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March 18, 2010 at 12:51 PM

El Pilon, a taste of Puerto Rico in Columbia City

Marta Vega, a native of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, has long called Seattle home. Here, she’s worked with El Centro de la Raza and for POCAAN (People of Color Against AIDS Network), and for nearly 30 years has lent her expertise at the stove at community events. Then, early this month, “abuela” Marta did what she says she’s been wanting to do “forever.” She opened El Pilon, adding her native cuisine to the wide world of flavors that make her South Seattle neighborhood such a delicious melting-pot.

Today, with the help of her son Luis Vega — among other extended-family members — the beloved matriarch is running a 35-seat cafe at 5303 Rainier Avenue South, offering homestyle Puerto Rican comfort-food at lunch and dinner.

Marta Vega, relaxing at the grand opening celebration of El Pilon. Seated next to her — with fork in hand — is Roberto Maestas, co-founder and executive director of El Centro de la Raza.

At El Pilon, you might sit down to a plate of mofongo (plantains mashed with a handmade wooden pilon, or pestle), arroz con gandules y chulecas fritas (rice with pigeon peas and fried pork chops) or arroz con habichuelas y pollo en fricase (chicken with rice and beans). And though they don’t have a beer and wine license — yet — you can instead sip juice made from guanabana while nibbling bacalitos (salt cod fritters).

Comida Puertorriquena, at El Pilon .

El Pilon is not the only Puerto Rican restaurant to stake its claim in Seattle. Tiny La Isla expanded last summer into the space next door, and that Puerto Rican restaurant and bar remains a bright light in the Ballard dining scene. Nor is El Pilon the first restaurant for Marta Vega, who opened an earlier effort — also on Rainier Avenue South — in 1983. It didn’t last long. “It was really dangerous down there back then,” she told me by phone yesterday, recounting tales of break-ins and crack-addicts. “I closed before someone got hurt. But I figured now that I’m older” — and Columbia City has become a restaurant-magnet — “I want to do something that I really like.”

Open two weeks, El Pilon is still getting its sea legs, and though I haven’t been there, I’m putting it high on my list of new places to try. From the sound of things, it will bring me back. Way back. To when I lived in Rincon, Puerto Rico.

Long before Rincon became a tourist mecca, I was there waiting on (and rooting for) the local baseball team — Marta’s own Mayaguez Indios, diving for spiny lobster, tasting my first avocado, papaya and fresh coconut and learning to love empanadillas (those meat turnovers are on the menu at El Pilon).

The local guys, checking out the surf in Rincon in 1977. Hey Luis! Recognize anybody?

While in PR, I worked in a bar called Brisas del Mar (since burned to the ground), making frozen pina coladas blended with local bananas and sold — for 25-cents! — to a contingent of surfers who migrated there for the winter waves. I also uncapped case after case of Tigre beer for the locals and listened (over and over) to a jukebox filled with songs in English (“Margaritaville,” “Easy Like Sunday Morning”) and Spanish (“Tu Esta Siempre en Mi Mente“). But most of my time was spent lounging on the beach, working on my natural highlights — and my tan. Can you imagine that? It’s been so long I can’t, but fortunately, there’s proof:

Me, on the beach in Rincon, back before I ate too many empanadillas.

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