Mofongo and the Fight for Food in Puerto Rico
Mi Casa by José Andrés, Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Late Saturday afternoon we traveled outside of San Juan to Dorado. A sign on the way should have said "Welcome to Paradise." The restaurant and surrounding resort were both quite impressive. It's located right on the beach. Our timing couldn't have been any better, as we were able to watch the sun set while dining at Mi Casa. While Mi Casa is famed Spanish chef José Andrés' masterpiece, down to the famed red chair and the shining meat carver, chef Victor Rosado is the executor of that vision. Chef Andrés has chosen very wisely as Mi Casa, by name chef Andrés' home, is in very good hands. Victor is a local Puerto Rican, and similar to the chefs at the press conference, he speaks with passion and delivers with execution. He shared his love for the island, his fellow chefs around the island, and how they are gradually reclaiming Puerto Rican food for what it is, not what it is perceived to be. In a playful style just like chef Andrés created, we walked around the menu sampling items and enjoying craft cocktails that featured fresh island flavors. As starters, we enjoyed chicken and béchamel fritters, and my personal favorite, maybe of the entire night, Cañarejal cheese and green papaya marmalade. I love starters and that cheese was a memorable bite. One that you dream about many months and thousands of miles away.
Another whimsical Andrés creation, executed to perfection by chef Rosado, is the "organized" caesar salad. Presented like a traditional sushi roll, this dish was romaine rolled in jicama with parmesan, avocado, anchovies, and an egg yolk; this dish was smart and amusing all at the same time. And last, but definitely not least, chef Rosado prepared a carne asada dish with fresh mushrooms, and a gritty corn concoction that tasted like buttered popcorn. He went on to tell us that, no matter what accolades he may receive, it’s his grandmother who has truly mastered this dish, as she will be the first to tell him. Between chefs Correa and Rosado, the future of Puerto Rican cuisine is in fresh, young hands. And I'm left wondering how it's taken me this many years to experience Puerto Rico, when it's been right here and easily accessible this entire time.
Chicharrón, Placita de Santurce, San Juan. Saturday night we were treated to a special preview/launch party for chef Roberto Trevino's newest restaurant, Chicharrón. With countless restaurants under his belt, chef Trevino is affectionately known as the king of cuisine in Puerto Rico. Aside from having a few of San Juan's hottest spots, Trevino serves as a culinary ambassador for Puerto Rican food, a role that he does not take lightly. He works the room with grace; his contagious smile is warm and inviting. It's only fitting that I've seen Puerto Rico's past and future, that I'm now treated to a taste of the present. Chicharrón is a casual neighborhood restaurant located in the Placita de Santurce district of San Juan. The neighborhood is undergoing a revitalization. Numerous restaurants and bars have popped up in the area and it has quickly gained new life as a young and vibrant part of town. By sheer virtue of its name, Chicharrón is primed to be a favorite of mine. While some people love ham, or bacon, or the chop, I contend with great passion, that the best part of a pig is its skin. Fried crisp, glassy opaque in appearance, call it a pork rind, fried pig skin, or a chicharrón, call it Susie for all I care, I love it. The menu on this night was limited, but you can definitely tell that between the food, chef Trevino's culinary acumen, and the burgeoning neighborhood, that there will be a long line coming out of this place in no time. Trevino's attention to detail is impeccable, from the reclaimed wood walls, to the pantry pass and all the way down to the hand-poured cement step emblazoned with "Chicharrón."
