Darnell Holguin has competed in cocktail competitions on a global scale, but, at a Coquito challenge in the Bronx last Monday, he wanted his mother with him in the kitchen.
Holguin was participating in the first annual Uptown Coquito Showdown at Salsa Con Fuego, a massive Puerto Rican restaurant in NYC. He was one of seven local bartenders and chefs competing to see who makes the best version of a Coquito, Puerto Rico’s classic, creamy holiday beverage. There is no cash prize, only community bragging rights.
Each contender brought every tool in their arsenal — be it the person who birthed them, or secret weapons that remained under wraps.
Private chef Kelvin Fernandez, who’s twice beat Bobby Flay on his Food Network show, spent nearly $200 on fresh Madagascar vanilla beans for his blend, which featured an unnamed mix of spices among the usual coconut milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, and rum. Lisa Geraldino, a Bronx bartender, added dulce de leche to accentuate the drink’s natural caramel undertones. Evan Santos, who works at the West Village bar Bathtub Gin, picked up makrut lime leaves at Kalustyan’s, a cult spice shop in Manhattan, and thickened his batch with xanthan gum to cut down on sugar. Bartender and rum aficionado Robert Nieves added ginger, inspired by his father, who told him it was included in original recipes. Jairo Taveras, the event organizer, used a coconut fat wash in his Coquito.
Taveras hosted this event to honor the culinary community in the Bronx, and the legacy of this venue.
Salsa Con Fuego occupies a space that was once home to Jimmy’s Bronx Café. Before shuttering in 2004, Jimmy’s was where people went to see and be seen in the Bronx. Derek Jeter, David Bowie, and even Fidel Castro all made appearances at Jimmy’s during its decade of existence.
Now, when you walk into Salsa Con Fuego, you’re greeted by a massive painted portrait of Marc Anthony. Depictions of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente flank the stage. Old covers of Latin NY magazine line the hallway to the bathroom, featuring images of Rita Moreno, Willie Colon, and Ruben Blades. The DJ plays bachata, freestyle, salsa, and pop hits by J.Lo, Cardi B, and Bad Bunny, of course.
In recent years, the Bronx has been having a food and drink moment on its own terms, driven by the success of Bronx Brewery, Port Morris Distillery, and Empanology. It’s been documented locally by Edible Bronx.
For Casandra Rosario, an East Harlem native whose website, Food Before Love, focuses on dining experiences for people of color, the scene in the Bronx broadly, and at this event specifically, represents the best of New York.
“A lot of chefs are coming together out there to support each other’s initiatives, and the camaraderie is unmatched in any other borough — at least from what I have seen,” Rosario says. “This reminds me of the importance of family and community that was instilled in me growing up Latina. Seeing chefs like Jason Alicea of Empanology, chef Jose DeJesus, a.k.a. Trill Cooker, and chef Andres Sen Sang of Suyo making what seems to be this effortless attempt to continue that in their own respective food worlds is really admirable.”
Competitor Geraldino spent years tending bar in Manhattan. Coming to serve in the Bronx has been a welcome change. “People actually dance,” she told me. “In Manhattan, people go to buy bottles.”
The Uptown Coquito Showdown judges included artist Tony Peralta, who creates clothing and prints that incorporate Latinx iconography.
The competition is by no means the only Coquito contest in NYC — or the world. The Coquito Masters tournament, started by Debbie Quinones, has been hosting home cooks for more than a decade. Its final tournament is held annually at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. What sets the Uptown Coquito Showdown apart, however, is its focus on industry talent. And this year, La Factoria, an Old San Juan establishment that is on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, hosted its own industry-centered event, on Dec. 13.
At the end of the Uptown Coquito Showdown, bragging rights went to Kelvin Fernandez and his pricey vanilla beans. He took home both the judges’ and people’s choice awards.
But the true champion is this community that continues to grow in the Bronx. While the food world beyond this borough chases and succumbs to trends, the people creating the culture here dig into their own roots, creating fresh takes on classics, and making sure the community is involved. And, if the turnout on this cold Monday night is any indication, engagement is high. Here, honoring the moms in the kitchen is as important as securing the $200 vanilla.