Brothers bring family recipes to new Puerto Rican restaurant in Portage

Brothers John Pomales, 23, left and Matthew Pomales, 21, recently opened Da Portable Rican restaurant in the Portage Mall after operating a food truck of the same name for several years. The restaurant features Puerto Rican food from family recipes.

Joyce Russell, The Times

PORTAGE — Brothers John and Matthew Pomales wanted to bring a little of their heritage, in the form of food, to the Region by recently opening Da Portable Rican here in the Portage Mall.

Whether it's a jibarito sandwich, pastelillos, carne guisada, mofongo or their house specialty, fried potato balls, the brothers said they wanted to share the recipes they gathered from their great-grandmother, grandmothers and mother, preparing them the same way from fresh ingredients.

But the new restaurant, which opened Sept. 22, isn't the first venture for the Hobart natives, ages 23 and 21, respectively.

The duo started a food service career with a small food truck, selling shaved ice, hot dogs and tacos to beachgoers along Gary's lakefront.

"Some days we'd come home with $50, John Pomales said.

"Then we decided, 'Hey, why don't we double this in size,' " he recalled, and the two moved from a 12-foot truck to a 24-foot food truck.

The question then was what type of food to sell. They'd lived in Philadephia for a few years and toyed with the idea of bringing a Philly cheese steak food truck to the Region.

"Then we decided to do Puerto Rican food because that is our culture. We knew it would be a shot in the dark," John Pomales said, adding they opened Da Portable Rican food truck in 2010.

Three of their four grandparents emigrated from Puerto Rico.

"At first people would come up and ask if we had tacos or nachos and cheese," said Matthew Pomales, adding it "drove me a little crazy" that people thought Puerto Rican food was the same as Mexican food.

Initially they concentrated taking their truck to festivals and events in the Hobart and Lake Station area. People were a little leery of the new truck on the block, John Pomales said. That was until they set up the truck in 2012 at the Lake County Fair, where they won the blue ribbon for concessionaires. That, said the brothers, launched their reputation. 

They began taking the truck to festivals and events throughout Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

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Then, after Matthew completed a four-year stint with the U.S. Army, they decided to open the bricks-and-mortar operation. They decided on Portage because of its central geographic location in the Region, they said.

"The day we opened, we had people lined up outside," Matthew Pomales said. "The first Saturday was full in here all day. It was packed and crazy for the first three days and we didn't eat or sleep."

The brothers said they learned to cook from their grandmothers and mother — all of whom, plus their father, great-aunt and uncle and assorted cousins can be found in the 75-seat eatery hours before opening prepping for the day's meals. 

The storefront restaurant was remodeled to replicate old San Juan with a "street festival vibe," John Pomales said. Murals along the walls bring bright colors. Puerto Rican music plays in the background for diners.

"This is a good place to bring your family and enjoy yourself," Matthew Pomales said. "This is a place you can have a date, a family event and you can be a part of our family."

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Joyce has been a staff writer for The Times for more than 20 years. She is the municipal and education reporter for Porter County. She is an amateur genealogist and writes a blog, Remember your Roots, appearing online each Thursday.