Hamden Puerto Rican Restaurant uses family recipes to attract customers

Hamdan – Two days after discovering La Isla, a new Puerto Rican restaurant in Hamden, Benard Clark has found himself there for the third day in a row.

He couldn’t help himself. Chicken soup was so good.

“I was blown away,” Clark said, standing in the parking lot outside the Dixwell Avenue restaurant on Friday. “This is the third day.”

He said he ordered chicken chips every time he visited.

It’s hard to explain, but the flavor just jumps in your face,” Clark said. “It’s really good.”

La Isla’s owners, husband and wife Leli and Darcus Henry, opened the restaurant because they wanted to bring homemade Puerto Rican food to Hamden.

“There is no Puerto Rican restaurant here,” Lily Henry said. “Despite Hamden’s diversity, I felt this was missing, this was essential.”

There’s an entire family behind the restaurant: Two Henry’s daughters and a son work there, she said, and La Isla’s recipes come from the Henry family.

“I learned cooking from my mom,” said Henry, who chose her parents as inspiration for the restaurant.

“This is a way for me to honor my father,” she said. “My parents came to this country 46 or 47 years ago.”

Henry said her father died when she was only three years old, leaving her mother to raise the children.

“This is my way of making them proud,” she said.

Marks of Henry’s Puerto Rican heritage fill the restaurant – not just in the food, but in the decor. On a wall tucked away to the right of the table is a colorful mural that Henry said her cousin Leon Lavera painted.

A woman appears on the beach dancing a bomba. A Puerto Rican flag adorns her skirt, while her cape bears another symbol—the flag of Luisa, the city from which Henry said her family is from.

Although the Henry family also inspired La Isla food, they had to make some changes to their traditional recipes. Since her husband is a vegan, she said, she has adapted many dishes, including rice, beans, and appetizers, to meat-free versions.

Appetizer selection includes empanadas, plantain cups, toston and crab, or green banana pancakes.

The menu also features a variety of meat entrees, from grilled chicken to grilled chicken with yucca, a personal favorite of Henry.

Henry’s aunt makes candy. Last week, La Isla served up the Passion Pie, Henry said, while two different flavors of Tres Leches—strawberry, pineapple, and coconut—were available Friday.

Meanwhile, the chef behind the delicious dishes is Vinodha Singh. She and Henry’s daughter used to run a soul food restaurant called Singh Cabin in Williamantique until the COVID-19 pandemic hit the business.

On a late Friday morning, Singh was busy preparing for lunch. Standing at the stove, she fiddled with her tasks, from stir-frying baklava and beans to boiling potatoes and watching the chicken in the oven.

At a nearby table, Henry’s daughter was working hard, putting pancake mix from the food processor into large bowls.

According to the La Isla team, feedback from customers has been positive so far. Henry said the restaurant sells out every day.

“I heard I cook like someone’s grandmother,” Singh said. “That’s kind of what we’ve been striving for.”

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