Rest jose enrique santurce: Jose Enrique Condado restaurant
At Jose Enrique, the Essence of Puerto Rico Is on the Table
On a recent Friday afternoon, Jose Enrique barreled out the front door of his namesake San Juan restaurant and swung its wrought-iron gate shut with a decisive clang. He and his staff were in the throes of a hectic lunch service. I had planted myself on the building’s small porch to wait for a table. “Are you closing already?” I asked Enrique. “No,” he said. “But the place is packed and people have a long wait for a table. Why advertise that I’m open?”
From his staff’s reaction, this seemed like a strategy Enrique employed often. Customers came and went, and they invariably left the gate door ajar. Every time that happened, one of the servers, no matter how busy, would scurry to roll the iron bars back across the entrance. Would-be patrons milled about on the sidewalk, looking confused, murmuring in Spanish or English, still intent on getting inside. I watched the scene feeling like a game was unfolding where no one quite knew the rules.
Jose Enrique has become Puerto Rico’s most decorated chef — an emissary for the hearty, mingled foods of his fertile homeland
Then again, the boss has earned the right to operate by his own eccentric playbook. Since opening in 2007, Jose Enrique has become Puerto Rico’s most lauded restaurant, and the owner its most decorated chef — an emissary for the hearty, mingled foods of his fertile homeland.
There is no sign outside his come-as-you-are destination in the Santurce district (the same area where Enrique grew up), but there’s also no missing the building, a cottage spangled with Art Deco geometries and painted bright fuchsia. The precise, energized, and consistent cooking over my several visits made it clear why he’s won and sustained acclaim, and I understood his significance to San Juan’s dining scene (booming, it seems, despite Puerto Rico’s dire financial crisis) even more clearly after several days of intense eating throughout the city.
Jose Enrique exteriorBill Addison
When I wasn’t camped out at Jose Enrique, I was devoting my appetite to other restaurants serving Puerto Rican cuisine, both classic and modern. Lunch at institutions like La Casita Blanca and Café Manolín plunges you into the flavor pool of Puerto Rico’s comida criolla, a stew of Spanish, African, and indigenous cultures that’s been simmering for 500 years. They offer swift introductions to the island’s transformative ways with plantains — smashed and fried into crackling tostones, or mashed into garlicky mofongo laced with pork cracklings — and to staples such as carne frita (chunks of fried pork), picadillo criollo (spiced ground beef thrumming with olives, capers, tomatoes, and peppers), or steak with frizzled onions.
I’m partial to La Casita Blanca, which serves homier specialties like patitas con garbanzos (pig’s feet with chickpeas, a treatise in melting textures) and bacalao guisado, a thick soup of cod and vegetables.
Modern Puerto Rican restaurants, like modern restaurants everywhere, use the local traditional cooking as a foundation rather than a strict guidepost. La Cueva del Mar, a laid-back seafood hangout with several locations, throws buttery hunks of Caribbean spiny lobster over mofongo and makes a potato chip-like variation on tostones using breadfruit. They also serve a whole lot of Baja-style fish tacos.
At his stark-white minimalist compound in the beachside of community of Condado, local star chef Mario Pagán dips into 1990s-esque fusion territory: He busts out the wasabi and passion fruit to spiff-up spiny lobster spring rolls and goes old-school to gild local fish, adding truffle oil to mashed yuca and saucing the affair in a port and foie gras reduction. (By far my favorite dish at Mario Pagán Restaurant was the day’s beautifully down-to-earth special of arroz con pollo.)
La Jaquita Baya, a gem worth seeking out in the residential Miramar neighborhood, dials back the global influences: outliers like root vegetable gnocchi and mussels in coconut milk broth with green curry are outnumbered, happily, by more grounded pleasures, including grilled whole fish, a paella-like rice number glossed with pork sausage and aioli, and freshly squeezed juices (soursop, tamarind, and acerola, or Barbados cherry) that sing of the tropics.
Vaca fritaBill Addison
Fish frittersBill Addison
I don’t disdain culinary hybridization, in San Juan restaurants or elsewhere. Cross-cultural curiosity and experimentation can lead to higher planes of delicious creativity. But I did notice that the true-minded Puerto Rican dishes served in these restaurants were uniformly more satisfying than the ones that weren’t. It also spotlighted how purposefully the cooking at Jose Enrique eschews the hodgepodge tactic. If it’s sense of place you’re after, Enrique plants his flag squarely in the terrain of the island’s foodways. Since launching the restaurant a decade ago, his cuisine has only moved closer to its cocina—criolla roots.
If it’s sense of place you’re after, Enrique plants his flag squarely in the terrain of the island’s foodways
Now, if only Enrique would adopt a reservation system. To enjoy his flagship, you have to embrace the wait. It helps that the restaurant sits a block away from La Placita, a plaza anchored by the Mercado Santurce that serves as the neighborhood’s spiritual anchor. By day you can stroll the market, surveying stalls with kaleidoscopic displays of fruits and vegetables, perhaps while sipping a cloudy cup of cafe con leche.
