There’s a compelling new food truck at Zocalo Food Park, 636 S. 6th St. Las Virellas, a food truck serving Puerto Rican fusion dishes, is easing into a summer-long residency at the South Side food truck park.
Their menu, which features classic dishes like churrasco, mofongo, arroz con gandules, jibaritos sliders and more, has been making a stir since the truck launched in April of 2022.
But the story behind the food truck – which is filled with tenacity, love and big dreams – is equally as compelling as its soul-filling fare.
Las Virellas: A love story
It was love at first sight for Carolin Virella and Mildred Virella, two Puerto Rican natives whose lives were forever changed by a cocktail at Sabor Tropical in Bay View.
“About two years ago, I stopped at Sabor to have a drink,” says Mildred, “Carolin was working behind the bar, and it was love at first sight. The next thing we knew, we were moving in together and starting a food truck.”
Mildred’s account of the past two years makes it sound short and sweet. But the journey to launch the Las Virellas food truck actually got its start over 10 years ago in Ciales, Puerto Rico, where Carolin had worked as a bartender since the age of 19.
“For ten years, I worked as a bartender for restaurants in Puerto Rico,” says Carolin. “But I was always interested by what was happening in the kitchen. During breaks in my shift, I would peek in and watch how the chefs were making things.”
Along the way, she built a relationship with the chefs, picking up on tricks and techniques for making numerous classic Puerto Rican dishes along the way. That includes mufongo, a dish comprised of plantains and seasonings mashed together in a mortar-and-pestle-like vessel called a pilón.
“There are so many versions of mofongo,” she says, noting that her recipe is made up of a combination of ingredients and techniques she gathered over the years. “Everyone makes it differently. I like to fry my plantains just until they are soft and then mash them up with garlic, chicharrones and chicken broth.”
It was 2017 when Carolin first moved to Milwaukee from Puerto Rico. Her cousins operated a restaurant in Milwaukee, and she thought she could build a better life for her and her son, Elian. But after a year of working soulless jobs at a local factory and WalMart store, she decided to return to Puerto Rico. While she was there, she took classes at Escuela Hotelera San Juan and continued to hone her mixology knowledge.
Her work gave her joy. But, at the same time, she found that the education system in Puerto Rico was failing Elian, a high functioning autistic child who needed the special attention offered by schools in the U.S. So she packed up her son and returned to Milwaukee, where she enrolled him in an education program that fulfilled his needs. Meanwhile, she sought out work in the service industry, working jobs at Fiserv Forum and Sabor Tropical.
It was there that she met Mildred, a Puerto Rican native from Maunabo who’d moved to Milwaukee 13 years ago. She, too, was a mom to three children – Robi, July and Xai – and she’d found work in customer service for Avis car rental at the airport.
The two women adored one another. Their children got along. So they created a blended household and began making plans to start a business together.
Learning the business
Carolin took a job working in the kitchen at her cousins’ restaurant, Comiendo Rico, at 2302 W. Forest Home Ave., to gain experience in a restaurant kitchen. For six months, she worked hard, noting the pace of the work and the planning that went into an evening’s service. Eventually, as she got her stride, she began butting heads with the other chef in the kitchen.
“He suggested that I get out of his kitchen,” says Carolin. “And that he would rent us one of his food trucks to start our own business.”
And so Las Virellas was born.
For the logo of their business, the Virellas chose an ancient symbol used by the Taíno, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. The symbol depicts Atabey, a female entity who represented both the Spirits of the earth (and fertility) and its horizontal waters (lakes, streams, oceans) and tides.
They launched La Virellas on April 2, 2022 as a sandwich concept, which served up creative takes on burgers and chicken sandwiches. And, since they didn’t yet have the hang of driving the oversized trailer around, they simply parked it in the front of Comiendo Rico and served the post-8 p.m. crowd.
But "Hamburguesa" Las Virellas was short-lived.
“People kept asking us to make them Puerto Rican rice,” says Mildred, who says they quickly reconcepted the truck to serve Puerto Rican fare. “And when we learned to drive the truck, we started taking the food trailer out to different locations on the South Side. By September of 2022, they’d earned a write-up lauding their creative dishes in the “El Conquistador Latino Newspaper.” In March of this year, they were profiled on Telemundo.
More recently, after 88Nine DJ Kenny Perez sampled the food truck’s fare, he contacted Jesus Gonzalez of Zocalo Food Park suggesting that he give the food a try. Gonzalez was impressed, so he invited them to be a part of the community of food trucks at Zocalo.
On the menu
Stop in at Las Virellas, which is parked on Pierce Street to the south of the main Zocalo Food Park seating area, and you’ll find plenty of items from which to choose.
In addition to daily specials, which will be posted on the chalkboard to the right of the ordering window, you’ll find the truck’s full menu by scanning the QR code on the truck.
Options include signature offerings like the Boricua Box (Puerto Rican rice, pernil, tostones and salad for $15); the Tripleta sandwich (pork, chicken, ham, mayo ketchup, cheddar, lettuce, pico de gallo on French bread) and home fries ($15); or jibaritos sliders, mini sandwiches made from tostones filled with pork, chicken, ham, lettuce, pico de gallo and cheddar (three for $14).
Las Virellas also gives folks the option to create their own combo from a selection of proteins and sides. Proteins include Puerto Rican garlic shrimp ($17); churrasco (skirt steak, $20); grilled chicken ($16); or surf & turf (a combination of shrimp and steak, $23).
Every combo includes two sides with choices of arroz con gondules (Puerto Rican rice), tostones (crispy fried plantains); mofongo (mashed seasoned plantains); sweet plantains; fries; or salad.
Pair it up with a house beverage like their delicious Pina Conada (essentially a non-alcoholic pina colada), flavored lemonades (strawberry, blue curacao or coconut), passionfruit juice or acerola juice (Caribbean cherry).
You can also delve into any one of three Puerto Rican soft drinks including Tropi-Coco (coconut soda), Malta India (a non-alcoholic malt beverage) or Kola Champagne (similar to cream soda).
Additional options include the Mrs. Potato, a baked potato stuffed with your choice of toppings: ham, chicken, bacon, three meats, cheese, pico de gallo, broccoli, bacon, sweet plantains ($14).
Of course, if you head to the park with friends, you can also opt for the “El Batey,” a sampler platter which feeds four to six people with pernil (pulled pork), chicharron de pollo, tostones, sweet plantains, fries, arroz con gandules and bolas de queso (fried mozzarella balls with guava sauce), $48.
The advent of a dream
Carolin and Mildred say that they’re truly happy with the success that they’ve had with the food truck so far, and they’re grateful to Carolin’s family at Comiendo Rico for helping them get started and to Jesus for giving them a temporary home at the popular food park.
But, Carolin says their future dream is even bigger.
“We want to own a place where you can come and sit down. I want it to be a place where I can make you food and pour you a cocktail and we can have live Puerto Rican music,” she says.
Midred nods. “We want it to be family friendly. And dog friendly! We want our concept to be different from some of the other restaurants… we want to make eating our food a true experience.”
The two glance at one another. “it’s our goal to create a legacy for our children,” says Carolin.
For the next two weeks, Las Virellas will have abbreviated hours at Zocalo Food Park with full hours (Tuesday through Sunday) beginning June 22.
This week (June 9-11), you can find the truck at Zocalo Friday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Next week (June 15-18), they wil be open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.