Puerto Rican roots were a blessing to this ambitious chef
BY RACHEL INSWASTY
Maria Oquendo was only a year old when her family returned to Puerto Rico to rejoin a legacy begun on that island — generations before she was born in Brooklyn. Little did anyone know all the places that inherited passion would take her.
“My great-grandfather, on my mother’s side, used to have a huge outdoor oven,” Oquendo says. “People would come by to buy the bread he baked. And that’s, I think, where the culinary side of my family’s story started.”
Oquendo’s parents had sampled life in the States, where they were married and started their family, but they decided to go home. In the 1960s and ’70s, her father, Hector Oquendo, was a chef at Palmas del Mar, a large beach resort. However, he and his wife, Rosemary Ortiz, wanted to open their own place. So, with his culinary skill set and her business experience, they opened El Carey restaurant.
“The restaurant was named for the sea turtles in the area, which were used in many seafood dishes back then,” Oquendo says. “Since they started to become overfished, [serving sea turtle] became illegal and the name was changed to El Hay Bendito.”
It means “he is blessed,” a divine sanction that was extended to the family’s business and all their happy customers.
The small, bustling seafood spot, located right across the street from the beach, became a local favorite. “My parents served some amazing dishes, things like langosta a la parrilla rellena [Caribbean lobster stuffed with shrimp],” Oquendo says. “People loved the complementary caldo de pescado con arepas [fish broth soup with fried corn cakes]. It was spectacular.”
Oquendo reminisces about the many years she and her brothers helped out around the restaurant. It was a central part of their lives growing up and provided for the family.
DOLLARS AND SENSE
But around the age of 22, upon receiving her associate degree in business management, she joined her aunt and uncle in Charleston, South Carolina. “My Uncle Pete was the reason I learned English so quickly,” Oquendo recalls. “He said to me, ‘Chavelita, no speaking Spanish in the house, English only.’ Him being so strict with that, so I could learn, is what helped me pick up on it so fast.” Within six months, Oquendo says, she was speaking English fluently, and eventually began work in banking.
Like her parents, Oquendo returned to Puerto Rico after the birth of her two children, Charles and Rosemary — but only for a year. When she returned to the mainland, she chose Fort Lauderdale to resume her banking career. Yet she was yearning for more: she wanted to be her own boss. Around 2001, inspiration struck and she returned to her food service roots.
“I started by working the Fiestas Patronales which was big in Puerto Rico and had been brought over to Broward County,” Oquendo says, “We were in big outdoor tents, about 20x40 feet total, [cooking on] six huge cooktops with pots and pans full of Puerto Rican foods.”
To pay homage to her parents’ legacy, she named her business El Hay Bendito.
BOLD, BEAUTIFUL FLAVORS
By specializing in beloved dishes from her Puerto Rican childhood, Oquendo was an instant success and has been busy ever since. She found wide success by preparing her delicacies at speedways from Orlando to Miami. She has served thousands of people.
But she made the decision to stop doing outdoor events in 2012, and pivoted El Hay Bendito toward catering and food delivery. “I found Port St. Lucie in 2006 and have been here since,” Oquendo says, “It was a sweet spot between all my traveling from Orlando to Miami. But this is now home base and I love it here.”
Her cooking — the perfect combination of salty and sweet — transforms bold flavors into the kinds of dishes that Oquendo uses to transform empty tables into vibrant, beautiful feasts. “Every event — whether it be a business luncheon or a quinceañera — is unique in what we serve, and how we decorate and set-up,” she says. “We also offer prepackaged meals and platters for corporate catering jobs.”
Christmas time is very big in Puerto Rican culture, she says, so “during the holidays, it gets crazy with orders. My employees and I are constantly in the kitchen making hundreds and hundreds of pasteles.”
This seasonal delicacy is made from a “masa” [flour] of seasoned green plantain and “yautia” [taro root], filled with savory chicken or pork, all wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. This tasty blend of ingredients makes pasteles a wonderful treat to unwrap during the holiday season.
ROAD TO RENOWN
In 2019, Oquendo was able to purchase a trailer that she now uses as El Hay Bendito’s food truck. She wanted to be able to serve up hot, tasty Puerto Rican bites such as papas rellenas [potato fritters] and pinchos [meat skewers]. Oquendo’s alcapurrias — a type of fritter — are a favorite. They are made with yucca [cassava root] or green plantain, stuffed with beef, pork or masa and yucca, and deep fried. Another easy-to-carry favorite are empanadas, turnovers made with a floury dough and stuffed with fillings than can be savory or sweet. El Hay Bendito customers can pick from beef, chicken, cheese, guava with cheese, ham and cheese, shrimp, or a pizza-like filling.
Besides that, El Hay Bendito makes customary dishes like arroz con gandules [rice with pigeon peas], cerdo asado [slow roasted pork] and sorullos [sweet cornmeal rolls filled with cheese]. Sweet treats include flan, arroz con dulce [rice pudding], tembleque [coconut pudding] and tres leches cake. Every postre [dessert] is better than the next — each has its own decadent, velvety character.
Oquendo’s latest project is creating YouTube content that provides step-by-step tutorials for some of her recipes. But her major goal is to have a larger, drivable food truck with a full-sized kitchen, by the end of this year.
“It’s nice to have so much support in Port St. Lucie, because things got hard at one point during the pandemic,” Oquendo says. “But because of our loyal customer base we were able to make it out of that and are thriving.”
In the summer El Hay Bendito is open Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Starting in October, business hours will be increased. It is located at 201 NW Prima Vista Blvd, Port St. Lucie, FL 34983, adjacent to Sportsman’s Park.
Check out their website at www.elhaybendito.com for more details and information or call 342.2147.
Sept. 5, 2023