Juan Reyes was born and raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, just outside of San Juan, and found his passion as a restaurateur there in the nearby Condado community. Surrounded by friends and family on the paradise island, Reyes had built a wonderful life.
But a chance visit to Nashville seven years ago changed his vision for the future. In August, a trip to see his best friend who lives here sparked an idea.
“My wife and I fell in love with this city. His only complaint about Nashville was that there were no Puerto Rican restaurants,” Reyes says. “The wheels started turning, I came back on another visit and everything fell into place. I couldn’t walk away from the opportunity.”
Together with their youngest son, the Reyes family moved to Nashville in June of 2012 and opened Salsa Restaurant near Cummins Station the following January. With his friend-turned-business partner, Reyes serves authentic, scratch made Puerto Rican and Latin-inspired dishes to throngs of locals and tourists. On Wednesday nights, the live music starts and the Salsa dancing commences, including lessons for novices.
“People love being immersed in this culture, and it’s nice to see food, music and dancing bringing people together from all over, who come from different backgrounds,” he says. “The salsa dancing was geared toward Latinos originally, but it’s become so popular with natives and visitors. We have this mix of South Americans and others who have so much in common – we’re more alike that we are different.”
It’s an atmosphere reminiscent of a trip to a fantasy island, and the food steals the show.
Think slow-roasted pork with a signature blend of seasonings, or Juan’s favorite of them all, carne frita, where instead of slow roasting a whole pork shoulder they fry the tender chunks and sautee with onions. Then there’s the mofongo, a decadent side dish of deep-fried green plantain mashed with garlic and butter … a quintessential Puerto Rican treat. There’s the ropa vieja, a Cuban-style pulled flank steak; a sweet plantain and ground beef lasagna called pastelón de Amarillos; the arroz con pollo, a stock-infused yellow rice with chicken; and a complement of vegetarian dishes.
Reyes says it’s the people who have made his American dream possible.
“One of the things I like the most about Nashville is its friendliness, which reminds me of Puerto Rico – very much like the island, just no beach,” he says. “I’ve always felt very welcome and have found that people are excited to take a culinary adventure.
“When I miss home, I prepare something that reminds me of my childhood. Even evacuees from Florida over the last couple of weeks have found us, and we’ve been able to provide a small bit of comfort and familiarity. It’s such an opportunity, and I’m very thankful for it.”
See Juan and experience Salsa at the Music City Food & Wine Festival tomorrow, and visit the restaurant at 818 Palmer Place, just down the street from Cummins Station in downtown Nashville.