This Puerto Rican–Southern Restaurant Is the Soul of a North Carolina Neighborhood
It's the end of a busy day at Boricua Soul, a Puerto Rican–Southern restaurant in the heart of downtown Durham, North Carolina. I'm staying out of the way as I watch tables being pulled in from the light-strung brick patio, the chairs stacked on top; fryers are drained, counters wiped down. And as always, Serena and Toriano Fredericks—the wife-and-husband team behind this food-truck-turned-restaurant—are there together.
"It's James," the cashier calls back to Serena, who runs the front of the house while Toriano, or Tori, as he's known, manages the kitchen. "Good," she says. "I need to get his caretaker's number." She steps back to the soda machine. James is a small, quiet man in his sixties who appears to be struggling with dementia and comes by the shop each day for a Coke. He never has to ask (and never pays), and Serena always takes a moment to check in with him when he visits.
Their almost-daily exchange exemplifies a kind of ethos that I've found is endemic to this Southern town. Here, the word community isn't just lip service; it's articulated through doing what it takes to ensure one another's survival. Boricua Soul, a unique intersection of Caribbean and Southern flavors and identity, has become a neighborhood restaurant that feels particularly special in a world transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Serena and Tori didn't expect to open a restaurant. They met by chance in 2010 at Tori's divorce party (yes, party), when they were based in Durham and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, respectively. Tori was working as a dynamic positioning operator for oil rigs, out at sea for months at a time. The two fell in love hard and fast, and a few months later, Tori moved to Durham, where his sister and grandmother lived. Neither were, as we say, "food people," but when Tori wasn't at sea, he published a prolific food blog and daydreamed about opening a food truck.
But life threw the couple some curveballs. Serena experienced a difficult pregnancy before the birth of their son, Devin, followed by a pituitary gland tumor that required substantial treatment; it wasn't until 2015 that they were finally able to start spending their days on their "Soul Patrol" truck. Tori left the sea for good three years later, and the family hit the road full-time slinging hoecakes—cornmeal pancakes inspired by Tori's Southern family—as well as dishes that spoke to Serena's Puerto Rican roots, like alcapurrias (root vegetable fritters) and jibaritos (sandwiches with fried plantains as the bread). The truck rapidly grew in popularity, leading to a pop-up that brought them to the American Tobacco Campus, where former tobacco warehouses were being put to new use. In November 2019, their brick-and-mortar restaurant, Boricua Soul, opened at last.
Their new restaurant home seats 40 people and opens out onto a covered patio that seats upward of 75. The light fixtures are upside-down calderos, pots that are commonly used in Puerto Rican cooking, and a large mural by Victor Knight represents the couple's journey: Tori's grandmother in Durham on the right, Serena's Puerto Rican grandmother on the left, and Devin banging on the drums in the center. The menu features an evolution of dishes they served on the truck: sweet potato cheesecake empanadas (recipe p. 99), mac and cheese topped with pernil (Puerto Rican pork shoulder), and Lawry's-seasoned collards that also happen to be vegan. Their dessert options include strawberry crunch and hummingbird cake slices from Tony's Cake House—a business started by their former cook Tony Dunn. They proudly carry local beers, including pours from smaller breweries such as Spaceway—where Briana Brake (one of the few Black women brewmasters in the nation) makes the Afrofuturist-inspired Don Dada cardamom stout, which Tori uses to make jerk brisket.
"People [who dine with us] often say, 'That tastes like my grandmother's,'" Tori says. "Might be abuela, might be grandma. That always gets me."
When COVID-19 struck, like so many other hospitality businesses, Boricua Soul was hit hard as people went into quarantine. They stopped serving indoors and made use of the patio, but cold days were especially trying. Staffing, too, proved extremely challenging, and the couple ran the operation themselves with a small skeleton crew, all but living at the restaurant for much of 2020.
During this time, I got to know their family. I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the South, so I was ecstatic to find a restaurant that spoke to my heritage. When the pandemic began, I checked in with Serena often, and she shared their struggles: Some weeks were good, some were terrible, and they were both working around the clock, exhausted and afraid.
