Lafayette, Louisiana might seem like an unlikely home for the restaurant Patacón, which serves cheese- and meat-stuffed sandwiches made of fried plantains.
All photos by Nick Gomer
This is the eighth in a series of articles featuring immigrant- and refugee-owned restaurants in enclaves located outside of major US cities.
"The patacón is from my city: Maracaibo," said Wanda Lugo, who owns Patacón, a Venezuelan restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana.
"But you learned how to make it from Google?"
"Yes," she said, smiling.
Lafayette has a population of 126,000 but is the urban center of a region scattered with small towns and Venezuelan immigrants. Nearby Maurice Township, for example, had a population of 1,172 as of the 2010 census and nearly 10 percent of the residents were born in Venezuela.
Why? Oil. Lafayette and Venezuela are both oil hubs. Lugo's husband works as an electrical engineer for Halliburton and asked for a transfer out of Venezuela a decade ago, prior to the country's descent into chaos.
Wanda was ecstatic to move to the United States.
"I love to move," she said. "My house is clean, clean. Everything is new."
Her father was nicknamed the "Americano" for his light skin and love of baseball. He named his daughter Wanda because, to him, it was an American name.
In Venezuela, Wanda took care of the family farm. A private chef cooked for them on weekdays, so she only cooked on weekends.
In Lafayette, Lugo cooked for everyone, especially the American-born friends of her daughter, Maria, who, as an 11-year-old, was not happy to be uprooted from her home country.
Lugo started with arepas: doughy patties, often filled or topped with meats, cheeses, or vegetables. Maria compared them to Mexico's gorditas and El Salvador's pupusas, noting that arepas are also common in Colombia, though they tend to be more corn-based.
"I've been eating arepas ever since I was little," Maria said. "It's like our spaghetti. We eat everything with arepas."
The arepas were a hit among Maria's friends and, in early 2015, after about a year of delays, Wanda debuted Patacón in a former plumbing office off a busy four-lane commercial strip near downtown.
The patacón is a sandwich made of crispy, fried plantains that are filled with shredded beef, chicken, pork, or cheese.
Wanda had never made a patacón but, using websites, her hometown palate, and Maria's friends as taste-testers, she built a dish that is loved by the Venezuelan and American-born Louisianans alike. Both mother and daughter acknowledged that they found traditional American food a bit bland but that they loved the local Cajun cuisine. To her arepas and empanadas Wanda added crawfish, thanks to her love for the local seafood.
"Apparently, they can tell if it's not local," Maria said. "It tastes different. I think my mom one time bought a different kind and they were like, 'This is not local.'"
The crawfish additions are also a culinary handshake with the Lafayette lifers.
"She needed to have a thing that people were attracted to because they knew what it was," Maria said, "because people would start eating the food and then maybe venture out to the rest of the menu."
Their halacas, traditional Venezuelan tamales, are outsourced to a local Venezuelan woman for whom it's a speciality.
Tequeños, fried Venezuelan cheese sticks, are dipped in Wanda's special sauces—one green, one cream-colored. She won't reveal their contents, other than to say that one is mayonnaise-based and the other is spicy. Numerous bottles of the sauces are stolen each month. Maria's cousin, a college student, once saw someone pull out a bottle of Patacón sauce on campus.
Despite Patacón's popularity and years of friendship with Lafayettens of all backgrounds, last year's election opened the family's eyes to biases they hadn't noticed before. They're not worried about deportation but they have felt a shift in the community, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
"I mean, we see people with Trump stickers coming in and it's like, you really voted against us. What are you doing? But we don't get into it," Maria said.
"We became citizens not long ago so it's different," she added, "but it feels different than before because every time you go somewhere it's like, 'Oh, what if they look at me weird because I'm Hispanic?' It's a weird vibe now, which I've never felt before."
Patacón hosts a weekly Spanish table, where English and Spanish speakers can learn each other's language. When Venezuelan laborers came in from Florida after Lafayette flooded, there were 50 workers lined up outside for breakfast when the restaurant opened. As the world protested decisions by the Venezuelan government last year, dozens gathered at Patacón with signs. Though Venezuela rarely qualifies, Lugo bought a television and shifted hours during the World Cup.
"People don't like going to Buffalo Wild Wings unless there's a lot of Latinos because you're watching the game and all of the sudden you get so excited and you start jumping and they're like, 'What are you doing?'" Maria said.
The Lugos miss Venezuela, though they are happy to be in the United States. They returned for a visit last year and were disturbed by the disarray of their old home.
"It sits in my mind a lot," Maria said. "The only people who can come visit me are basically my cousins. The rest of my family is at home. It's pretty hard. My mom talks to my grandma every day and she tells them everything that's happening over there. It's a constant thing. My mom, one time, she messed up a batch of beans. She overcooked them or something. And she was going to throw them all away and then she started thinking, Oh my god. My dad's sister, she was telling them how expensive it was to buy a bag of beans. She started thinking about those beans that were thrown away, and she started crying."