March 16, 2010

For a hearty taste of home


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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Tuesday, July 18, 2008: Juan Gonzalez, and his son John Gonzalez, 15, at Juan's "La Bodega Latina " on Congress St. The spot is a popular taste of home for Latin Seadogs baseball players. The pair is in high hopes of a visit from David Ortiz when he's in town to play at Hadlock.

Staff Writer

The conversation is light and usually in Spanish. The beans, rice and chicken bring a warm familiarity to the senses.

La Bodega Latina, a Dominican restaurant and grocery store on Congress Street in Portland, has become a haven for those from the Caribbean searching for a taste of home.

And every year, the migration from Hadlock Field to La Bodega Latina begins as Latin baseball players arrive. They are either with the hometown Sea Dogs, or one of the visiting teams to Hadlock.

The players may be in Maine, but they know there is a place where they can order Dominican stewed chicken, red beans and white rice, among other specialties (stewed goat, for example).

''The minute (players) land over here (in Portland), they come here,'' said Juan Gonzalez, 37, who, along with his wife Rosa, owns La Bodega Latina. ''The word gets around.''

Gonzalez is hoping word gets around to one more Latin player.

One of the most famous Dominican baseball players is scheduled to come to Portland next week to play three games with the Sea Dogs, while working his injured wrist back into shape.

And if David Ortiz wants a little home cooking before he steps to the plate, Gonzalez will make sure Ortiz knows where to go.

''I've told (Sea Dogs players) that when he comes to town, if he needs any special meal prepared, we'll do that,'' Gonzalez said. ''We'd be honored if he stopped here. I know he said he might but, depending on his schedule, it might not happen.''

When informed by a reporter last weekend of the Dominican restaurant near Hadlock Field, Ortiz said, ''I'll check it out.''

He would be the first established baseball star to walk through the La Bodega Latina doorway, but he would be following the footsteps of some stars-in-the-making, including former Sea Dogs shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who recently started in the Major League All-Star Game.

Near the end of the 2004 season and in all of '05, Ramirez played shortstop at Hadlock, and ordered his rice and beans from La Bodega Latina.

''Hanley hung out here all the time,'' Gonzalez said.

The store opened in 1997 and the restaurant in 2005. New players find the establishment by either asking directions -- as two Trenton Thunder players did on Thursday -- or by following the lead of others.

Iggy Suarez first came to Portland in 2006 for a brief fill-in assignment with the Sea Dogs.

''I was here for two weeks when (first baseman) Luis Jimenez told me about it,'' Suarez said. ''He said, 'Hey man, you got to check out what La Bodega has got.'

''I checked it out. I was so used to having my mom cook like that. To get that kind of food around here was awesome.''

Suarez was born in Miami. His mother is from Puerto Rico.

Suarez is bilingual, but other Latin players are not comfortable with English. Olmo Rosario is an infielder with the Connecticut Defenders, the team Portland is playing when Ortiz is due in town.

Rosario, from San Cristrobal, Dominican Republic, knows where he will go on Monday.

''At La Bodega Latina, everyone speaks Spanish and I feel comfortable,'' he said. When asked what else he likes, Rosario immediately came up with three words. ''Rice and beans.''

Rosario said, ''Ortiz is one of my favorite players.''

Gonazalez would agree.

''We have so many (Dominican) players but, because we are so close to Boston, the favorite is between David and Manny Ramirez.''

Inside his restaurant, Gonzalez has plaques from previous Red Sox teams hanging on the wall, along with photos of him and Ortiz, taken when Ortiz appeared at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut last year.

''He's one of the nicest guys,'' Gonzalez said. ''He never let the money get to his head.

''Every time he goes back to the island, he works with the community. He gets help for the people there I really admire this guy.''

Last week, Gonzalez learned Ortiz was coming to Portland.

''I've been getting calls left and right, people saying, 'you know he's coming.' I said, ''I know, I know,' '' Gonzalez said. ''We are so excited.''

Gonzalez talked while his 16-year-old son John walked in.

''I can't believe he's coming,'' said John, a student at Scarborough High.

A friend, Steven Abreu, 19, sat near John, calling Ortiz ''an inspiration for all Dominicans, for who he is and where he comes from.''

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

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