Phoenix Coqui

By Tamara Juarez, March 2018 Issue.

Puerto Rico is widely known for its vibrant culture, delicious food and welcoming atmosphere, and it’s no coincidence that rico means rich and flavorful in Spanish.

Phoenix Coqui, the latest addition to the Valley’s list of Latin food trucks, is making sure the people of Phoenix get a taste of the Island of Enchantment.

Since its debut, June 10, 2017 (coincidentally LGBT Pride Month), this Phoenix Coqui has won the heart of Valley residents for its authenticity and diversity, and was quickly dubbed the number one Puerto Rican food truck in Arizona. However, Phoenix Coqui is more than just a business. It’s also a safe space for diverse communities, a story of love and the culmination of the lifelong dream of local entrepreneurs and partners Alexis Carbajal and Juan Alberto Ayala.

Alexis Carbajal (left) and Juan Alberto Ayala. Photos courtesy of Phoenix Coqui.

Love at First Bite

The two met five years ago in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Carbajal stayed during vacation. Ayala was Carbajal’s neighbor and introduced him to native cuisine, local traditions and the island’s most scenic destinations.

“I moved to Puerto Rico and fell in love with just how beautiful everything was,” Carbajal said. “The culture, how warm everyone was and, of course, the food.”

As the two men grew closer, they realized that they shared a similar dream of starting a small food business. Since Ayala was a child, he recalls admiring his grandparents’ cooking and had a natural talent for the culinary arts of his own.

With Ayala’s 15 years of experience in restaurant management and Carbajal’s nine years of working with start-up businesses, both men knew they had a unique opportunity to realize their collective dream.

“Just as much as we wanted to develop a relationship, we also wanted to develop a business together,” Carbajal said.

After one year of careful planning, the two moved to the U.S. with one clear goal: to create a business that allowed them to share Puerto Rico’s culture and food with others.

“We had the idea of bringing the food that we love from Puerto Rico here, because we couldn’t bring the island, we couldn’t bring the people or the beach, but could certainly bring the food and give everyone a taste of what we love so much,” Carbajal said. “We combined some of our strengths to launch Phoenix Coqui.”

The couple worked full time for two years to raise the money necessary to start their business, and last June Phoenix Coqui celebrated its grand opening, which attracted more than 300 people from across the Valley.

Serving Up Good Vibes on the Side

The menu, by head chef Ayala, features authentic recipes of some of the island’s most popular dishes on both the food truck and the catering menus: pernil, slow-roasted, marinated pork; arroz con gandules, seasoned rice with pigeon peas; pastelon, sweet plantains layered with ground beef and cheese; tostones, double-fried green plantain slices; Jibaritos de Pernil, fried plantain sandwich with roasted pork; empanadillas, fried turnover with ground beef, chicken or cheese; and San Juan flan, cream cheese custard topped with caramel.

Empanadillas, fried turnover with ground beef, chicken or cheese.

In addition to the food, customers are treated to a fun and inclusive – and mobile – atmosphere that welcomes people of all ethnic, racial and social backgrounds.

“We really try to bring a sense of authenticity in true Puerto Rican fashion, so that means greeting people with a smile, as if they’re family,” Carbajal said. “You’ll notice that with a lot of our regulars, we love to give them a big ol’ hug and kiss them, because we feel like that’s the attention you would receive in Puerto Rico.”

While music plays in the background – usually salsa, bachata, or reggaetón – the couple, as well as the other Phoenix Coqui employees, often share stories about their experiences in Puerto Rico and about the island’s most popular hot spots with curious customers.

“We try to make it a fun and friendly environment, where people can walk away and not just leave with a good taste in their mouth from the food, but also feeling like [they’ve] just been adopted into a small Puerto Rican family,” Carbajal said.

Jibarito de Pernil, fried plantain sandwich with roasted pork.

Setting Up Shop in the Gayborhood

The local LGBTQ community has played a significant part in the business’s success. Since its launch, Phoenix Coqui has partnered with such bars as The Rock, Boycott Bar and Charlie’s. It has also participated in annual LGBTQ events, such as Phoenix Pride’s Rainbows Festival.

Being able to contribute to the vibrant nightlife of the Melrose district and within the LGBTQ community “is a pretty important part of our story,” Carbajal said. “We both identify as gay men who fell in love, and we have tried to be ourselves since the beginning. The people and local businesses that have opened their doors to let us sell our food have been a bridge of support for us, and they have encouraged us to move forward.”

