Easy to spot in her vibrant red dress, Rochelle Cartagena-Segura was set on hugging every person who showed up to celebrate the Sept. 16 opening of her Mama Roc’s Puerto Rican and Caribbean Cuisine at Evergreen Village Square in San Jose.
“We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights,” she told the crowd. “It’s been challenging in every sense of the word. But what I love is that all of you believed in me. So we’re gonna cut the ribbon, we’re gonna say a prayer over our food and then we’re gonna eat and salsa dance and hear the congas and its going to get even more exciting.”
If that day’s sales were any sign of the future, Cartagena-Segura’s investment in her little white-paneled food trailer was a smart move: though she had planned to be open for three hours, she completely sold out in half that time.
“I cooked for 300, literally thinking we’re gonna have like 70 people,” she told San José Spotlight. “But when the word got out, things really blew up out there. I’m thinking that people just want something different, and once you get the taste of Puerto Rican food, you want more.”
Cartagena-Segura spent 32 years as a property manager before deciding in 2016 that she did not want to be part of the corporate world any longer. She pursued her passion for cooking and began catering family events, weddings, corporate barbecues—anything and everything she could get. While she wanted to open a restaurant or a food truck, she could not afford it and settled on her trailer.
Because Cartagena-Segura uses a commercial kitchen to prepare the food and only needs warming trays on-site to keep things at the right temperature, the trailer did not require extensive renovation to get it up and running. There’s room inside for her assistants to work, when on opening day as many as six people prepped food and took orders from a streamlined menu.
On the first outing, Mama Roc’s offered only a sampler plate to simplify service. But within that sampler was an entire world of mouthwatering Caribbean cooking.
The signature entree was lechon pernil, tender and firm shredded meat from a marinated and roasted whole pig. Arroz con gandules— rice with pigeon peas—and red savory beans served as the main side dishes. Macaroni salad added a cool note to the plate, garnished with two kinds of plantains: plantains fried until they are soft and caramelized, and tostones that have been flattened and fried until crisp.
Mama Roc’s topped the plate off with a choice of either a ground beef or minced chicken empanada, and a delightfully light coconut flan was available for dessert.
The flavor profiles of the chili-like red beans are more mild and balanced than peppery and hot. The complex blend of herbs and spices edges toward a peppery warmth, but is restrained enough to allow the taste of the dish to take precedence over the seasoning.
“Nothing is really spicy, it’s more savory, with the garlic, the oregano, the cumin and all my other secret ingredients,” Cartagena-Segura said. “If anything needs some extra flavor or heat, we can drizzle on one of my sauces.”
Mama Roc’s offers three Puerto Rican sauces, all with Cartagena-Segura’s special twist. One is mojo de ajo, a slowly simmered mix of minced garlic, oil and lime juice, which works nicely with the plantains. Pique sauce, made with peppers, vinegar, garlic, oregano and peppercorns, is on the hotter end of the flavor spectrum and nicely elevates the pork.
Then there is Cartagena-Segura’s elevated version of mayokechu, a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup, that she sells by the bottle. She named it Mamagotchu Sauce because “once it’s got you, it’s got you.”
As the staff masters the routine, Cartagena-Segura is planning on introducing a menu where people can select ingredients for a plate or just order individual items. She plans to incorporate dishes from her more varied catering menu.
“All of her food has so much flavor,” The T, a local casting director, told San José Spotlight. “When she’s explaining everything about what the food is, you can see how much she loves to make it and how much she really wants you to taste it and like it. It is the spirit of who she is and the love that pours out of her.”
Happy and exhausted after her first official day with her trailer, Cartagena-Segura’s only regret was there was no time to sing.
“I had a couple of songs prepared to do,” she said, “but it was so wild and so busy, and I kept getting pulled back and forth to greet as many people as I could. But in the future, I can tell you, you’re going to have a singing chef.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].