2000s Archive

Puerto Rico

Originally Published March 2000
Alfredo Ayala, who has gone from San Juan to Robuchon and back, takes us on an insider’s tour of Puerto Rico.

Alfredo Ayala guns his burgundy Pathfinder along a seaside road just west of San Juan, his shoulders twitching to a fast merengue as teen heartthrob Manny Manuel blasts from the speakers. “Penas, y penas, y penas,” Ayala warbles lustily, turning with a mordant roll of his pale-gray eyes to give a synopsis of the song: “I’m full of sorrow because you left me.” Ayala, Puerto Rico’s premier chef and the father of its nueva cocina puertorriqueña, does not seem sorrowful in the least. After all, there’s Champagne on ice and a picnic stashed in the back. The sun has just broken through onto the wild green Atlantic. Hurricane Lenny may be churning toward the island, but there’s still time to indulge in a sacred Puerto Rican ritual, the Sunday drive.

Soaring coconut palms and fat sea grapes flash by outside, punctuating a raffish honky-tonk strip that is a bewilderment to the unpracticed eye. At scores of open-air kioscos, the snack stands that spring to life each weekend along Piñones Beach, flames leap and regulars cluster. You’d never know which stand to choose, but Ayala drives with a homing pigeon’s focus until he zigs left off Highway 187 at the yellow 10-kilometer marker and pulls into the sandy parking lot of a tumbledown aqua hut labeled Las Dos Palmas. Since he was a child he’s been coming here for alcapurrias, the fritters so loved by his countrymen, not to mention the Saturday-only delicacies of rice with land crab and beans with a pig’s trotter. In a flash he’s elbowing up to the serving window, greeting the owners, peering into ancient iron pots that bubble furiously over fires stoked by boards from defunct shipping pallets.

Soon he’s handing out napkin-wrapped alcapurrias, crisp, golden torpedoes of the grated tuber called yautía folded around oniony, garlicky land crab. Watching alcapurrias take form is almost as much fun as eating them. With a grace born of countless repetitions, owners Aida and Hilario spoon out the achiote-tinted yautía, spreading the peach-colored paste on broad almond leaves from nearby trees. They ribbon on the dark crab meat, fold the yautía-covered sides over the center, shape and sculpt, and finally slide the morsel off the slippery leaf into a seething potful of good old lard. “I don’t use lard at my restaurants, or at home, but it’s nice,” says Ayala, grinning devilishly.

And so it is. Extended families loll under the palms and salt pines—everyone from kids to smooching couples to mothers-in-law scarfing down the crackly, surprisingly delicate disks of salt cod called bacalaítos. Ayala is the most restless and driven of voluptuaries, always on to the next sensation, place, task, foodstuff, or party. After a swim along a near-deserted beach a little farther east on Highway 187, Ayala barrels on toward the African-spiced town of Loíza, his eyes sharpened for the island’s manifold roadside attractions—vivid tropical-fruit stands, vendors hawking homemade candies and calabash-gourd kitchenware, a guy with a wheelbarrow full of ready-to-drink coconuts sprouting straws. These last cost a buck each.

We cruise past Loíza’s swept dirt yards and a citizenry at play: camped on the sidewalks in lawn chairs, perched on curbside walls, schmoozing on the breezeways that are such a vital feature of island life. A few blocks south of Loíza’s prim central plaza, there’s a street party brewing. Outside El Alambique, a blue-and-white grocery store-cum-bar, conga drummers warm up for the Sunday rumba-fest that draws amateur singers to open mikes dangling from a balcony and ends with plena dancers spilling right into the road. There may be no better spot to knock back a couple of Medallas, the island’s good local lager.

Unless it’s the lively warren of open-air dance halls on the westward fringe of Piñones Beach. Ayala hangs the last right before the bridge back into San Juan’s Isla Verde neighborhood and—windows down—picks his dance spot by following the music. “There!” he crows, spotting an elderly couple, arms raised high and straight, slowly and subtly dancing a countrified Dominican perico ripiao. It’s three minutes from The Ritz-Carlton, but you could be on the moon.

Ayala rises early to check up on his two restaurants. Later, the urban Chayote will buzz with sophisticated San Juaneros. And the gorgeous Hyatt Dorado Beach Hotel (a Laurence Rockefeller legacy) would not be the tropical paradise it is without Ayala’s Su Casa, a moody old plantation house with some of the loveliest seaside-veranda tables in the Caribbean. Ayala’s centerpiece ingredients are impeccable, but the local action explodes on the sides. Snapper poised on a bed of calabaza, a pumpkinlike squash, leaps into focus with a vinaigrette that sparkles with the island’s lush citrus.

This is personal food that springs from a lifetime of experience, not from a culinary school or a finger held to the wind. As an industrial engineer, Ayala worked in Brazil, Kenya, and California before a friend goaded him into answering his kitchen calling. He cooked in Berkeley in the early 1980s and later apprenticed at—among other places—Robuchon in Paris with Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert, who remains a friend. These days, back home, Ayala ranks as an unfussed poet of island starches and tropical fruits, a bard of West Indies spices and subterranean funk.

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