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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.