A year ago, satisfying a craving for Puerto Rican cuisine was virtually impossible in Bradenton. Now that Casa de Caguas has settled in at 1714 14th St. W., Bradenton residents can enjoy Puerto Rican dishes whenever their taste buds cry out for the sweet and savory flavors of the island.
Edward Stevens, a former beer distributor from Chicago, opened the restaurant in October after noting that he couldn't find restaurants in Bradenton that served authentic Puerto Rican cuisine.
“I came to Florida to retire, but I couldn’t stay out of the restaurant business, so here I am – ‘retired,’” Stevens said, jokingly.
“Opening this restaurant was a logical choice. I could have done French or Greek or Italian, but there’s already plenty of that here and I don’t like to follow the ‘me too’ philosophy,” he explained.
Since Casa de Caguas opened, general manager Mickel Plaud said people have traveled from as far as Orlando and Port Charlotte to satisfy their cravings for his authentic cuisine.
“It’s still a little amazing when people call for directions because they’re driving from three hours away just to come to our restaurant,” Plaud said.
A twist of fate brought Plaud, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, to Casa de Cagua to fill in as an emergency chef in December. Although the gig was supposed to be a temporary one, Plaud’s prowess in the kitchen earned him a full-time position working as the restaurant’s chef and general manager.
Plaud uses his own recipes to cook up popular dishes from his homeland such as mofongo (fried and mashed plantains with meat or seafood), empanadillas (fried pastry filled with seasoned ground beef), bacalaitos (seasoned cod fritters) and alcapurias (ground fried green bananas stuffed with seasoned ground beef).
The restaurant’s most popular signature dish is the made-to-order Pastelon de Platano Maduro, a delicious Puerto Rican twist on lasagna that layers seasoned beef with tomato sauce between sweet plantains instead of pasta.
“Made-to-order Puerto Rican food is not exactly something you can do in five minutes,” Stevens said. “Mickel and I are very picky about what we serve our customers, so even when we’re choosing which ingredients to use, we go through a painstaking process to guarantee our customers get the best food there is to offer.”
In addition to Puerto Rican cuisine, customers at Casa de Caguas can also order sandwiches and Chicago-style hotdogs from the takeout window adjacent to the dining area. Stevens, the native Chicagoan, says that he is just as particular about the authenticity of the American cuisine he serves in his restaurant as he is about the Puerto Rican fare.
“We’re so picky about our pastrami that we have to make it right here on location,” he said. “We only serve the best and I wasn’t satisfied with any I found in town, so we decided to just start making it here.”
In addition to superior quality, customers at Casa de Cagua get their money’s worth in the hearty portion size of the restaurant’s dishes, most of which are priced between $6 and $13.
“You can’t keep your clientele happy if you’re going to be skimpy with your portions, which is why we serve huge ones,” Stevens said. “Ninety percent of our customers ask for doggy bags to take home.”
In addition to mountainous portions, Casa de Caguas has a pleasant, family-friendly atmosphere, complete with a plasma screen television tuned in to whatever sporting event customers are interested in watching. The restaurant’s back room also includes a free video arcade to keep kids entertained while parents enjoy a quiet meal.
“This is a family place and the comfort of our customers is very important to us,” Stevens said. “We try to accommodate in any way we can to make sure their experience is a satisfying one.”
Since the customers have asked for it, the restaurant will soon feature live performances by local musicians and DJs on weekends. Additionally, the patio will be opened so that diners can enjoy the sunny Florida weather along with their meals.
“Like with any restaurant, it’s a struggle to really get things off the ground, but our business is definitely picking up, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that we really listen to what our customers want,” said Plaud.
Stevens added that historically, businesses at that location never last more than five months but that in the case of Casa de Caguas, business is picking up rather than declining.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” Stevens said. “As long as we can keep our customers happy, we are not going anywhere.”
Casa de Caguas is closed on Mondays, open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Visit the restaurant’s Facebook page for more info and updates on specials and events.