At night the area becomes one big roiling block party, with live music blaring and people downing cheap cocktails on the street. It can easily take 90 minutes or more to snag a table at Jose Enrique during prime dinner hours. During one visit I showed up solo on a Thursday night around 7:30 p.m. A friend suggested I hang out at La Alcapurria Quemá, a snack shop that sits diagonal from the restaurant. I ordered a couple of alcapurrias, torpedo-shaped fritters stuffed with fillings like corned beef or salt cod, and a Medalla Light, one of Puerto Rico’s ubiquitous commercial beers. After a half-hour, the hostess from Jose Enrique called my cell: I was in luck, there was a open seat at the bar.
Several whiteboards were propped around the dining room, including a set behind the bar: They listed the menu, which changes daily. Entrees had spare descriptions: “Picadillo, rice, egg, plantain,” or “Pork chop, apio [celery], tomato fondue.” Appetizers were itemized with only a word or two: “salad,” “crab,” “fried pork.”
The bartender poured me a shot of locally distilled Don Q Gran Añejo — a blend of aged rums that was smooth and mellow — and prodded me to order the fried pork to begin. It was exceptional. The cooks first braised cubes of meat and then dunked them in clattering oil, and their fat was rendered in a way that they registered as creamy on the palate. The pork came jumbled among pieces of yuca, cooked to the point that they barely held together in starchy blocks. A shot of the restaurant’s hot sauce flared the flavors.
Crab salad in a plantain nestBill Addison
Enrique finds ways to repeat the protein-plus-starch pattern without becoming repetitive. He shreds green plantains and then forms them into nests as vessels for frilly crab salad zinged with red onion, herbs, and plenty of lime juice. One signature dish is the day’s catch (tiger grouper on my watch) cut into fillets, fried, and served over batata (white yam) mash with a citrusy mojo of avocado and papaya. Fish and fruit can make for odd mates, but the trilling note of lime juice helps to achieve tight harmonies.
Enrique’s family provides menu inspiration. He takes the cues for his vaca frita from his Cuban father, for instance, sautéing flank steak over searing heat and plating it with a tangle of nearly caramelized onions, with a sauce made from the meat’s reduced juices. Alongside the steak are two fat, oblong tostones, and mamposteao, a Puerto Rican staple of rice and beans; Enrique uses short-grain rice so the dish takes on a risotto-like creaminess. His is the kind of kitchen prowess that pleasantly messes with your head. Each bite transmits the soothing signals of home cooking. But if you stop to concentrate on the contrasts of the textures, the alchemy of the acids, and the meticulous temperatures of the meat and fish, you know you’re enjoying the efforts of a remarkable professional talent.
Like all the greats of his generation, Enrique espouses the local and seasonal. When he started the restaurant, he could reliably count on about five percent of his food coming from nearby farms and fishermen. The number of local ingredients now hovers around 75 percent. Enrique takes all these fine raw products and uses his skills to produce food that so clearly communicates the cultural essence of Puerto Rico. It isn’t grandma’s cooking. But grandma would recognize the soul of his carne frita — and his picadillo, and his silky version of the cinnamon-dusted coconut flan called tembleque — and smile with approval.
176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan, Puerto Rico, (787) 725-3518, joseenriquepr.com. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Menu changes daily; appetizers $8-$15, entrees $23-$50, desserts $9.
Bill Addison is Eater’s restaurant editor, roving the country uncovering America’s essential restaurants. Read all his columns in the archive.
When Hurricane Maria Took His Roof and Windows, Jose Enrique Started Cooking
If you happen to be in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, around 4 in the afternoon, stop by Jose Enrique’s restaurant. If you time it just right, there won’t be a line out the door, and the white board that serves as a menu won’t have eraser streaks that signal the kitchen’s run out of its best dishes.
Unmarked, bright pink, and smaller than a gas station lobby off a Midwest turnpike, his restaurant is that popular—but not at the expense of keeping that Puerto Rican spirit alive. People ask Enrique, «Wait, I can just sit down and be here for three hours talking shit and listening to music?» And he responds, «Yeah, you can! It’s cool!»
Enrique champions locally grown food. On a good day, his menu is made of 75 percent local produce and meat, «which is like the day you cry—holy shit, my menu’s almost all local—you’re bawling,» he says.
But the last half year has been as, Enrique says over and over, «tough.»
Tough is an understatement. First, there was Hurricane Irma, which brushed the island and left people without power and reliant on whatever food they’d stored. Then came Maria, a Category 5 storm that decimated Puerto Rico—buildings are still covered in tarps and communities are still without electricity and water almost eight months later. Maria took the roof and windows from Enrique’s restaurant. But he had gas to run a generator and power the kitchen. He made huge batches of hearty sancocho, a local soup with roots, tubers, and meat. He had pineapples, so he made pineapple and sesame seed salsa served over cod fritters.
