eat new england

Sublime Puerto Rican Food in Rural NH, Just Over Mass. Border

Former farmer's market favorite Café El Camino offers up fantastic mofongo, empanadas, a secret soup and more in the woods of Plaistow

Like other cuisines from the Caribbean, Puerto Rican fare is something to seek out whether you’re a meat eater or more into plant-based dishes, but it isn’t all that easy to find in New England.

Most restaurants with Puerto Rican offerings tend to be in larger cities with substantial Hispanic populations like Boston, Worcester, Providence and Springfield, or in the region's mill towns, like Lowell, Fitchburg, Woonsocket, Lynn, Fall River and Holyoke.

If you look hard enough, however, you’ll also find a scattering of Puerto Rican eateries in smaller communities as well, including one in New Hampshire just north of the Massachusetts line that’s basically in the middle of the woods. And like so many hidden gems, Café El Camino in Plaistow is one of those places that is really just known to locals, though it is just starting to get discovered outside of the area in part because its food is almost shockingly great.

If you don't know much about Plaistow beyond Route 125 by the Haverhill border, you may think that the town is little more than a busy commercial area with endless chains and lots of traffic, but that’s only a very small part of this small southern New Hampshire community. Route 108 is as different from the southern part of Route 125 as you can get, being mainly a rural road that doesn’t even have an exit off Interstate 495 -- it unobtrusively runs under the highway just east of the Route 125 intersection -- and heads northward into increasingly bucolic lands.

A couple of miles north of the I-495 underpass and a bit south of the Newton border, a tiny strip mall appears out of nowhere, which is where you’ll find Café El Camino. As strip malls go, this one is rather attractive, with hanging flowers, white railings and subdued signage including Café El Camino's, which entices diners with a sign that says “Famous Empanadas & Puerto Rican Food.”

The interior of the eatery has the feel of a takeout spot, with its ordering counter in the center and a handful of tables along the walls and front windows, though it’s certainly comfortable enough to dine in.

Café El Camino: A Taste of Puerto Rico in New Hampshire

Before Café El Camino debuted in the latter part of 2019, the business was well known to those who frequented farmers markets -- the people behind it set up shop all over the region, including in Derry, Exeter and Portsmouth, and they could also be found over the border in Boston, Newburyport and Waltham. People who visited the farmers markets knew that this was a business that focused on gluten-free foods as much as possible while also offering a number of delicious vegetarian options, and this continues to be true when it comes to their restaurant offerings—though there is definitely plenty here for meat eaters as well.

The start of a dine-in meal at Café El Camino includes an item that isn’t even on the menu, and don’t ask how it is made because the recipe's a secret. Indeed, the soup is among the best things here, with a delightfully savory mix of root vegetables, chicken and, well, other stuff that shall remain unnamed (and yes, they do ask about dietary restriction when you first arrive).

The soup itself is so delicious that it’s tough to move on from it, but the menu has a lot of other options that shouldn’t be missed, including their signature empanadas, which come with a variety of fillings. One of the tastiest is the beef and cheese empanada, which is a bit like a cheesesteak stuffed into a crispy pastry, while the pizza empanada is a bit unusual but works well with its blend of cheese and tomato sauce. Other empanada options include cheese, chicken and cheese and a vegetarian one made with potatoes, plantains and more.

Much of what is offered at Café El Camino is fried, and in addition to the empanadas are such wonderful fried options as rellenos de papa, which are a little like arancini with seasoned beef and mashed potatoes, and alcapurrias, which are crispy fritters made with a yucca or green plantain batter and stuffed with ground beef or mashed beans and mushrooms (and both versions are also stuffed with red and green peppers and sofrito).

Rice dishes should not be overlooked here, especially the arroz con gandules, which features a marvelous mix of ingredients including rice, pigeon peas and braised ham, while a real highlight of the menu is a classic Puerto Rican mofongo which consists of a mountain of garlicky mashed plantains served in a wooden mortar and with crispy plantains on the side -- it can be ordered with such add-ons as beech mushrooms, shrimp, crackling chicken, steak and onions, pork and salted cod.

If you can’t really decide what to order at Café El Camino, you may want to opt for one of their combo meals which include some of the items above along with wings, roasted pork and beef steak, and don’t forget to save room for dessert, as flan and tres leches are also available here.

When you see a little strip mall along a rural New Hampshire road, you may expect it to have a pizzeria, sub shop, takeout Chinese spot or a convenience store, but to find a road trip-worthy Puerto Rican restaurant in the middle of nowhere like this is truly something special. It also isn’t all that far from major population centers in Manchester, Nashua, Lowell and even Boston -- you can make it from the latter in under 45 minutes without traffic.

Café El Camino may not be a household name, but it’s one that should be on the short list of anyone who loves discovering little-known eateries with tremendous food.

Café El Camino, 134 Newton Road, Plaistow, NH, 03865.

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