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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