“It’s going to be two hours.”
The hostess looked up from her post, the ledge of a cement porch she was melting over like a clock in a Dali painting. It was nine at night in a working-class section of Santurce, the most densely populated barrio in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the damp pages on her clipboard were weeping in the humidity.
The news fell like a wrench to the stomach, but I waved off the wait as if it was an inconsequential insect, hoping my nonchalance would prove my worthiness of a table in this no-reservations restaurant. The gatekeeper returned a gaze as sympathetic as a spinal tap. “Maybe three hours.”
This is how it goes at Jose Enrique, the best restaurant in San Juan.
After relinquishing my phone number like a kid spilling pilfered candy from his pockets, I pressed into the lively hacienda, an unfussy arrangement of tables set beneath a pitched plank ceiling. In the back I found the L-shaped bar manned by wolfish bartenders who were built for charming tourists out of their tankinis. One passed me a Medalla, the Miller Lite of Puerto Rico, and I sucked it down and waited.
I saw some friends, made some new ones, had another beer, played a round of negotiate-the-barstool with a couple paying their check, counted the tables in the dining room, divided the number of tables by the people I counted waiting at the bar, had another beer, nabbed a few stray tostones (perfectly crisp and salty) off the counter, studied the chalkboard menu carried from table to table, cursed as a server drew a line through the whole fried fish, had another beer, had a chicaito, a sweet, dangerous rum-and-anisette shot whose name, a server giggled, is Spanish for “little fuck.”
This is how I became very drunk at the best restaurant in San Juan.
So drunk I forgot my phone was on silent and missed the hostess’s call – twice. Frantic as a parent just realizing they’d forgotten to pick their kid up from school, I scrambled out onto the porch into a night thick with stars and salt and salsa music blaring from the nearby cinderblock discos. The hostess was gone, baby. Gone.
Something you should know about San Juan: It’s a city. A heaving, breathing, honest-to-goodness city.
If you like your Caribbean getaways sanitized, please adjust your blindfold for the ride from the airport. The four-lane expressway slings like a hammock between the main hotel zones of Isla Verde and Condado. The 40 neighborhoods that comprise Santurce, where most Sanjuaneros live, are full of treasures – La Casita Blanca, an institution of cocina criolla in Villa Palmeras, the lively Kasalta bakery in Ocean Park, a pair of gorgeous art museums (one classic, the other modern) in Miramar – but flying down the blacktop at 50 miles and hour makes it all look equally grim. Guidebook San Juan – that of glamorous hotels and pristine beaches, cobblestoned alleys and haciendas in Easter egg pastels – emerges like a mirage.
In the town’s halcyon days, starlets and playboys jetted to the resorts of Condado, and many of their favorite haunts are still here, freshly renovated and still crowding the whisper of shoreline like pretty, thirsty hippos. I like hippos. Especially when they feature airy balcony suites like La Concha, a resort that derives its name from its shell-shaped restaurant, Perla, an icon of the Tropical Modernism architectural movement. Outside, stacked pools spill down the beach, which connects to Ventana al Mar Park, an attractive puzzle of patio and lawn designed by Ponce-born urbanist, Andrés Mignucci. Jazz concerts take place at the park, and I fell asleep that night to the harmony of trumpets and frogs. The frogs are everywhere, but you can’t see them; only hear their mating call: ko-KEE… ko-KEE…. ko-KEE… echoes over the city like a lyrical metronome at night. Their trill gives them their nickname, coquí.
Back at the city proper, San Juan has become more vibrant mostly due to young, educated Puerto Ricans choosing to stay and open businesses like Old San Juan’s charming Café Cuatro Sombras, where I spent the morning. The owner, Pablo Muñoz, brews artisanal coffee from beans grown on his family’s estate in the island’s mountainous interior. I sipped a cup of the luminous single-origin joe, while local ladies perched on the café’s barstools traded gossip and croissants.
It can be hard to find a vegetable in Puerto Rico. For such a lush island, the farmers abandoned their land during the midcentury push for industrialization.
Chefs like Jose Enrique, the force behind the eponymous restaurant, are at the forefront of sustainable sourcing. So it was with great gusto that nearing 11:30 that memorable night, I ravaged his powerfully spicy pile of heirloom mustards grown by a nearby farmer and glossed with dazzling lemon vinaigrette.
Enrique grew up in Santurce, left for culinary school at the CIA, and cooked around New York and Europe before coming back to Puerto Rico to open the kind of special, personal, fun restaurant you don’t mind waiting for.
The meal that followed was the best I’d eaten all year. I had started with that salad which was more full of flavor than any salad ought to be and was so bright that it sobered me up like a lightening bolt. My alcapurrias cradled sweet crab salad. Blood sausage sizzled. Pan-fried veal brains were straight-up French with brown butter, lemon, and a texture like panna cotta. The nuggets of pork butt were straight-up Puerto Rico, nodding to lechoneras, mountain-side restaurants serving spit-roasted pig, and coming dressed in smoke over sour orange wood with lacy onions pickled in orange juice. A take on tembleque, a traditional dessert, showed some molecular knowhow with spherified cinnamon pearls beading a wave of aerated coconut pudding.
Jose Enrique was nominated for a James Beard Award that year.
Hours later, tucked into a minivan cab, I was about to slip into a food coma when the door slid open and a bearded dude poked his head inside. He shot the shit with the driver for a while, and I felt my East Coast defenses rally for a Manhattan-style cab-frontation. The guy turned to me and asked, as if he was looking for a recommendation, if I’d liked the restaurant.
I forgot I was annoyed, and the praised gushed forth. He thanked me, said goodnight and shut the door.
“Who was that guy?” I asked the driver.
“That was Jose Enrique.”
176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan, PR, 00907
Hours: Tuesday-Friday from 11:30 a.m.
Saturday from 6:30 p.m.
LA CASITA BLANCA
351 Calle Tapia, San Juan, PR, 00912
Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
1966 Calle McLeary, San Juan, PR, 00911
Monday-Sunday 6:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
1077 Ashford Avenue, San Juan, PR, 00907
1077 Ashford Avenue, San Juan, PR, 00907
Sunday-Thursday 6:00 p.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 6:00 p.m.-11 p.m.
CAFÉ CUATRO SOMBRAS
259 Calle Recinto Sur, San Juan, PR, 00901
Monday-Sunday 8:00 a.m.-5 p.m.