2000s Archive

Puerto Rico

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To understand where he’s coming from, you have to prowl San Juan’s old Santurce market, a sunset-hued colonial pile within walking distance of Ayala’s Condado Beach bungalow. He sweeps through like a whirlwind, sniffing and pinching. The south door of the market is where he gets all the good stuff, from delicate apple bananas at his old friend Ivan Cuevas’s orderly stall to pungent island oregano and arcane nostrums from a nearby herb stand.

An ideal way to start a day is a tropical milkshake from El Coco de Luis. (Yes, there really is a Luis, and he’s San Juan’s blender king.) Absurdly ripe papaya goes into the mix, plus whatever other add-ins you want: vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, pineapple, banana. Squeaky white farmer cheese is on sale, to eat for breakfast or dessert with El Coco’s drop-dead tropical-fruit pastes: sour orange or guava, both wrapped in banana-leaf husks.

It would be pointless to settle for a hotel breakfast when you can put together an elegant Ayala classic of velvety papaya served with cubes of that rustic white cheese, finished off with a bracing squeeze from one of the little Key limes Ayala carries around in his pockets, just in case.

And when he lunches across the street at El Popular—a plain, comfortable market hangout where ceiling fans beat the sensual, sticky island air—it’s on a b.y.o.a. (bring-your-own-avocado) basis. As soon as Ayala’s favorite fried-chicken plate hits the table, he carves up one of the huge, buttery-textured, thin-skinned avocados he bought next door. It tastes just right with El Popular’s creamy red beans. Everything is eligible for a wee hit of the aromatic piqué sauce purchased from a stand opposite the market’s south entrance—a searing home brew to cart back to the States by the pint. “Use it every day!” commands Ayala. “On breakfast! On a sandwich!” He pauses. “Just don’t get it in your eyes.”

Back at his theatrically hued house, a half block from the sea that is starting to surge with ominous swells, he deposits his market goods on the kitchen table, automatically coaxing them into the kind of still life his well-honed eye demands. Puerto Rican fruits are refreshingly uncosmetic compared with their homogeneously groomed Stateside counterparts, but they have their own brand of beauty. And sex appeal.

“Tropical fruits are erotic,” says Ayala happily, rehearsing a stable of Caribbean papaya jokes (don’t ask). “Every part of the papaya is good,” he says with finality. He even blends the pearly-gray seeds into salad dressing for a peppery kick.

He rummages in the refrigerator to see what kind of a finger-banana dessert he can put together. Hurricane Lenny may be messing up our plans to visit the coast at Humacao, southeast of San Juan, where fishermen bring their catch right up to a seaside dive called Palmas del Mar and the fish is cooked on the spot. But Ayala does what puertorriqueños are so good at: He makes a party of it.

“I’m going to cook in case the electricity goes out,” he announces, putting on a fado CD and pouring glasses of homemade coconut-milk eggnog spiked with his favorite local rum, Barrilito Three Star. The finished bananas, alive with guava, orange zest, and balsamic vinegar, are the kind of happy accident that seems predestined. Rain beats insistently on the louvered kitchen windows. Outside, Alfredo’s coconut palms, full of fruit, toss in the rising gale.

Lenny storms by south of the island. Planes start taking off again. But a couple of last-minute destinations remain. Toward Arecibo, in the rural hamlet of Guayaney, we pay a call on octogenarian Francisco Rosario, whose mustache is frosted with sawdust. In a quirky studio heaped with blocks of tropical wood, Rosario hand-turns the handsome mortars and pestles (the island’s original blenders) that are essential to Ayala’s kitchen. A mortar made from the dense guayacán tree can add the weight of a bowling ball to your suitcase.

And it would be a sin to fly away without paying respects to La Bombonera, the wonderful old coffee shop with famously cranky old waiters. At the long counter, facing an antique, domed coffee machine, you can watch as the big local oranges called chinas are squeezed to order. “But,” says Ayala, “you only come here for one thing.” I have come to think of that one thing as one of the world’s great sandwiches: Ask for a mallorca (La Bombonera’s signature snail-shaped yeast roll smothered in powdered sugar) with ham, egg, and cheese. You will be presented with an eccentric combination of salty, sweet, and fried-egg frizzle, all pressed Cuban style and bound up with gooey orange cheese. Chased with strong café con leche, it makes for the kind of memory that is better than any souvenir.

San Juan and Beyond

The area code for Puerto Rico is 787. The currency in the self-governing commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the U.S. dollar.

Where to Stay

Hotel El Convento, 100 Cristo Street, tel. (800) 468-2779, 723-9020, fax 721-2877, is a former Carmelite nunnery (and later flophouse) built in 1636 and restored in 1997. All but one of its 58 rooms are on the secluded top three floors, with open terraces and a rooftop pool. The birth of Puerto Rican tourism is often dated to 1949 with the opening of The Caribe Hilton Hotel, Calle los Rosales, tel. 721-0303. It recently underwent a beautiful renovation (see Good Living, January2000). Other good bets are the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, 1309 Ashford Avenue, tel. 722-7000, fax 722-6800; El San Juan Hotel and Casino, 6063 Isla Verde Avenue, tel. 791-1000, fax 791-0390; and The Ritz-Carlton San Juan, 6961 State Road 187, tel. (800) 241-3333, 253-1700, fax 253-3232. A few miles east of the city is the elegant Hyatt Dorado Beach Hotel, Highway 693, Dorado, tel. (800) 233-1234, 796-1234.

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