Ocean blue walls, tin ceilings, tile floors, and a profusion of live greenery make littlesister feel like a coffee shop you might find tucked between the shops and bars of Santurce, San Juan’s vibrant creative district. Instead, it sits at the corner of Hope Street and Rochambeau Avenue, not far from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The goal at this cafe, according to Milena Pagán, its owner and head chef, is to fill a gap in a traditionally white area, and provide a taste of the Caribbean in her adopted home. Here, every element of the welcoming vibe is by design, she says.
Pagán never planned to open a restaurant—let alone two. But in 2016, the MIT-trained chemical engineer from Caguas, south of San Juan, said a successful corporate consulting career to open Rebel Artisan Bagels, in Providence, Rhode Island, with her co-owner and husband, Darcy Coleman. “My manager said, ‘You’re crazy quitting without anything lined up,’” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Just watch me do it.’”
In 2020, she and her team were back with littlesister, an all-day Puerto Rican–inspired cafe. While many of the city’s Latin restaurants cluster along Broad Street, a historically Hispanic neighborhood, Little Sister is staking its claim in Providence’s college district.
The cafe may be inspired by ones in Puerto Rico, but it’s also got its own flavor. The focus here is on ultra-fresh dishes, like bright ceviche with pineapple, cucumber, and leche de tigre, and tostones topped with duck confit, or roasted cauliflower with Romesco sauce.
Although Little Sister is loved by many locals, it has been a special hit among the growing Latino community in the city, which, as of 2020, makes up 44 percent of the total population. “I’ve found that Puerto Ricans have had to create a place for themselves in the Providence community, as there were none previously,” says Lydia Perez, founder of the Puerto Rican Institute for Arts and Advocacy in Providence. Often, she adds, it’s Puerto Ricans “who provide services to other Puerto Ricans.”