El Coqui is a Puerto Rican cuisine food cart named after the famous frog found on the island of Puerto Rico. Its owner, Justin Weger, can be seen operating the cart across Madison during festivals, outside of large office buildings and catering events.
In Weger’s youth, the Madison native befriended a Puerto Rican family and quickly grew exposed to the islander lifestyle having spent birthdays, holidays and other events with his close Puerto Rican friends.
Though he is not Puerto Rican (or Buerca as most people from the island call themselves), his love for the cuisine and relationship with culture cannot be understated. He first began learning how to cook Puerto Rican food in sixth grade from one of his Buerca friend’s mothers.
Weger explains the origin of the food truck, recalling a viewing party for a boxing match and where he approached his best friend’s sister Lola, who is also a chef.
“I always complimented her food and her ability to cook rice for 100 people and keep that consistency, which I find amazing,” Weger says.
The recipes and style of cooking go farther than being just Puerto Rican, but focus on cuisine from Peñuelas, located in the southern countryside of the island. Lola’s father being from Peñuelas means an open flame style of cooking the rice alongside massive pig roasts.
At the time Weger was working for a BBQ restaurant that was selling an extra food cart, and he jumped at the opportunity.
“I realized in Madison there is no Puerto Rican food,” he says. “There are a lot of white people, but they are willing to try different food.”
Having worked for a catering company in the past and going to school for business and restaurant management, Weger utilized his expertise and hatched El Coqui. Weger recognizes his friends Lola and her husband Tito as the heartbeat of El Coqui. “They are the flavor, the recipe, the sazón,” or seasoning, he says.
Going on its fourth year, El Coqui has established a distinct approach to building buzz around its presence, working with the HR departments of larger corporations and sending menus with simplified explanations of the food items. For example, Weger’s menus refer to arroz con gandules as “dirty rice” so people who have never seen the items can understood what is being served.
Weger admitted growing up he believed in the stereotype that white people were resistant to trying new food items, but he describes Madison’s reaction as, “amazing. In particular you go to some of these communities and people love the food they try. People are hesitant to order because they see the different language but then I step in and break it down for them”
Getting into festivals around Madison is a risky gamble. On one side you can introduce your product to swarms of new customers while on the other side factors like rain and the cost of entry for the cart can make the event fruitless. Reminiscing on the difficulties of his first few years, Weger says “Flat tires, running out of propane and rainstorms ruining events” as common issues. But with overwhelming positivity Weger says, “everything is a learning experience, it always works out. My first event I worked 23 hours and took a nap when the chicken was in the oven.”
As for the reaction from Buercas, the response has been tremendously positive.
“I have people with their parents from the island that come to my cart and try the food only to say, they can’t believe this is in Madison, it tastes just like the island,” he says.
El Coqui is no longer alone in the Puerto Rican food cart industry with El Sazon and El Wiscorican opening for business last year. These two new entries into the industry couldn’t make Justin happier. Though he is a competitive person, he says more Puerto Rican carts bring more awareness to the food.
“There are a hundred Mexican places here and everyone is still eating tacos,” he says. “The more Puerto Rican restaurants here the more buzz around it and eventually we can open a little take out spot and serve more of the time.”
Last year when Puerto Rico was struck by hurricane Maria killing nearly 3,000 people and knocking out basic services for months, Justin and the two other newly opened Puerto Rican food carts came to together and hosted a benefit for the island. They were able to raise over $4000 for families that spent three months without a generator, electricity or a roof. With many people in the los campos areas like Peñuelas are still without these necessities, Weger looks forward to hosting another joint fundraiser soon.
El Coqui has an active Facebook page and full menu on their website.