Driving away from San Juan airport—the jammed highways flanked by big-box stores and fast-food outlets—I am quickly reminded that I’m still in the United States. Ten minutes later, as the road paralleling the runway crosses a bridge and zags right under a canopy of trees, I’m just as fast to forget. Piñones feels like the tropics: cinder-block shacks with corrugated tin roofs and hand-painted signs, a palm-studded beach serving as backdrop. All the kiosks are promisingly dilapidated, so I choose a humble-looking place with a view of the ocean and a display case full of deep-fried offerings. I point to a dense-looking mound that turns out to be a pionono—strips of fried ripe plantains wrapped around a filling of ground beef, then dipped in an egg batter and fried again. It’s sweet and tasty, but I can’t get past the artificial orange hue of the outer shell. Next I try an empanadilla of lobster whose only reward is a dribble of grease down the front of my shirt. The quality of the food is supposed to rise in inverse proportion to the refinement of the venue, but there’s something missing from the equation.
The next day, I point my rental car south to look for the legendary Ruta del Lechón, which sounds like something out of a Homer Simpson dream sequence: a winding mountain road lined with stall after stall selling lechón asado, whole pig roasted on a spit. This Shangri-la of swine is only a 30-minute drive from San Juan, in the town of Guavate, where the built-up suburbs give way to shaggy green mountains. After a series of dips and switchbacks I find a half-dozen pig stands open for business. I stop at the one with the most cars parked outside and walk up to the counter, where the pig rests behind glass, a metal spit thrust through its still-smiling mouth, with skin the color of caramel and a midsection already partially carved out. I order a beer and a plate of pork and take them to a picnic table in an open-air pavilion, the forest stretching out below. The meat has been cut up into chunks, with some bits of lacquered skin and gooey pockets of fat. It tastes, well, piggy, with some traces of garlic and herbs, and a bracing, almost overwhelming tang of salt. This is good lechón, but not great lechón. I know Puerto Rico can do better.
Alfredo Ayala, whom I meet later that afternoon, assures me it can. Ripert had suggested that I look up Ayala, an old friend of his since they cooked together at Joël Robuchon’s Jamin in Paris in the 1980’s. Ayala is considered a pioneer of modern Puerto Rican cuisine, but his last restaurant, Delirio, closed last spring, a victim of the recession. Now he is working as a consultant at the Copamarina, a low-key beach resort in Guánica, a 30-minute drive from the southern city of Ponce. He’s a reserved man who worries about the island’s culinary heritage. “You can’t get good lechón in Guavate anymore,” he declares at least once, when not lamenting the demise of a properly made mofongo. Ayala abhors shortcuts and cheap substitutions (at a Ponce restaurant, he winces in embarrassment when I ask for pique and a bottle of Tabasco shows up instead). At the Copamarina’s restaurant, he serves me a multicourse lunch of typical Puerto Rican dishes: a small, delicate mofongo in a fish broth swirled with pique; seared local snapper with a stew of small white beans, chorizo, and pumpkin; a refreshing salad with avocado and slices of orange and grapefruit. Dessert is a quartet of ice creams—coconut, ginger, soursop, coffee—made with local ingredients. (The soursop, guanábana in Spanish, is my favorite: like the tart love child of a pineapple and a strawberry.) The meal isn’t humble, nor is it overcomplicated. It proves Ayala’s contention that traditional Puerto Rican food can use a touch of contemporary finesse.
If you’re looking for refinement in San Juan, you’ll find it in Condado, the beachfront community whose last heyday was in the 1960’s but which is experiencing a revival today. It’s home to hip restaurants and renovated hotels, like the Conrad Condado Plaza and the Condado Vanderbilt, reopening this summer. I check in to the Hotel La Concha, a set piece of Tropical Modernism that could have been beamed here from Miami Beach, down to the honeycomb-patterned brise-soleil and the all-night party in the lobby. There I meet up with Wilo Benet, perhaps the most admired chef on the island, who moved his formal flagship restaurant, Pikayo, to the Conrad Condado Plaza in 2009. Benet is charming and charismatic, a big man with a shaved head who issues a stream of cheerful social commentary about politics, the economy, and the restaurant business. “This is a small town with a big-city attitude,” he says of San Juan, describing Puerto Ricans as having worldly palates but a staunch traditionalist streak. Benet decides to take me back to the stalls in Piñones. The key, he explains, is to find one where you can watch the food being cooked fresh. We pull up to a kiosk called Tropical Heat as the cook is forming alcapurrias by hand, shaping them with the deftness of a sushi chef and plunging them into a blackened vat filled with bubbling oil, heated by a wood fire. Seconds later, we’re gingerly nibbling at the alcapurrias, letting the steam escape before devouring the garlicky crab stuffing. They’re hot and crisp and incredibly satisfying, especially washed down with the juice of fresh coconut, its top hacked off and a straw stuck inside. This is the ultimate beach food—the Caribbean’s answer to a Coney Island hot dog.