The best meal I have in Puerto Rico is one I shouldn’t be eating.
I’m sitting at the bar at Jose Enrique, a restaurant near San Juan’s lively market square, La Placita, ordering appetizer after appetizer, throwing caution—and my dinner plans—to the wind. After a pair of delicately fried empanadillas stuffed with cetí, a tiny, translucent river fish, comes a chile-spiked escabeche of black cod, then a plate of thinly sliced octopus with an unexpectedly fragrant Malaysian peanut sauce. The homemade longaniza (pork sausage), redolent of garlic and achiote, is paired with salty tostones—flattened, twice-fried slices of plantain—that I splash with the house pique, a Day-Glo-orange hot sauce flavored with pineapple and local ají caballero peppers, which is as addictive as it is spicy. Just as I think I can’t eat another bite, a bowl of luscious braised pork jowls with oyster mushrooms and mashed purple potatoes arrives. By the time the bartender sets down a narrow dish of tembleque, the classic coconut pudding in every Puerto Rican grandmother’s arsenal (here topped with tiny pearls of cinnamon), I stop glancing at my watch. This is the meal I’ve traveled all the way to the Caribbean for.
It isn’t just the food—at once homey and refined—that has me falling in love with Jose Enrique. Everything about the place reflects Puerto Rico’s carefree, tropical vibe. Housed in a small, unmarked Art Deco–like building, it’s in the heart of the working-class Santurce neighborhood; as the sun sets, the streets are filling up with people listening to live music and ordering Medalla beers from La Placita’s open-air cantinas.
Let other people come to Puerto Rico for its beaches, its rain forest, its dance halls playing salsa and reggaeton. I want to get to know it through my taste buds. And why not? Like Puerto Ricans themselves, the island’s cuisine is friendly and approachable, with robust flavors and strong traditions. Eric Ripert, chef of New York City’s Le Bernardin, makes annual pilgrimages here to experiment with local ingredients. Ripert devoted an entire section of his A Return to Cooking to the island, calling it “Puerto Rico—A Spiritual Journey.” “Puerto Rican dishes can be humble, but they can also be quite complex,” he told me before my trip, pointing to the island’s cross-cultural roots (Amerindian, French, Spanish, African) and the lush abundance of tropical produce used in inventive ways. Pork shows up everywhere, whether roasted on a spit or used to enrich mofongo, the ubiquitous mound of fried plantains mashed with garlic and cracklings. Pumpkins, yuca, taro, and other starchy tubers are transformed into tamale-like pasteles, or they are grated, stuffed with meat, and fried to create an alcapurria, a torpedo-shaped fritter that’s sold at beachfront kiosks. Passion fruit and mango show up in sauces, cocktails, and desserts. Ripert encouraged me to sample the street food as well as the high-end restaurants, particularly the alcapurria shacks in Piñones, right outside San Juan. Which kiosk does he like the most, I asked. “I just head to the least sophisticated one,” he said. “That’s usually the best.”