a Willy Wonka giddiness.
“You have to see chocolate as a condiment and not as a candy,” said Maria Martínez, the chef of Chocobar NYC, who was born in Brooklyn but raised in Quebradillas, in northwest Puerto Rico. Her mofongo at Café Ghia, a Bushwick, Brooklyn, restaurant that closed in 2017, regularly drew long lines every morning.
In a phone interview from his home in San Juan, Ignacio Cortés, Carlos’s father and the company’s chief executive, said Cortés chocolate has been available in the United States in scattered groceries and bodegas since 1951, and is now distributed in 20 states. “We are a reference for the first and second generations who came to New York,” he said, “a reference to what they left and what they long for.”
Pablo García Smith, who offers food tours of San Juan, said that Chocobar serves as “a generational bridge,” linking abuelas with young people and Instagram influencers. “The restaurants — in San Juan and now in New York — close the loop of nostalgia.” (Last summer, Cortés sold chocolate bars wrapped in comic strips of La Borinqueña, an Afro-Puerto Rican superhero created in 2016.)
The Mott Haven neighborhood has experienced a rush of development from within the community, or “gentefication,” from the Spanish word “gente” (people). Chocobar shares a block with the Lit. Bar, a wine bar and a much-needed bookstore; Beatstro, a hip-hop bistro that hosts break-dancing battles; Famous Nobodys, a streetwear boutique; and the Thinkubator, a job training nonprofit that’s about to open a cafe.
“We have seen and we’re going to see the Puerto Rican community occupy a greater place in the political and economic life of our country,” said Representative Ritchie Torres, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican and African American descent who was elected last year in the borough’s 15th Congressional District. “I’m excited by the Puerto Rican empowerment of new venues like Chocobar NYC and the entrepreneurial spirit they bring to our borough.”
Carlos Cortés expressed concern about the role of businesses in expressing everything Puerto Rico has to offer.
“We have J. Lo. We have Lin-Manuel Miranda. We have Ricky Martin,” Mr. Cortés said. “But I’m trying to be an example so other entrepreneurs can say we can do business, too, instead of being left out of the conversation — which feels doubly frustrating when you can speak two languages.”
Chocobar NYC, 141 Alexander Avenue (East 134th Street), Mott Haven, the Bronx, 718-841-9310, chocobarcortes.com
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