By ED RUNYAN
Vicki Vicars of Boardman approached the Mami Gina’s Cuchylandia booth with a little uncertainty and admitted she didn’t know much about the food on display.
But Gina Laviena, owner of the booth, helped her pick out rice and beans (arroz con habichuelas), two meat pies called pastelillos and other items for her, her husband, Terry, and their two friends.
Afterward, Vicki proclaimed the rice and beans to be her favorite, and Terry liked the pastelillos, which are fried and look a little like a pastry or taco that is fried and sealed.
The Vicars were enjoying these Spanish foods at the Youngstown Spanish Heritage Festival that began Friday night on East Federal Street downtown.
“We like being downtown and supporting events like this,” Vicki said. “There’s lots of friendly people.”
Meanwhile, Luis Rivera had no trouble picking out a couple of favorites from Mami Gina’s stand — the pinchos, which are chicken, beef or pork shish kebabs. He also especially likes the pastelillos.
Rivera and his wife, Ramona, said much of the food at the festival, including that from Mami Gina’s, has a Puerto Rican flavor because that is the prominent Spanish heritage in Youngstown.
Ramona, who was born in Brier Hill, where her Puerto Rican father worked for Youngstown Sheet & Tube, said she really likes the pasteles, which are boiled, mashed plantains with meat. “It’s really good,” she said.
The fourth annual festival continues today and Sunday.
Carlos Rivera of Youngstown, a Youngstown police officer, helped start the festival.
“We saw there were was an Italian festival downtown and one for gay pride. I said, ‘Hey, where is the Spanish festival?’” he said.
Rivera said the second-most-populous Spanish group in Youngstown is Mexican and third would be Central American, which is the fastest-growing Spanish group here.
The festival has grown since the first year. It was one day at first and two last year. “We’ve seen interest in it from beyond just Spanish people,” Rivera said.
At another stand, Papa’s Puerto Rican Cuisine, which has a restaurant on Belmont Avenue in Liberty, the roast pork with rice and beans meal (pernil asado) is the No. 1 seller, said owner Carmelo Morales.
Several side dishes are popular for sampling — beef or chicken pastelillo and rellenos, which are seasoned potato balls stuffed with beef.
On the dessert tray, tres leches (a cupcake) are a Spanish favorite.