A Puerto Rican Restaurant Legend

La Bombonera

Trawl the fairytale alleyways of this medieval walled city for treasure, and you’re likely to stumble upon a jewel-in-the-rough junk shop, a booming salsa club, or even Benicio Del Toro. But fail to visit La Bombonera, and you might as well leave empty-handed.

“It’s the most Puerto Rican place imaginable, the crossroads of our society,” says Ramón Olivencia Gayá, a 42-year-old neighborhood resident. “Locals, suburbanites, government officials, club kids, tourists—everyone comes to La Bombonera to eat.”

Established in 1902, just four years after the island was ceded to the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the restaurant is of the same vintage as modern-day Puerto Rico itself. This may explain why, while everyone who crosses the brown-and-white-tiled threshold receives a warm welcome, actually belonging is another matter. Olivencia Gayá estimates that he visits La Bombonera two to five times a week. “But I don’t qualify as a regular,” he laughs. “It takes half a century for that. Now la vieja over there”—he gestures to an octogenarian perched dreamily at one of the seventeen bright-orange counter stools—“she’s a regular.”

A typical Sunday morning finds a standing-room crowd of los viejos, young families fresh from Mass at the nearby Catedral de San Juan, and sunburned cruise-line passengers waiting patiently in the foyer of the unadorned dining room for their chance to order a tortilla con jamon y queso, cumin-laced rice with calamari, or deep-fried ham croquettes.

But no visit to La Bombonera would be complete without a serving of mallorcas, as iconic a snack as the beignets at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Deceptively simple, they consist of nothing more than a fresh, soft white roll from the bakery above the restaurant, served split, buttered, pressed in a grill pan, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Don’t forget to wash them down with a cup of café con leche from the stainless steel, pre-revolutionary Cuban coffee machine looming proudly from behind the counter like a Model-T Ford.

Some patrons are so besotted with their mallorcas that they time their visits with the work shifts of particular mallorca makers. For Rosa Elena Pérez Agosto, a 35-year-old lawyer who has been coming to La Bombonera since the age of three, the favorite is soft-spoken, blue-eyed Juan Ortíz Rosado, better known as Don Juan, who started at La Bombonera in 1958. “I was twenty when I came here, and I weighed ninety pounds soaking wet,” he reminisces, gesturing at his ample belly. “This is what fifty years of mallorcas will do to you.”

“I can’t tell you why Don Juan’s mallorcas are the best,” says Pérez Agosto. “They just are.” What’s his secret? Don Juan pauses. “Affection and love,” he says. That just may be the secret to La Bombonera, too.

La Bombonera 259 Calle San Francisco, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (787-722-0658)

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