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‘In the Heights’ Offers Up Some Irresistible Flavors of Home

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Early in the heartwarming musical, “In the Heights,” which is currently being staged at the Woodlawn Theater, our hero, Usnavi, complains that the refrigerator at his bodega has gone out and he won’t be able to make café con leche for his customers. That’s a big deal when you consider his business is in New York’s Washington Heights, an area plenty of Dominican immigrants call home. To them, café con leche is a food group, something to be pounded down as if it were a shot glass of something alcoholic and meant to be drunk at sunrise and several more times during the day.

"In the Heights" at the Woodlawn Theater.

“In the Heights” at the Woodlawn Theater.

The secret he’s given is to use sweetened condensed milk from a can, a move that saves the day for his mom-and-pop shop. But it’s not the only tip to remember if you’re making this exceptionally strong cup of coffee bolstered with plenty of sugar and cream.

Greg Hinojosa, artistic director of the troupe and director of this production, offered a recipe that calls for making the coffee with water in which a cinnamon stick have been boiled. It’s a wonderful addition to the eye-opener that you’re sure to enjoy.

It’s not the only food reference in the show, which won the Tony Award in 2008 for best musical.

One character sells piraguas, which is the Dominican word used to describe what we call raspas or snow cones. He’s listed in the program only as Piragua Guy, but we soon learn he’s like many of the other Heights residents: He’s an independent businessman doing his best to earn a living. The day we first encounter him is going to be a good day for him, because the heat is thick enough to drive folks into the streets. And he’s ready for them with his array of flavors, as he sings:

Tango de mango,
Tengo de parcha,
De piña y de fresa!
Tengo de china, de limón,
De peso y de peseta, hey!

With summer upon us, it might make sense to add piraguas to the concession stand for the remainder of the show’s run, and stock the flavors with what he’s singing about, bottles filled with the fruit flavors of mango, passion fruit (parcha), pineapple and strawberry, orange (china) and lime.

Food is an important tradition in most of the families on stage. It fosters a sense of home, which is what “In the Heights” is all about. With that in mind, we asked for a few family recipes from the cast and crew, and they gladly obliged with some of their favorites, including Picadillo, Mexican Rice, and a rich, flan-like dessert called Jericalla. Plus, there’s Hinojosa’s Café con Leche to fuel your day.

“In the Heights” runs through June 23 at the Woodlawn Theater, 1920 Fredericksburg Road. Call 210-267- 8388 for tickets or more information. 


This dessert isn’t quite flan, but as Debi Pfitzenmaier, who tested the recipe, says, “This is my favorite new dessert.” We think it’ll be yours, too.

3 cups whole milk
3/Ž4 cup brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a heavy saucepan, bring milk, sugar and cinnamon stick to slow boil. Boil for 20 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Remove cinnamon stick. If the cinnamon has disintegrated at all, strain the mixture. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks in a large bowl until fluffy. Very slowly add the milk mixture to the eggs, stirring continually while adding. Pour into small ramekins or custard dishes. Place ramekins in a casserole dish and pour hot water into the pan until the water is about 1/3 up the sides of the ramekins. Cook in the oven for about one hour until the top gets crusty and golden brown. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate several hours until chilled.

Makes 4 servings.

Adapted from Luis LeGaspi, a member of the “In the Heights” ensemble




This is a real family recipe, offered by Woodlawn Theater stage manager Nico Redondo and handed down from his abuela, Irene Martinez.

I tested the recipe with what I had on hand, which meant no potatoes and no tortillas. But it didn’t matter. The dish tasted great. In fact, the leftovers were even better the next day.

1 pound ground beef
½ white onion, diced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 to 3 cups water
2 to 3 tomatoes, cubed
2 to 3 small potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 serrano pepper
Corn tortillas
Cilantro, diced
Onions, diced

Brown ground beef. Add onions and garlic and cook until tender. Add tomato sauce, water, tomatoes and potatoes. Add the serrano. (If you want it spicy, chop the serrano with the seeds. If you want it mild, slice serrano and remove seeds). Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes until the potatoes are soft and the water has evaporated.

Toast tortillas, and serve with cilantro, onions and salsa.

Makes 4 servings.

From Nico Redondo and his abuela, Irene Martinez

Make sure your coffee is strong before adding the sweetened condensed milk.

Make sure your coffee is strong before adding the sweetened condensed milk.

Café Con Leche

Everyone makes coffee differently, so exact proportions aren’t needed. Just follow the outline and adjust it to your taste. The idea is that a small cup of café con leche is made approximately with half coffee and half cream — and all sugar. I like the addition of Mexican chocolate, but don’t see the need to add sugar on top of sweetened condensed milk. You may get the coffee so strong that you want the sugar to tame it. It’s up to you.

Cinnamon sticks
Brown Mexican sugar
Sweetened condensed milk
Mexican chocolate, optional

When you make your coffee, double up on the strength or use espresso. It doesn’t matter if you use Mexican coffee, coffee beans, an espresso maker or instant coffee — as long as it’s strong. The key is instead of using regular water to use water that has been boiled with at least 1 cinnamon stick. Once the coffee is made, add scalded sweetened condensed milk at an approximate 1:1 ratio and brown sugar to taste. Melt a little chocolate and add, if desired.

From Greg Hinojosa, artistic director of the Woodlawn Theater and director of “In the Heights”

Mexican Rice

1 cup white rice
½ yellow onion, diced
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
Cumin, to taste

Sauté white rice in a lightly oiled pan with a lid until slightly brown.

Add the onions and sauté until tender.

Add tomato sauce and stir in. Fill emptied can with water and add.

Add salt, pepper, garlic and cumin, to taste.

Cover and let simmer until the water is absorbed.

Makes 4 servings.

From Miquel Ochoa, who plays Usnavi in “In the Heights”

"In the Heights"

“In the Heights”

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