"Devin had a pillow and a blanket in the back of the shop because we didn't know when we would get out of there," Serena says.
Like many others, I stopped dining out during the early days of COVID-19—but I made an exception for Boricua Soul. So did dozens of other loyal customers, fellow food and beverage folks, friends, and family, who boosted the restaurant with their dollars, words of encouragement, and patience. Isolation made me crave the taste of home, of Puerto Rico and the smoky pinchos, or marinated chicken skewers, I'd get at roadside kioskos, or food stands, near the beach in Piñones; of collards and mac and cheese, a flavor combination that for me epitomizes the South. I could taste the abuelita vibes in their food, which was always perfectly seasoned, balanced, and comforting.
Ultimately, it's easy to get behind Serena and Tori because they consistently get behind others. During the summer of 2020, the restaurant advocated for justice for George Floyd and supported Black Lives Matter protests across the state via social media. Each Sunday, they host live jazz with Bull City in the Basement, a collective supporting local musicians impacted by the pandemic—their sets draw lines to the register. Meanwhile, children race through the courtyard; a young artist paints in the corner; a dancer improvises some moves.
"When I met them, I thought, 'That's a really cool way to contribute to the culture—both through your cuisine and by lifting up artists,'" says Adam Klein, the director of the American Tobacco Campus, who has known the couple since 2018 and helped secure their restaurant space. "I think that people like Tori and Serena play a huge role in growing the city's cultural scene."
Aside from boosting the arts and providing a place for community, the couple also supports local farmers. They source collard greens from Stanley Hughes, a third-generation Black farmer who runs Pine Knot Farms in neighboring Hurdle Mills. "At first, we were buying one case, and then three and four, and now six cases," Tori says. "It means so much to be able to buy from local farmers and see them every week."
Amid a particularly tough year, the couple managed not only to survive, but to expand. In addition to the restaurant, they offer catering, and their food truck is still running, though the labor shortage has kept them from operating on a daily basis. Most recently, they opened a stall at the ballpark, where they serve Cuban sandwiches as well as other signature dishes.
There's something about a neighborhood restaurant that's really special. The food is often simple, but delicious and consistent. You go for a meal that tastes like home when you're having a bad day, but you'll also take out-of-towners because the food is bangin'. That's the soul of Boricua Soul.
"We've been intentional about building our base and roots here in Durham," Serena says. "This is where we live, where we go to school. These are our people, our neighbors, right? And if we support this community, this community will always foster us."
Durham's New Crop
Durham-based tobacco companies once produced upward of 80% of the tobacco in the U.S., and the state still produces most of the nation's crop. But by the 1980s, many of the companies that built the city had moved out, disproportionately impacting low-income workers. The tides changed in 1995, when the new Durham Bulls stadium opened and investors decided to renovate the warehouse next door. That space became the American Tobacco Campus, which today is home to 85 businesses—including a new crop of restaurants like Boricua Soul.
Serena Fredericks' guide to the best bites in Durham
The Best Breakfast
"Our perfect weekend breakfast comes from True Flavors Diner. Toriano is a dinner-for-breakfast type of guy; he almost always orders the country fried steak. I keep it simple with the buttermilk French toast. The biscuits from their sister shop, Debbie Lou's, are what dreams are made of. The brown sugar–glazed ham and blueberry chipotle biscuits are fantastic."
Take a Stroll
"Durham Central Park is our happy place. We have spent a lot of time there, from the free summer concert series to the many food truck rodeos and events we have participated in to our son's dance classes to simple, impromptu picnics."
"We spent a staycation at 21C, a really cool hotel in a renovated old bank building, with rotating art exhibits throughout. It's a perfect downtown location to walk to all the shops, bars, and restaurants."
Where to Drink
"Sean Umstead at Kingfisher is mixing some of the best drinks in Durham. I love their Hoodwink Spritz in particular."
"We like to support our local Black farmers, and the Black Farmers' Market has some of the best farmers in the area. Perkins Orchard is another favorite of ours; we all love to visit this locally owned orchard and take turns filling up our $20 produce bag. Best deal in town. I get a bit excited when I see pictures of their yellow watermelons hit Instagram."