Carmen Bailey enjoys cooking, but that doesn’t come from posting a picture of a dish on Instagram and seeing all the likes and comments.
Instead, her satisfaction occurs when she watches someone tasting her food, and she sees a look of pleasure or contentment light up their face.
She’s been seeing this look a lot over the past year, ever since she and her son, Andrew Bailey, opened Carmen’s Cooking that serves up flavors from her native Puerto Rico. Andy Bailey, Carmen’s husband and Andrew’s father, works as a business consultant.
The opening was risky. First, it opened in January 2021, when restaurants were closed for indoor dining.
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They chose to open in Brighton, miles from the epicenter with a huge Puerto Rican population in the area. On the one hand, there will be little competition for similar food, but does a city with a relatively small Puerto Rican population welcome it?
Decades of preparation
Carmen Bailey was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where she learned to cook. Born in New York City, her husband Andy Bailey lived in Puerto Rico from the age of five through the end of college.
For the past 28 years, they have lived in the Gates, where their three children were born and raised.
Over the years, Carmen has received rave reviews when she has served dishes like homemade empanadilla and New England clam chowder at church events, work events, family meals, and football events for her children. People were noticing that she should start a business.
These suggestions made Carmen and Andy discuss the possibilities, but the timing was never right to start such a business. Carmen worked as an accountant, and she wanted to prioritize raising her children.
Then in 2020, two cases coincided. First, Carmen and Andy have been laid off from their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After that, their youngest daughter graduated from high school.
They decided to open a small commercial kitchen to make homemade carmen pies, which have been a huge success over the years, and sell them wholesale to restaurants and retailers.
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But when they came across the Brighton location that was home to the Sabra Grill, they found clean kitchen, turnkey operation and an attractive price. With a little paint and rearranging, and a sign facing Monroe Avenue, they were ready to open a restaurant.
Carmen’s Cooking opened in January. Since neither Carmen nor Andrew had cooking experience in the restaurant’s kitchen, they opened quietly, with only a small sign to mark their work.
Traditional Puerto Rican flavors
Carmen’s Cooking started with a concise menu, and items were added in response to customer requests.
From the start, their bestseller has been The C-Cubed sandwich, the Cuban Carmen sandwich, a pressed sandwich with marinated ham, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard. And second soon is the brunel sandwich. The traditional roasted pork can also be ordered on its own or as a dinner with sides.
In response to requests for vegetarian or vegan items, Baileys has started making arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) without the traditional pork, and they also serve up a veggie-laden shiitake pepper pie. The famous Carmen Empanadilla with a Beyond Beef vegan filling can be ordered, as well as beef and chicken.
Bananas are ubiquitous in Puerto Rican cooking, but the usual twice-fried stones go from crunchy to tender in an eating container—a significant problem when the restaurant originally opened only for takeout and sidewalk service. Instead, they made aranas – a Spanish word meaning “spiders” – which are sliced and fried until crispy. They are similar to potato sticks in texture and flavour.
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Traditional desserts change every day: light coconut pudding every Tuesday, bread pudding on Thursdays, cheesecake on Friday and tres leches on Saturdays. Every Wednesday brings a rotating menu of delicious specials.
The Baileys have been encouraged by the response they have received in Brighton.
“The whole community was more than welcoming, more than supportive,” Andy Bailey said. “It’s like we’ve moved to Brighton. We’ve become a neighbour.”
if you go …
Carmen’s Cooking Restaurant is located in Brighton Commons at 1855 Monroe Ave. In Brighton Twelve Corners. There is a sign facing Monroe Street, and there are a few parking spaces in the front.
The back door faces the parking lot off Elmwood Street; It’s right from the sign that says “shop”.
Open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. Both indoor and outdoor dining and sidewalk dining are available.
The restaurant requires customers to wear masks unless they are seated at a table, and only uses half of its tables in an effort to maintain a safe distance between customers.
Tracey Schumacher is a food and drink reporter and storytelling coach for the USA Today Network’s Storytelling Project. Email her at TracyS@Gannett.com. follow her Twitter Or Instagram as @RahChaChow and sign up for our weekly newsletter. Thank you to our subscribers for supporting the local press.