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.