Lechonera Los Pinos, Cayey. Sunday morning was something completely different. Sunday morning was about the journey for whole hog. We were traveling about an hour south of San Juan down a place called the "pork highway." The fabled Route 184, a winding mountain pass where these small mom-and-pop shops open up along the highway to sell food (read: pork), called lechoneras. The lechoneras are plentiful and continue up the mountain. The smell of roasting pig has permeated the air. Hundreds of locals gather on the mountain and feast on the whole roasted pigs. Whole hog on Sundays dates back well over 200 years in parts of the southern United States. Proteins were nowhere near as prolific or accessible as they currently exist in our modern life. Meat, of any kind, was a luxury people could not afford. An entire town would gather and they'd roast a whole hog. This became the foundation of what we know of as barbecue today. Parts of the Carolinas still embrace whole hog as the only true barbecue. The only thing I'm 100 percent certain of in life is that when an entire community wants to come together to cook a meal, I want to be there.
We stop at Lechonera Los Pinos. The glass countertop is welcoming as you can see the whole hog rotating on a spit, right there in front. As we wandered past other lechoneras it seemed to be a relatively common practice. The pig in the front window is their calling card. He invites people from off the street to come in and enjoy him. Los Pinos is no different. I went with some of the whole hog, of course. As well as some blood sausage and a little of their roasted turkey. The turkey was interesting because they're cooked in the pork drippings, just based on the way their spits are set up. So, the slow roasted turkey bears a strong taste resemblance to pork, but the texture is consistent with turkey.
The whole hog is tender and juicy, and they give you a big chunk of crispy skin. They have a handful of starchy sides that go along with the meat celebration. If you're coming to the area, you should arrive sooner rather than later. The lines start to get pretty long around midday lunchtime, and early into the evening they will stop serving. Because a single hog can feed dozens upon dozens of people, if it's near closing time, they're not going to start a new one. I don't know why you'd want to wait until the end of the day to visit anyways. The Pork Highway is a day-long excursion that shouldn't be missed. It's live music, little roadside shops, local bars where you can just pull up and take a break, and of course lechoneras.
Budatai Condado, San Juan. Sunday evening is time for one final meal in San Juan. This time we're at chef Trevino's Budatai in the Condado district of San Juan. The two-story restaurant is absolutely gorgeous. The first level has an impressive full glass wall that looks out over a massive city park in Condado. The second level is part restaurant, and part roof-like patio where you can feel like you're a part of the skyline. A well thought-out fine dining experience. The cuisine at Budatai can be described as Asian/Latin. Listening to Chef Trevino describe the dishes he's bringing out, you can tell there's a long-standing relationship that he has here. And come to find out, there actually is. Fifteen years ago Trevino opened up The Dragonfly in Old San Juan. The Dragonfly would serve as inspiration for what Budatai would become nearly 20 years later.
For starters, the pork dumpling guisados with shaved truffle are an absolutely can't miss. They absolutely melt in your mouth and are one of the best selling dishes on the menu. While tasting through the menu with chef Trevino, you see how smart and interesting he gets with his ingredients. Focusing mainly on local ingredients, Trevino then transforms those ingredients into an experience inspired from half across the world. The house kim chee was the perfect blend of fresh ingredients and a beautiful marriage of tastes. And while I'm still on starters, the seared octopus with Schezuan peppercorn sauce was spot on. I had octopus twice while in Puerto Rico, and I can confidently say both occasions involved some of the best octopus I've ever had. Trevino's duck fried rice and duck croquetas were both skillfully accomplished duck dishes that embraced the fatty texture of a duck breast. There's a reason why people are dying to dine at chef Trevino's restaurants. The concepts are smart. He's true to his ingredients. And you can still feel the love he has for his craft.
What started as a fun trip to a place I've never been turned into a near week-long love affair with Puerto Rican cuisine. The area is growing and defining its modern identity. Those changes are seen in the warm and inviting attitudes of the people, all the way down to the interesting crossroads of cuisine where they currently sit. How does tradition mix with progress? Ultimately, that's the next generation of Puerto Rican chefs challenge to accomplish. But if my experience with their love of fresh ingredients, and their passion for their country, food, and culture is any indicator, the people of Puerto Rico are in for a tasty ride. One that I'm definitely going to be checking in on regularly. And if you are a lover of food and adventure, Puerto Rico is just a puddle jump away!