Last night I got heartbreaking news from my friend Joe Conzo that chef Joe Torres passed away during the pandemic. We have the Westchester Avenue restaurant owner in our book 111 Places in the Bronx That You Must Not Miss, and the photographs by Joe are some of the first ones that we got to see. I had a mammoth meal with our editor, Karen Seiger, at Joe’s Place. He gave me such wonderful stories about cooking for the Yankees, moviestars, even Fidel Castro. He worked in kitchens his entire life. I went back with my wife and friends. There was always some kind of family function going on, from birthdays to First Communion lunches. It’s extra sad because when I last saw him last fall, he said he was going to retire soon. I’m glad Joe Torres is in the book, because his story is captured in the pages.
From my book:
All the comforts of a Puerto Rican kitchen
One of the most beloved chefs in the borough is waiting to serve you juicy mechado that will make you think you’re in Puerto Rico. Joe Torres has cooked for everyone from Derek Jeter to Jennifer Lopez, and now he runs a quiet family restaurant in the shadow of the Number 6 train in Parkchester. Joe’s Place is the culmination of a long life spent in busy kitchens.
“I came here from Guaynabo at nine, and started cooking at 14,” Joe says. “My mother taught me how to cook. I worked in Manhattan hotels and restaurants as a teen-ager. Daytime I was at the old Americana Hotel. Then I’d go over to the Cattleman on 45th Street and work at night. I was there 18 years.”
Joe worked so many long hours that when his friends were riding the subway, he was driving a big Cadillac. He spent decades cooking steaks in Manhattan. Then he got a call that changed everything. Jimmy Rodriguez opened his restaurant-nightclub Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe on Fordham Road in 1993. Joe was the chef. For a decade it was the destination for Yankees, musicians, models, and politicians. “I fed Fidel Castro roast pork,” Joe said. “Security was all over the place and I couldn’t get close to him.”
“Jimmy liked for me to come out in my ‘big white hat’ and meet people,” Joe recalled. This transformed him from the guy in the kitchen, to the chef everyone wanted to know. He knew he wanted to open his own place after that. “I wanted to do something with food and be proud of it. As a Puerto Rican, and stick to my roots. I love rice and beans!”
Joe’s Place is the restaurant he always wanted. “Now it’s been more than 20 years cooking Caribbean food,” Joe says. “Our mechado is a very good looking dish. Cow feet soup is a traditional Spanish dish. Try the mofungo stuffed with shrimp, or sweet plantains and yuca. For dessert get the tembleque, it’s cocoa based.”
Address 1841 Westchester Ave, Bronx, NY 10472, + 1 (718) 918-2947, www.joesplacebronx.com Getting there 6 Train to Parkchester, walk three blocks west to Westchester and Thieriot avenues Hours Daily 8am-12am Tip On Virginia Avenue look for street art of strong Bronx women by graffiti artists Karen Pedrosa and Laura Alvarez (1281-1255 Virginia Avenue).