A local chef is making his debut on Chopped and opening a new Puerto Rican restaurant that will transport Raleighites to the island—all in one week.
Photos by Andrew Albright
Nothing quite compares to the food you grew up eating. For some, it’s your mom’s pancakes on a Sunday morning, gooey mac ’n’ cheese, or homemade soup… but for local chef Kevin Ruiz (formerly of The Rockford and star of Chopped’s most recent episode airing May 10!), it’s the Puerto Rican dishes he enjoyed as a child while living on the island that evoke those halcyon days of youth. And, this week, he’s importing that nostalgia—and those flavors—into his new restaurant, Bendito (fittingly translates to “blessed”), which opens Friday, May 13.
Opening in the former Hightop Burger at McNeill Pointe—and in partnership with Hillman Ball of Mainland Creative—in a district before now comprised mainly of fast-casual faves (Chido Taco, Frésko Greek Kitchen, Venture Pizza, etc.), Bendito will fill the void of the semiformal sit-down experience the area is lacking.
While his grandma’s recipes served as his inspo, Ruiz will put his own spin on the dishes. “My goal with Bendito is to represent Puerto Rican food—but through my eyes, as somebody who has a lot of experiences in other cuisines and places,” says Ruiz.
Fans of Puerto Rican cuisine will recognize the staples, but Bendito’s fare will also be approachable enough to be inviting and accessible to those who’ve never dabbled in the culture’s cuisine. For starters, there’s the creamy beef tartare, served with a skewer of tostones; papas rellenas (fried stuffed potatoes with chorizo); a half-chicken made with mojo criollo, pineapple hot sauce and orange; empanadas; yucca; and more. Plus mofongo—a super-popular Puerto Rican dish made with fried plantains, but one that will only be served on Sundays (hey, Sunday funday…).
Beyond the bangin’ bites, the bev program will also be island-influenced, incorporating Island of Enchantment faves like passion fruit and guava. “We’re just trying to do really great refreshing drinks that pair well with the food,” says Ruiz. And pina coladas are going to be a go-to—naturally.
But the visionary victuals are only half of the draw—after all, ambiance is everything. And Bendito’s airy yet dramatic atmosphere and aesthetic is designed to play up Ruiz’s modern approach to Puerto Rican-inspired food and drink even more. Think sexy wallpaper, custom-made pitch-black tables (a playful contrast to the white plates that’ll be totally ’Gram-worthy), and a custom bar by Rebuild Fabrication Co.
“Everything is going to have its own little purpose, and it’s going to be accented very well,” explains Ruiz. “I wanted it to feel like you’re walking into a bar in Downtown San Juan. … It kind of has that fancy feeling to it—but it’s done up and very modern and clean and refreshing at the same time.” Living on island time? Don’t mind if we do. #Blessed, indeed. benditonc.com