«I called all my friends and family like, ‘Dude, stop by, I’ve got food. You can eat and take some home,'» he says. He invited the community in. Two days later, celebrity chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen called and announced he was coming down. He set up shop at Enrique’s and started marshaling chefs and volunteers to feed Puerto Rico.
«The next day it was like, oh shit, we just did 3,000 meals. The next day we did 7,ooo—all right—and then we did 14,000, and I’m like, what’s going on here? It just kept growing,» Enrique says.
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The operation grew to 20,000 meals a day, Enrique says; it outgrew the space in a week. Andrés moved out to a space better equipped to hold his team. Enrique got ready to reopen as a restaurant to get his and his employees’ lives back on track. Then, an hour before he opened his doors, the generator blew, and a 50-day stretch of powerlessness began.
Over daiquiris and Don Q Gold rum at his restaurant, seven months after the storm, Enrique told me about reopening the restaurant, serving local food, and why now’s the time to visit Puerto Rico.
Being closed for 50 days was enough to make him crazy.
You try and just do whatever you can as far as helping the community. If I’m a knee surgeon, maybe there’s just a couple knees. But right now, there’s people who really need food. It falls on me—I’m a cook, so I can help out. I was always trying to keep doing sancochos here, and trying to give out food to the community, but it was a tough 50 days. [When we opened] we pretty much just got drunk that whole day.
He thinks the government has done a «great job.»
We gotta remember, there’s still people without power. There’s still parts without. It’s heavy. On that side, I’m like, is the government working crazy? We’re in the Caribbean, we’re built for this. We might not be built to stand up to a blizzard, but we kinda know what a hurricane feels like, so we’re ready for it. But when you have a hurricane category five running right through you, it’s a big, big deal. Honestly, I think the government’s done a great job. I understand the people working here to make this better, they’ve done what they can in their power.
The percentage of local food on his menu plummeted after the storm.
After the hurricane obviously it went down to almost 0 percent. Right now, most of the fish is local, a lot of those salads are local. So I’m saying I’m at 25 percent, which is good.
He chooses his menu on the go every morning.
My fishermen usually call me. They’re like, «Hey, I just got in and I got 40 pounds of red snapper and I’ve got 20 pounds of lobster.» And I’m like, «I’ll take that, I’ll take that, I’ll take that.» And then from there, we’ll walk over to the market and check out what’s there. If you see a batch of fresh guavas, you’re like, okay, let me get the whole batch of guavas, and I’m doing a guava sauce. Obviously a lot has to do with the weather. If it’s cold out, I’m braising things, doing more stews, doing more ragus. If it’s sunny, then I’m doing things that are more room-temp, more salad-like, a lot more acid. It just turned gray, so I want a soup. I might have a hangover, that comes into play: Oh god, I have a hangover, I need fattier things today.
The best thing on his menu is whatever’s freshest.
It’s fairly simple. Get the product, try not to mess it up. I could have somebody run in right now with sardines, and I’ll put it straight on the menus. That’s my appetizer right now. The hottest thing on the menu is what just walked in the door. Put six sardines on the grill, put salt on them, put them on a plate, but some lemon juice and olive oil, goodbye. And honestly, it’s going to be the best thing on the menu. You cannot get better product. If this guy was riding on the water, grabbed those sardines, put them on ice, brought them over, gave them to me, what’s going to beat that?
Tourists are coming back to Puerto Rico.
They’ve been coming back. It’s been great. And you know what? They’re getting us. We’re lively. We’re here, we go through things, and it’s just part of life. We’re just going to try to get some fresh soursop juice, pour it over our dark rum, and listen to some music. That’s what we do.
«We’re here, we go through things, and it’s just part of life.»
He knows the best places to visit in Puerto Rico.
You have to do Old San Juan—the architecture is beautiful. You have to do Santurce, the market. It’s fun and it’s alive. You have so much art and so much music and so much food going around. I would say you have to go to El Yunque, and you have to drive to get to El Yunque from San Juan. You have to go through Loíza, Piñones, do that whole area where you have a lot of little stands of people making fried food. You stop there and you can grab a little snack on your way to pass through Rio Grande, which is beautiful, and El Yunque is right there. If you want to grab a little bit of surf, you can go to Rincon. Vieques is beautiful, Culebra is beautiful—the south of Puerto Rico is really nice.
The local food scene in Puerto Rico is «absurd.»
It’s absurd. Every month you have a new restaurant opening up, a new chef opening up, and the food is just getting good and good and good.
We’re doing more local food. I think at a point in time you’d see a lot of Italian, or you’d see people doing French. There’s a lot more love as far as just taking our local food and putting it out there. Whether Alfredo Alaya started it or even before, it’s grown to where: Come in our restaurant, it’s nice, and we’re doing local food. I love cooking Puerto Rican food. I feel like if I go to France, I want to eat French, and if I go to China, I want Chinese, and if I go to Puerto Rico I want to eat Puerto Rican.
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Sarah Rense is the Lifestyle Editor at Esquire, where she covers tech, food, drinks, home, and more.
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