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A Bottled-Up Treasure On Tabonuco

By J.A. del Rosario

December 5, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

If you are in Puerto Rico, you will never be far from a place where you can get rice and beans, steak and sweet plantains. But the same task becomes a little more difficult if you are looking for a good, reasonably priced, bottle of wine and a good rack of lamb. Three years ago, San Juan's young urbanites were having a hard time finding such a place. And then a little gourmet store, aptly named Bottles, opened in Guaynabo's Tabonuco Street.

Fast-forward to the present and you have one of the more popular casual spots in the city. A little hub where you can go in shorts to try a bottle of wine with friends, get a deli sandwich, do some wine and food shopping or play around with a lovable bulldog named Magnum.

Bottles' Guaynabo location is no accident. For years, the island's young, urban professionals were flocking to this small city outside the San Juan.

Developers supplied the growing demand with rows of apartment buildings and townhouses that still spread along the city's tree-lined avenues.

Especially in the 1990's, Guaynabo started to transform itself in the image of its young residents -- who have as strong a taste for local cuisine as for French wine and gourmet food.

The San Patricio shopping center transformed itself from a minor strip mall, anchored by a supermarket and a Walgreens drugstore, to an indoor shopping complex that has attracted several mid-range restaurants (like Romano's Macaroni Grill and Longhorn Steak House) as wel as the fast-food joints that usually sprout around shopping centers.

Despite its street designation, Tabonuco is a boulevard that curves past San Patricio. The street is lined intermittently by new office buildings and small shopping centers, and the box-like warehouse/office buildings that have survived the city's reinvention.

In the middle of this conflictive, architectural dialogue is Bottles. A small, unassuming building where the only sign of its popularity is the always-crowded parking lot.

Inside, Bottles is a little bit of everything for everyone. In the first room you have a deli counter where you can order cold and hot sandwiches on a variety of breads, a variety of meats, and an even greater variety of cheeses.

But if you are curious, just go up to the counter, order a sandwich and, just for fun, ask the counterperson what cheeses they offer. Most likely, they will rebuff the question for the sake of expediency.

"I think it is better if you tell me what you want, because we have a lot," is one answer commonly heard by first-timers.

First-timers are also surprised by Magnum, the owner's big, slow and lovable bulldog. On any day of the week, Magnum is bumbling around the entrance, pudging his round body around hoping to get some patron interested in a quiet game of fetch. He doesn't bark, he doesn't lick, he does not pull at your pants and he doesn't run between your legs. He just looks at you with Bambi eyes.

Of course, the patrons find the combination of doe eyes and short pudgy legs irresistible, and Magnum -- who is countlessly petted throughout the day by hundreds of foreign hands -- has to be the most people-friendly dog in the planet.

But the deli, and Magnum, are only the beginning. While you wait for your sandwich, a peek into the counter fridge will reveal fine cuts of lamb, salmon, and duck. For the those with limited culinary skills, but a sophisticated appetite, or those vacationing and looking for a quiet meal in their short-term rental, this is the perfect place to stock up on supplies.

Bottles also features several small aisles of some choice food items, like pastas and every sauce and paste you could imagine. Whether you are looking for bona-fide oriental chili sauce, or real curry paste, this is the place to go.

And if you want more, there is more. Since the beginning, Bottles' main attraction was its wine collection -- hence the name. And wine aficionados are still this places core constituency. It is not just about the wine, mind you. It is also the prices. At first, the idea must have been so simple that no one believed it had not been done before.

For years local wine buyers had two options, buy a good bottle of wine for a good price at a wine store operated by a local distributor and drink it at home; or go to a restaurant order a good meal and a decent bottle of wine for an outrageous price. The Bottles concept was to bring both things together. How about a wine store that could sell great wines at reasonable prices, and also give customers a place to enjoy the, well, the bottles!

This little snippet of brilliant entrepeneurship brings you to the back room, where the wine collection is laid out for perusing, choosing, and buying. No chairs here guys. As wine tasters know, all wine activities take place on your feet, so if you want to try one, pick a bottle and pick a barrel, literally. The tables in this room are wine barrels, so customers simply place their bottle on the table and a waiter soon appears with glasses and a bottle opener.

Order some appetizers to go with the wine, and you are set. The house favorite is the simplest, a plate of Spanish Serrano ham, and Spanish Manchego cheese. A plate that serves as veritable proof that we hold no grudge against our former conquerors.

Still not enough? All right, there is one more room -- and it has chairs.A few months ago Bottles started serving entrees. Remember all those great cuts of meat mentioned earlier in the column? They can cook them for you, or not cook them -- like the Ahi Tuna.

Sit down and look through a menu that features grilled salmon, rack of lamb, skirt steak, porterhouse, mackerel and on and on...with your favorite bottle of wine, of course.

After three years, this lone wine dealer on Tabonuco has managed to beat the system by creating what was once considered impossible: a restaurant with reasonably priced wine.

So come down, grab a barrel and raise your glass. And celebrate the fact that good taste and good prices don't have to be mutually exclusive.

5 Calle Tabonuco

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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