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PUERTO RICO HERALD
San Turce A Weekly Homage to a Profane Patron Saint
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
May 30, 2003
This entry into the annals of excess started quietly enough. After all, how much damage can you do at a Plaza del Mercado? A nice little market square, anchored in the center by the market itself, an innocent place of healthy commerce, a cheerfully bustling old-style neighbourhood of mom and pop shops and apartments crammed above. But throw in a little live music, some sidewalk seating and a lot of cheap, strong drinks and my-oh-my every Friday is the Fourth of July. Oh my aching head.
The market in question is on Dos Hermanos Street in Santurce south of the Baldorioty de Castro Itake the Calle Canals exit) and north of Ponce de León. Built in 1898 and restored just a few years ago, the Bordeaux-painted building sports white frills on its exterior. The inside bustles with fruit and vegetable stands, where, when I lived in San Juan, I used to go on Saturday mornings for my kitchen supplies fragrant cilantro and culantro for sofrito (the sautéed herb and vegetable base of most Puerto Rican dishes), knobby, rough-peeled root vegetables like yuca and yautía, locally grown eggplant, the occasional breadfruit. The market is surrounded by shops: botánicas selling hope in the form of candles to the Seven African Potencies, Elegguá figures, prayer cards to the saints and oils to restore vigour, attract love or protect you from the evil eye; butcher shops with pink cuts of meat whose attractiveness varies widely, but which seem to do a brisk business; everything stores where you can still get enameled tin coffee mugs; record shops where Trío Los Panchos and Daniel Santos are still kings of the crooners; and some of San Juans best modest restaurants.
The market has always been a nifty little neighbourhood; my mother lived on the next street over -- Calle Duffaut -- and almost 50 years later she is still friends with her old neighbours. They remember it as a little rougher than it is now, but vibrant just the same. My mom walked to school at Sagrado Corazón and my grandmother walked to work at the Department of Public Health and my great-aunt walked to the plaza to get the fixings for dinner.
Admittedly, the old market had gone to seed a bit. But when current governor Sila María Calderón was mayor of San Juan, she put together a program to revitalize the market. A major renovation and a gazebo for live music on Fridays later, Santurces Plaza del Mercado has become the heartland of Viernes Social (Social Fridays), Puerto Ricos own original version of Happy Hour that somehow becomes wee hours before you know it.
We started with an early dinner at El Pescador (Dos Hermanos 178; 787-721-0995; open 11 am 6 pm Tuesday - Sunday). If you want dinner there and believe me, you do go early because they close the doors at 6 p.m. This clean, well-lighted place serves up extraordinarily fresh seafood in simple, classic (mostly) Spanish ways ensalada de mariscos (seafood vinaigrette), chillo frito (whole fried or broiled snapper), special from the west, caper sauces, zarzuelas (mixed seafood in tomato-based sauce), the list goes on and I dont know anyone not even my very fussy father who always requires a special no-fat-no-fry-no-salt order who has ever been disappointed. Ive given you the phone number, but dont bother trying to get reservations. They never take them and their excellent food is no secret to sanjuaneros. So give your group a lot of time, order a bottle of wine and some tapas from the bar and relax. There is outside seating as well. We often stake out a bench under the trees on the actual square to sip wine until were called.
If youre impatient or its after 6 pm, go next door to Don Tello for hearty, hearty criollo (local creole) food. They do a very good job and you can get to know the neighbours as photographic portraits of the friendly folks from the hood are proudly displayed along the back wall. Another advantage to Don Tello is that the kitchen is open at least to 8 pm. Restaurant El Popular is another dining option you may want to try, although their kitchen closes at 4 p.m. which makes it more of a late lunch. See issue vol. 17 no. 14 of this column for more coverage on that. But whatever you do, make sure you eat. The drinks fly strong and fast at the plaza and a full belly is the best defense if moderation escapes you, as it did us.
Because after 6 p.m. either the municipality closes the streets and sponsors music on the plaza, or individual businesses hire a band for the night. In minutes the streets are crawling with office workers from all over the area, clutching Cuba Libres and beers, eyeing the talent and shouting to be heard over the cacophony of several different bands floating music out from different businesses. The butcher shop yes, butcher shop across the street from Don Tello is one of my favourites. They cover up the meat displays with brown paper and sell drinks over the counter as the dancing spills out into the street.
Another good one is La Bodeguita del Medio (which bears little or no resemblance to Hemingways old Havana haunt) a little farther south on Dos Hermanos. On a recent Friday, a large gang of us descended upon it and found live bomba (one of Puerto Ricos percussion-based rhythms credited to African slaves) going on hot and heavy.
There are more venues to explore but many people only go inside to get another drink or use the bathroom. The streets where its at.
So, you no longer have to wait until a patron saints festival to get a good look at a Puerto Rican street party. Bacchus is celebrated every Friday (and increasingly on Thursdays) in Santurce.
Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at NataliaHerald@centennialpr.net.