If Boston hands you a gray day, spits cold drizzle on you, and blows a mad wind in your face — and it will, oh, it will — the thing to do is escape. As quickly as possible. I like the city of San Juan, but it’s a four-hour plane ride away. On the other hand, the South End offers a very viable alternative in the form of Puerto Rican restaurant Vejigantes, opened in July. Here, the atmosphere is warm. Several generations eat dinner together at one table. The kids of co-owners Nivia and Hector Piña run over to visit their father, working on his laptop at a corner table. A group of women drink cocktails from coconuts as steaming platters of paella are set before them. The staff sings happy birthday to a guest in Spanish and actually manages to sound happy about it. The back wall is painted to look like doorways set in buildings of tropical hues: pink, lemon, avocado, Creamsicle. You have escaped.
The Piñas also operate Merengue, a Dominican restaurant in Roxbury. (It is a favorite of Red Sox DH David Ortiz, who has tweeted several shout-outs to friend Hector and his new venture.) Vejigantes is named for a Puerto Rican folk character central to carnival celebrations, “a symbol of defiance in the face of oppression,” the menu explains. Colorful vejigante masks hang on the walls. The restaurant is in the heart of the Villa Victoria community, born out of the efforts of Puerto Rican activists; across the street, a sign celebrates Puerto Rican pride. It’s hard to imagine a better location in the city for showcasing the country’s culinary heritage.
In this warm environment, the most warming thing on the menu is also one of the best: soup. Cream of plantain soup is created from the special recipe of one Doña Carmen, who brings nuance to what can be a simple dish. Somewhere between banana and potato in flavor, plantains are blended into a bowl that is comforting without being boring; there is a backbone of garlic, plus a pleasant sourness and complexity.
Shrimp, lobster, or a mix of seafood can be showcased in either soup or the gumbo-esque asopao, a dish thick with rice. Shrimp soup is thinner, stocked with noodles, plenty of shrimp, and deep flavor.
Soup portions are almost comically generous, and any of the offerings could make a meal paired with traditional snacks such as alcapurrias or bacalaitos fritos. The former are dark brown, wedge-shaped fritters made of beef, taro root, and plantains. The latter, codfish fritters, bear only the faintest flavor of salt cod; pleasantly chewy, they taste more like scallion pancakes without the scallions. The empanada-esque pastelillo comes filled with chicken, beef, or crabmeat. Even when the chicken is slightly dry, these are still appealing. There’s a reason dough folded around meat is a universal foodstuff. The octopus in an octopus salad is chewy, but the puckery, vinegared flavors of the dish are hard to resist. But crisp little tostones, made from plantains, deserve better than a crumbly, flavorless topping of what purports to be crabmeat stew.
The section of the menu titled “especialidades de la casa” showcases paella, either a seafood version with lobster, shrimp, calamari, and clams, or paella Valenciana with chicken and chorizo. Like the crabmeat stew, the rice is dry and bland. (The house hot sauce, infused with whole chilies, can help in this situation. It’s sneakily fiery.) Another house specialty features grilled lobster tail with mashed cassava. The lobster meat is welded to the shell, nearly impossible to remove. (Opening chef Randy Muñoz has departed, says Nivia Piña by phone, so change may be afoot in the kitchen.)
The true specialties of the house are dishes from Boquerón, a beach village. This is simple, satisfying seafood fare. Shrimp in Creole sauce is a homey dish featuring plump shrimp and a savory tomato base. Red snapper is filleted and grilled simply with garlic and parsley. Both come with a side of tostones or maduros (green or sweet plantains), taro puree, fried yuca, or rice — either served with fat, saucy beans, or studded with pigeon peas and pork.
Meat dishes are here, too, for the seafood-averse, including simple, tasty grilled steak with chimichurri sauce. Nor does Vejigantes neglect vegetarians, offering a riff on the dish made with breaded eggplant rather than beef. And the menu wouldn’t be complete without the traditional dish mofongo. A tower of mashed plantains mixed with either chicken or pork, this is a starchy delight served with chicken broth on the side, bringing necessary moisture and flavor to the dish. Or hit that hot sauce again.
For dessert, don’t be beguiled by the enchantingly titled “delicias de la isla,” which turns out to be an assortment of bland pastries. Opt instead for one of the better local renditions of tres leches cake. So often heavy, here it is saturated with sweet milk, custardy and rich.
Vejigantes has a short list of wine and beer and puts real thought into its cocktail list. Hector Piña’s secret recipe for sangria would be worth stealing, perfectly balanced and not too sweet. Also on offer: a margarita made with pisco, mojitos, and the signature coquitini, which contains coconut rum, cream of coconut, and coconut milk. Not for those who don’t like coconut.
Vejigantes’ dishes may not always hit the mark, sometimes overcooked or underseasoned. But the restaurant offers a welcome taste of Puerto Rico. For many in the neighborhood, it is the taste of home. For others, it is a warm escape.