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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.

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.

Alfredo Ayala’s Restaurants

Chayote, Hotel Olimpo Court, 603 Miramar Avenue, tel. 722-9385; Su Casa, Hyatt Dorado Beach Hotel, tel. 796-1234.

Other Places to Eat

El Picoteo, at Hotel El Convento, tel. 643-1597, may be the best place in San Juan for a drink and tapas. The bright tropical interiors of The Parrot Club, 363 Fortaleza Street, tel. 725-7370, match its vibrant Nueva Latina cuisine. Amadeus, 106 Calle San Sebastián, tel. 722-8635, has a lively bar area and a menu with everything from light sandwiches and salads to gourmet dinners. La Fonda del Jibarito, 280 Sol, tel. 725-8375, is housed in a replica of the street it sits on and serves up Puerto Rican food from a menu that changes every day. Across town, Ajili-Mójili, 1052 Ashford Avenue, tel. 725-9195, offers gourmet Puerto Rican food in a rustic plantation setting. Other noteworthy restaurants are The Caribbean Grill, at The Ritz-Carlton, tel. 253-1700, and the Palm Restaurant at El San Juan Hotel and Casino, tel. 791-1000. Also check out La Bombonera, 259 Calle San Francisco, tel. 722-0658; El Popular, 205 Capital (no phone); and Las Dos Palmas, Piñones Beach (no phone).


Gallery Nights provide a vibrant sampling of Puerto Rico’s artistic talents. More than 20 museums and galleries in Old San Juan hold art openings the first Tuesday of each month between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Several restaurants and nightspots also host openings, and the old city stays festive well into the evening. February through May and September through December, tel. 723-7080. San Juan’s fine arts center, located in Santurce, the heart of the city, is where the locals go for culture. There’s something happening almost every night at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, Ponce de León and De Diego avenues, tel. 725-7334 or 725-7338, from world-class opera to top-draw Spanish pop bands from around the world. El Alambique, Loíza (no phone).

What to See

The San Juan National Historic Site is composed of two fortresses dramatically perched at the northern edge of Old San Juan. El Morro has stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the rocky headland on which it sits, and the sloping grounds surrounding it are a giant park. Castillo San Cristóbal has fine views of Old San Juan and the modern capital that spreads out beyond it. Main entrances from Norzagaray Avenue; $2 admission for both forts; tel. 729-6960. The Museo de Las Américas, across from El Morro on Cuartel de Ballajá, tel. 724-5052, has a permanent folk-art collection and changing shows of Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Hispanic artists. If you’re traveling with kids, stop by Museo del Niño, 150 Cristo Street, tel. 722-3791, a children’s museum with a rooftop garden and mock petrified forest, interactive exhibits, and a great playroom for toddlers.

At the Santurce Marketplace, Duffaut and Canals streets and Ponce de León Street and Baldorioty de Castro Expressway, you can buy tropical fruits and vegetables, fresh fruit frappés, and booze, plus countless other articles, from spiritual potions and artifacts to electronics. All the restaurants have good- quality, reasonably priced food. Try to find a seat at El Pescador, 178 Dos Hermanos (no phone). At night, especially on weekends, crowds of people flock to the market to dance in the streets to the live bands playing in the different establishments. Rumba, 152 Calle San Sebastián, tel. 725-4407, in Old San Juan, is a good spot for live salsa and Caribbean music.

Out of Town

El Yunque, tel. 888-1880, the only tropical rain forest within the U.S. Forest Service, is an easy morning drive or bus tour from any of San Juan’s major hotels. You’ll see gushing waterfalls, cascading streams, and vegetation so lush it blots out the sun. Just across Highway 3 is palm-lined Luquillo Beach, protected by an ocean cove and corral reefs. There are showers, changing rooms, bathrooms, and a row of restaurants and bars that beat all day long with activity on sunny days and into the night. But between the cold beer and blaring salsa on the jukebox are some real culinary finds, with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Don’t miss the arepas at Monelly #55. Set on a bluff overlooking the intersection of the Caribbean and the Atlantic, with Moorish gardens and northern Italian architecture, El Conquistador, Las Croabas Road, tel. 863-1000, is as spectacular today as it was when Goldfinger was filmed in its circular casino. In the fishing village surrounding the resort are several worthy seafood establishments as well as La Fontanella, Las Croabas Road, 860-2480, a wonderful Italian restaurant (run by ex-Chicagoans), which features arancino, a Sicilian rice ball stuffed with meats and cheeses, chicken alla cacciatora, and fresh fish. —John Marino