Flavor bulletins from Puerto Rican places, plus Lokal love.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Forgive the coroner his surprise when he opens my chest cavity—where he expected to find an aortic organ, he discovers a small open-air roadside shack filled with Puerto Ricans instead.
But that’s my heart.
I found it along a skinny, twisting “highway” in a mountain rainforest belonging to the oldest and most remote part of the United States, somewhere between San Juan and Rincón, Puerto Rico.
Fittingly enough, the boss of the tiny corrugated tin joint Los Gorditos on the side of the road calls customers corazón.
The alcapurrias she serves, piping hot savory pies packed with seasoned ground beef and potatoes ensconced in a shell beautifully gooey on the inside and crispy on the outside, are best eaten standing up, though two families who squeezed in pull up rickety chairs. It’s as cheap as it is tasty: Two pies and a Cuba libre in a small plastic cup run $4.50. But it’s the piqué, electric-orange homemade hot sauce, that is the life-giving blood pumping through this heart.
As quick as its creator is with a smile and a “mi amor,” she is quicker with a cackling refusal when asked for the recipe.
The reaction becomes more common as I fall deeper in love with its vinegar-and-pepper personality, which is almost invariably delivered in bottles whose original contents were something other than hot sauce. The first comes after I have the cabbie take me directly from the San Juan airport to a working-class area called La Placita to linger in the open-air cantinas. After I soak my $2 wand of crab and shrimp with piqué from a glass flask, a deep golden 50-something behind the counter demurs, then volunteers a single word: “oregano.”
Only there’s far more than oregano. After rejections as regular as March’s record Puerto Rican rains, I discover the secret isn’t a ruthless local pepper, or even the process of boiling pineapple husks for the base, though those contribute mightily dynamic renditions, as I learned from local cook-truck driver-man-about-town Martin Figueroa and his wife Wilma in the beach town of La Parguera, as we nibbled lobster empanadillas.
“Eat the insides, then boil the skin of a pineapple until the water turns yellow,” he says. High heat works best. Then in go sliced caballero peppers, garlic, pico de paloma peppers, olive oil, pepper and salt.
The only thing missing is a little natural magic.
But I wasn’t really ready to hear it. I was mourning the fact that we can’t get caballeros and pico de palomas in California. But Generoso DeLillo Guido Garcia Rosado, a restaurant owner who made me the best Cuban sandwich south of Havana, makes piqué by blending jalapeños, allspice, cayenne and vinegar.
He applies the same secret finish, an equal-opportunity ingredient central to the Caribbean lifestyle but also abundantly available in the Golden State: sun. Garcia Rosado recommends five to 10 days, to taste. Same for Wilma Figueroa.
“Put it all in an [empty] bottle for the rum,” she says. “Then put it on the roof… and use it whenever you like the taste.”
There are other authentic P.R. edibles that earn affection. The mofongo’s rich medley of crushed green plantains mashed together like San Juan traffic with succulent grilled churrascaria-style beef, chicharrones and/or shrimp is a habit-forming experience. The twice-fried pasteles, plantain pancakes buttressed by everything from octopus to pork, provide more Caribbean comfort. But piqué carries all the pride of traditional dishes and goes with everything and appears everywhere there is an appetite.
It also works as a functional metaphor for Puerto Rico and its people. It’s easy and approachable. Vibrant and colorful. Decidedly tropical yet as versatile as the territory’s varied topography. A bright orange splash of sunshine, usually accompanied by a smile and some salsa music, but rarely any sort of recipe.
Lokal in Carmel Valley (659-5886) has done the impossible. No, not having a “pop-up” restaurant in its own permanent space, but surviving surprise after surprise headache to set an opening date. It’s been a fight even former Ultimate Fighting veteran/chef Brendan Jones can appreciate. They are hoping to open next week – and while I know reports have promised similar returns before – fingers crossed, this hope has real hope.
• Keeping with the traveling theme, suddenly reigning King of Local Food and Best Chef on Earth René Redzepi of Copehagen’s Noma is thrilled with the Nordic ants he’s discovered and dished up – “They have a completely exotic flavor, very floral,” he tells Time. “One day every fine-dining restaurant will be serving them.” My Weekly desk pet Walter Whitman Wong II loves his diet of baby crickets too, but it’s chapulines they’re serving at trendy downtown San Jose spot Mezcal (408-283-9595). Their take on the Mexican tradition of fried grasshoppers were a bit of a jolt: They’re far bulkier and fishier than the lighter Oaxacan version.
• Now-former C Restaurant + Bar GM Sonny Peterson is leaving after four years, which isn’t earth-rattling news, but the fact that he’s just moving about a mile away is interesting. He’s heading over to Jacks, which has been doing a bang-up job greening its menu, and where his fine tuning will better leverage Jason Gile’s worthy food.
• More road notes: Santa Cruz taste sensation Cellar Door (425-6771), the neighbor to Bonny Doon’s tasting room (425-6737), is as beautiful a high-ceiling space as it is a deliciously fresh restaurant. Last visit, a flight of exciting whites, tender grilled octopus, padrón peppers and tea-braised Happy Boy beets barely hit $50. Look for a name change: Cellar Door becomes Le Cigare Volante (a nod to the brand’s iconic wine name) and brings on a new chef April 1.
• “Every home cook in America,” writes food author Josh Ozersky, “should own a cast-iron pan.” As they say in Catholic countries like Puerto Rico, Amen.