Almighty Puerto Rican Food

“I grew up in the kitchen watching my grandmother and father cook,” recalls John Cabello. “The pan I use today to make my empanadas is the same one my father used when he taught me how to make them. Those kinds of memories are infused in my heart, and in my soul and in my love of cooking.”

John and Rhonda Cabello own JC’s Puerto Rican Kitchen, a twice-a-week restaurant stall at the Saturday Kaua’i Community College farmers market, and the new Wednesday Restore Kaua’i farmers market in Kapa’a. The tacos, burritos and Arroz con Gandules (rice with pigeon peas, or gandule rice – pronounced local style gan du dee), start with the same base.

“It all starts with a sofrito,” says John. “Every Puerto Rican family who loves to cook has a base flavor, and that comes from the sofrito. The beef, chicken and rice are all cooked in that.

“When folks make gandule rice here, they boil it and keep stirring and stirring,” John continues. “I fry mine in oil first, so when it comes out, it’s not real sticky. It’s more like a pilaf.”

When John isn’t cooking, he’s a once-a-month pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship Church in Lihu’e. He also runs the Men’s Group there, and wife Rhonda heads up the Hula Halau Dance Team.

It’s not surprising then that the “JC” in JC’s Puerto Rican Kitchen stands for Jesus Christ, a reminder for the couple to weave love and aloha into their food as well as the spirit of the lord.

“For me, food has always been a staple. I used to be in the Marine Corps, and I always ate with people I didn’t know. As a pastor, when I look at the gospel, Jesus is always eating, and always having a good time. Food does that for people.”

The seed for JC’s Puerto Rican Kitchen was planted when John made his tacos for the Lights on Rice Parade in 2010 to raise money for his wife’s missionary trip to India.

“When Rhonda came back from India, I said, ‘I like to preach, teach and cook,'” says John – he and his wife also are substitute teachers. “I said, let’s combine the three of them. I’m blessed because Rhonda’s biggest gift is hospitality.”

“Front end is important too, yeah?” says Rhonda.

“Customer service with a smile. Loving one another.”

Rhonda is a blend of Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese. Growing up, she and her mother lived in the old Kealia Camp, where her grandmother made and sold gandule rice, malasadas and pasteles – a Portuguese “tamale” that uses green bananas instead of corn.

“We used to get the banana leaf from my grand-mother’s yard and wrap the pasteles in it. My mom would spread the achoite oil over the leaf, and show me how to spread the dough and fold them.”

“When people come to eat at the market,” John says, “they’re receiving great food that comes from the heart, but more than that, they’re receiving the love that we want to share.

“I preach in the public all the time: ‘Walk in faith. Step out in faith. God is going to meet you there. If you have a gift that God’s given you, take the steps toward that gift, and God will meet you there.’ This has been an opportunity for me to practice what I preach, and God has met us there.”