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.”
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.
Benet is enjoying himself, too—probably because I’m giving him an excuse to cheat on his diet—but he also takes pleasure in pointing out Piñones’s flaws: the cheap, probably stolen lumber being used as fuel, nails and all; the fritters languishing under heat lamps. These alcapurrias taste good because they were made before our eyes with fresh ingredients, but to me, the whole setup—the soot, the palms, the salsa music blaring from the radio—makes them taste even better. At Pikayo, the following night, I miss some of that homeyness. The room is undoubtedly elegant, with enormous paintings by local artist Willie Quetzalcoatl, Lucite stools for the ladies’ purses, and white-jacketed waiters. The menu is expensive and alludes to Italy and Japan, though my five-course degustation contains plenty of island touches: foie gras paired with ripe plantain; griddled shrimp with a guanábana beurre blanc. Everything is artfully plated and flawlessly cooked. Despite the promise of explosive flavors, however, Benet’s food feels timidly seasoned: Puerto Rican food dressed up and made safe and presentable. That’s not what I came here for.
Let’s face it: Much of Puerto Rican food is based on relatively bland ingredients—pork, rice, tubers. These constitute a blank slate that can reflect a chef’s tastes and talents, or his flaws. A mofongo can be heavy and dull, or it can be ethereal and richly flavored, as Ayala’s is. Fondas—humble restaurants serving home-style food—can be revelatory (the savory chicken fricassee I ate at Bebo’s Café, in Santurce) or uninspired (my greasy rice with pigeon peas at El Jibarito, in Old San Juan). Island produce pairs well with international flavors: the freshly caught snapper in a kombu broth with shaved truffles I had at L’Auxerre, in the historic town of San Germán, hinted at both Japan and France. At Marmalade, a buzzy spot in Old San Juan, the island’s familiar white beans show up in a soup with black truffles and pancetta. And I loved the Latin-tinged dim sum—egg rolls stuffed with local butifarra sausage—at Budatai, a sexy Latin-Asian fusion restaurant in Condado.
But on its own, in the right hands, and with the judicious use of garlic, cilantro, and hot peppers, Puerto Rican food can be extraordinary. Besides Jose Enrique, the most memorable meal I have in Puerto Rico is not at a restaurant. One morning, Ayala calls up and invites me to join him for lechón asado cooked by his friend Apa. Ripert also mentioned Apa and his lechón, which he roasts by the side of the road in an open kitchen in the mountains. (In fact, he’s brought Apa to New York to roast pigs for events at Le Bernardin.) On weekend mornings, Puerto Ricans pull up to his place in their cars, pick up their orders of roast pork, rice and beans, and morcilla (blood sausage), and bring it back for family feasts. During the holidays, Apa goes through as many as 100 pigs a day.
It takes about 30 minutes to drive out of San Juan through bamboo forest and along twisty mountain roads to find the place, a jumble of chain-link fence and corrugated metal surrounding a cinder-block pit. There’s a lechón, plumped on a nearby farm, turning on the spit; it’s been seasoned only with a pungent rub of salt, garlic, and herbs. Apa’s father, Nando, made lechón right here the same way for many years, as did Nando’s father before him. Apa himself, stout and sweaty, focuses on cooking, but Rafael, his childhood friend and partner, shows Ayala and me around the restaurant they are getting ready to open (now finished, it’s called Lechonera La Ranchera). We sit down and wait for the food to arrive, then dig in. The pork, cut from the shoulder and ribs, is moist and chewy, slick with fat but not greasy. I can detect the garlic, oregano, and cilantro in the salt rub, and the distinct smoky flavor of charcoal, but above all it tastes rich and porky. The sides are all excellent, too: rice and pigeon peas; yuca pasteles wrapped in banana leaf; gandinga, a rich stew made of pork innards; and, once I get past the concept, even the spicy morcilla. Rafael brings dessert: a plate of fresh farmer’s cheese, and jellied guava and sour orange pastes. Even after filling myself up, I keep stabbing my fork into another piece of lechón. I can’t get enough.
Outside, I thank Apa and Ayala, and Rafael points to his house, poking through the foliage on a high ridge a few miles away. “We’re just Puerto Rican hilly-billies,” he says with a smile, as he uses a penknife to shave a matchstick into a toothpick. He nods at a tree that supplied the sour oranges. “The guavas come from a tree across the street,” he adds. That’s why the dessert, and the whole meal, felt so right: it was made at home, just like I’d hoped to find.
Peter J. Frank is a freelance writer based in New York City.
American Airlines is the dominant carrier to San Juan, with nonstops from New York City, Dallas, Chicago, and Miami.
Bebo’s Café Classic cafeteria serving delicious mofongo, fried pork chops, and rice and beans. 1600 Calle Loiza, Santurce, San Juan; 787/726-1008; lunch for two $15.
Budatai Iron Chef’s Roberto Treviño seduces Condado’s smart set with fun, Latin-Asian fusion. 1056 Avda. Ashford, Condado, San Juan; 787/725-6919; dinner for two $80.
Jose Enrique Neighborhood place near San Juan’s La Placita. 176 Calle Duffaut, Santurce, San Juan; 787/725-3518; dinner for two $80.
L’Auxerre Urbane Continental fare in a pretty 1871 house. 16 Calle Estrella, San Germán; 787/892-8844; dinner for two $72.
Lechonera La Ranchera A showcase for masterful lechón asado (served on weekends). Km 5, Rte. 173, en route to Aguas Buenas; 787/789-4706; dinner for two $20.
Marmalade Lively spot on Old San Juan’s main drag. 317 Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan; 787/724-3969; dinner for two $80.
Pikayo Wilo Benet’s formal flagship in the Conrad Condado Plaza. 999 Avda. Ashford, Condado, San Juan; 787/721-6194; dinner for two $98.
Piñones kiosks Deep-fried heaven—if you find alcapurrias being made fresh. Rte. 187, just east of Isla Verde, San Juan.