In Puerto Rico, the couple explained, it’s a tradition to end a night out in town with good food, so it’s not unusual to see groups of friends migrate from the gay bars to nearby food vendors or restaurants. By locating themselves outside of gay-friendly bars, Carbajal and Ayala hope to encourage a similar tradition, which allows people of different cultures, genders, races and sexual orientations to gather and enjoy great food together.

In the future, Carbajal and Ayala wish to establish a physical restaurant, add a greater variety of dishes to their menu, and continue to show their support for the LGBTQ community by getting involved in more events and helping others accomplish their own dreams.

“It makes me happy that people in our community are seeing us as examples and inspiration to launch their own businesses,” Ayala said. “My advice to people who want to start their own business is do not be afraid to take the leap. Many times, fear paralyzes and we don’t know whether were going to succeed because we don’t take the risk.”

Ayala and Carbajal expressed deep gratitude in the people and communities that helped make their dream come true, and they look forward to expanding their business and “familia” by sharing the best Puerto Rico has to offer.

Carne Frita con Arroz y Habichuelasi, fried ground beef with white rice and red kidney bean stew.

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Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein.

Michael Feinstein

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Gilles Toucas

Michael Feinstein will commemorate Judy Garland’s life on March 20 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

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I think it’s fair to say we all want that #fitlife, especially with Spring around the corner — as well as Gaypril on the way. Whether it’s pool season yet or not, everyone would choose to look fit over not looking fit, if they could have it with a snap of their fingers. OK, the vast majority of us would.

If you’ve met me, or have been reading my articles, you know that I live, sleep, eat and breathe fitness; it’s my heart and soul. That being said, I’m here to tell you that the concept of “fitness” is oftentimes tragically misunderstood.

Before you get too aggressive with your goal for pool season, let’s dive a bit deeper into what fitness means on the inside versus what it looks like on the outside, and common misconceptions around this concept.

1. Beware of the cultural pitfalls and misleading information around fitness.

Most of the bodies you see in the media are probably not real, they just look very convincing. As a trainer who also moonlights as a photographer and Photoshop wizard, I’m telling you that it is incredibly easy to alter pictures in materially misleading ways. Once you know the tricks of the trade, the imposters are easily spotted. But that’s not what this is about.

The point is: to the untrained eye, it can be devastatingly defeating to see such impossible standards. It seems as though the cultural pressure to look a certain way, to look perfect, has spread all the way from runway models to fitness novices with the help of smartphone apps.

The truth is that we fitness models look that cut, and that lean for only a couple days at a time. That’s it! In many cases, months or even close to a year of training, dieting and programming all go into looking like that for ONE day. Let that sink in for a second. Day to day, I am less cut, less tan and much flatter muscularly than what you see in some of my pictures. That’s just the nature of the beast. So, when you have a bad day on the scale, in the mirror or in any other scenario, remember that we’re all human and that the most legitimate photos you’re comparing yourself against were from someone’s very best day. That should help to keep things in perspective.

2. Most people want the results, without actually doing the work.

Fitness is not six pack abs, it’s not superficial, it is not temporary and it’s not an isolated phase in your life. Further, fitness is not something you do for someone else, do to spite someone else or even to impress someone else.

Fitness is confidence, toughness, dedication, coordination, power, balance, speed, strength (both literally and figuratively) and persistence in the face of all obstacles. This includes control over your attitude, your mood, your sleep, your schedule, your diet and other aspects of your life. This means getting that workout in when you least feel like it.

It’s not easy, and it’s definitely a grind that has good and bad days. You must show up and keep working on the days you’re tired, stressed, rushed, defeated, doubtful, afraid and so on. The days you actually have to overcome something instead of just checking your workout off your to-do list are the days you have the greatest opportunity to really make progress, push your body and see the most improvement.

3. Fitness is really an internal mindset. The external physique is the fringe benefit.

I’ve said this time and time again, and it might sound strange coming from such an aesthetic-focused trainer, but you are not your body. Your body is a tool, it’s a means to an end, to express your internal mindset, belief system, discipline and dedication to your workout program. Your physique will come and go. Your strength will come and go. Your abilities will wax and wane depending on what you’re training for at the time.

The outside will, and should, be always changing, but the inside is what we’re really after here. Good trainers want to train you to believe in yourself when sh*t gets hard. We want to train you to be resilient in the face of injury, obstacles and other setbacks. We want you to set ambitious goals and shoot for the moon because you can get there with smart programming and relentless will (do yourself a favor and ditch the crash diets and the photo editing software).

So, as you make your spring preparations for swimsuit season, try focusing on developing a sterling, unshakeable internal character and the muscles will come along the way, this I promise you.

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