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Eats and ancestry on the West Side

For more than 25 years, the Niagara Café has been an inimitable beacon of Buffalo’s West Side. Sitting at the corner of Niagara and Pennsylvania streets, the family-owned restaurant has become known for its mouth-watering Latino food featuring a menu of Puerto Rican dishes including Pollo Guisado (chicken stew) and Chuletas (fried pork chops).

Having come to Buffalo from his native Puerto Rico in 1964, owner Raul Hernandez opened the Niagara Café in 1992 with the idea of creating a little piece of home for the other Puerto Rican expats who lived on the West Side.

What Hernandez didn’t anticipate was becoming one of the West Side’s most recognizable boosters, and an important voice for the neighborhood in local government.

Now 67, Hernandez has had a unique view of the West Side’s emergence in recent years as both a business owner and passionate resident. With the major developments taking place in downtown Buffalo, Hernandez is enjoying watching people rediscover one of Buffalo’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Chuletas | Niagara Cafe | Buffalo Magazine

Chuletas (fried pork chops) with rice and beans is among the most popular dishes on Niagara Cafe’s Latino-based menu.

“There has been a growing interest in the West Side considering its close proximity to downtown, Canalside and the medical corridor,” explained Hernandez. “The demand in real estate has increased property values, making it a more desirable area to live than other parts of the city.”

In addition to owning the Niagara Café, Hernandez has also spent time working with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown on an advisory committee that provided business insight to planners and developers in City Hall.

In recent years, Hernandez is proud of having played a part in the designation of the Hispanic Heritage District that encompasses part of the Niagara Street Corridor. The district features paintings and landmarks that highlight the history of Hispanic leaders in Buffalo, and visitors to the area are greeted by an archway welcoming them to “Avenida San Juan.”

Niagara Cafe | Buffalo Magazine

While Hernandez continues to be frustrated by the negative stereotypes that persist about the West Side neighborhood he’s grown to love, he says its positive developments, such as the Hispanic Heritage designation, keep him “excited about the renewed interest in the area while not letting it lose its identity.”

Staying positive has been challenging for Hernandez in recent months, as he watched from afar as Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in late September. Hernandez was involved in several local community fundraisers to assist in relief efforts, but admitted it’s been a difficult time for his entire family.

“My heart bleeds for our people in Puerto Rico. We all have family and friends going through a tough time on the island.”

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