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Finding Old San Juan on Joseph Avenue 

Mi Viejo San Juan has stood at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Norton Street for the last three years, serving Puerto Rican fare to the surrounding neighborhood. Similar to other Puerto Rican restaurants in Rochester, Mi Viejo offers a choice of protein — pernil, baked and stewed chicken, stewed beef and steak, and stewed pork and rib tips — served cafeteria style in takeout containers ($5 for the small; $7 for the medium; and $9 for the large). And each meal has a base of nicely seasoned yellow rice and stewed pinto beans that were soft, but not mushy. Those core components are so important to get right, and Mi Viejo San Juan did it.

The pork rib tips, which are small pieces trimmed off the end of short ribs and stewed in a BBQ-like sauce until the meat was falling apart, ended up being my favorite of the protein options. The chewing was a bit primal, but there was a crunch that was a pleasant texture contrast from the other meat offerings. The stewed steak and beef ended up on the dry side, and the vegetables with the beef stew almost disintegrated when biting into them.

The pernil (roasted pork) was oven-cooked to a pleasant, moist, soft texture, but too much of the fat was left under rendered — which could have just been an aberration since the batch I saw on the second visit looked more balanced. The flavors of garlic and oregano from the adobo seasoning work well with the pork, but it was applied with a heavy hand. The side of hog maw ($3 for a medium cup) was a show stopper with perfectly stewed pieces of pig stomach in a broth based liquid. This is a great introduction to offal (organ meat): the flavors are mostly familiar, so it's just the texture that presents the challenge.

Keep an eye out for mashed yuca that incorporates dried salt cod (bacalao) into the base. It sounds a bit odd, but the robust earthiness from the starchy yuca merges well with the slightly fishy flavors. Some chunks of yuca remained intact and complemented the otherwise smooth mixture.

Mi Viejo San Juan has a wide selection of fried goods made in house, including seven varieties of empanadas, alcapurria, and potato balls. The conch empanada stood out as not only a unique offering, but one that contrasted the strong clam-like flavor of the meat with onions and olives. The beef and cheese had hints of pepper and onion and substituted mozzarella for the typical American cheese. Other options included chicken, octopus, beef, shrimp, and pizza.

Following my review last year of El Pilon Criollo, I've come to learn more about Joseph Avenue and Mi Viejo San Juan. Dr. Neil Scheier, a member of the Joseph Avenue Business Association and the Arts and Culture Alliance, took me on a tour of the area to illustrate what improvements those groups had been working on. There's a lot that could be mentioned, but some of the more higher-profile items include four pieces from the lauded WALL\THERAPY program, a well-attended yearly festival co-sponsored by the city, and a recent event held by the RPO as part of its Around Town series.

The most ambitious pursuit, though, is the purchase of the B'Nai Israel Ahavas Achim synagogue through a newly formed non-profit. The intent is to transform it into a $3 million community performing arts center, focusing on youth engagement. What can't be forgotten is that these larger programs stand on the back of less heralded efforts: corner lots are being mowed; new businesses are moving in; and the street has plenty of new trash cans available to keep things cleaner. And Mi Viejo San Juan is flourishing and expanding with a food truck. With changes happening, and a hearty selection of restaurants to check out, I'm excited to see what comes next for Joseph Avenue.

You can read more from Chris Lindstrom or listen to his podcast on his food blog, Share any dining tips with him on Twitter and Instagram @stromie.


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