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February 20, 2004
Santurce's Loiza Street is one of those places everyone goes to, but nobody talks about. In fact, as far as city streets go, Loiza is a lot like that old Mickey Mouse sweatshirt hanging on the far corner of your closet; the one you put on when you need to feel extra comfortable and you are extra sure that nobody is watching.
The reason for this attitude is that for years Loiza St. existed in a sustained state of decay. Unlike its sister avenue McLeary Ave., which the affluent Ocean Park crowd turned into a strip full of eateries where sandwiches are slightly overpriced, and the clients feel comfortable in flip flops and swimsuits - Loiza's catered more to a community of immigrant workers that clustered around the residential area surrounding the street. Immigrant workers not being a government priority, Loiza gradually fell into a state of manageable disrepair and dilapidation.
Things remained that way until about 5 years ago, when urban sprawl started to have a positive effect on the street. Loiza's proximity to affluent neighborhoods like Ocean Park and Condado made it an accesible area for new businesses that catered to that clientele, but were in search of cheaper rent.
Today, the street is an interesting blend of local designer boutiques, good restaurants serving everything from local to Greek cuisine, vendors that still sell fruits and vegetables by the side of the road, and plenty of bars where the beer is very cheap and the jukeboxes are full of Dominican merengue and bachata music.
On the fashion trail, there is Harry Robles' boutique. Robles is one of Puerto Rico's top fashion designers, and most fashion experts agree that he is the island's top haute couture designer. His work (mainly formal wear for women) is famous for intricate hand stitching and sewing techniques he uses.
Robles's boutique has two display windows, which he often uses to have fun and liven up the street.
"Some of the stuff that I display on the window is not part of my collection," Robles explains. "I just do it for the window; to have some fun."
Among his fun window creations is a full evening dress made of compact discs strung together. Perfect for the Grammy's.
On the food front there is Bebo's Cafe, one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Bebo serves standard local cuisine (rice, beans,meat and plantains) at an accessible price, and the people know it - so practically at any time, any day of the week, you will find the place brimming with clients. Among the regular crowd are professors from the University of Puerto Rico, that go out of their way to make it out here, and even retired local basketball star Mario "Quijote" Morales (who has become the latest local celebrity to endorse Viagra).
One thing you must know about Bebo's is that the service is very inconsistent, so everytime you order an extra soda, you never know if your order will come extra promptly, or if it will vanish into thin air. The important thing is not to make a big fuss about it. The regulars don't mind the laid-back service, so calling attention to it is not advised. If you want to blend in, just roll with the punches and kindly remind the waitress that the soda you ordered three times has not made it to the table.
One place where the food is more expensive, but the service is definitely very good is Fleria, the local Greek restaurant. Fleria is a small eatery where you can get a nice simple dish of Greek food for a price range between $15 and $25 a plate. Unlike Bebo's, which has the ambience of a high school cafeteria with a large-screen TV, Fleria's is small and cozy -- a great place where couples can get some good food, good wine and nice conversation.
On the Italian front there is OP's, a restaurant located almost on the corner of Loiza St. and San Jorge Avenue. OP's has that classic New York Italian restaurant feel that makes you wonder if the characters from Mean Streets are gonna walk in at any moment with shiny suits and big pinky rings asking about the money they are owed.
When it comes to the pasta dishes, Op's is all right, but not great. The restaurant's strength lies in its pizza, which is the best in the neighborhood. Order any type that suits your fancy.
After you have checked out the dresses and eaten the food, it is time to take a stroll down the street and look for some of those fresh fruits and vegetables. The one thing to look for are peeled oranges, which sell for 25 cents. The street vendor will peel the fruit for you, and remove the top part, creating a hole perfectly fit for your mouth. To eat the orange you simply place your mouth in the hole and squeeze.
As you walk around the street, sucking on your orange, pay close attention to some of the clothing boutiques, where New York street fashion styles predominate. I am not talking Manhattan styles here, this is more of a Queens crowd. Extra wide-legged jeans for men, and very tight jeans with very revealing tops for women. A shopping tour in this neighborhood and you will be ready to be an extra in a rap video.
If the sun gets too hot, or the clothes too slinky, don't worry - there is an escape hatch, the beach is only two blocks away.
OP's Italian Restaurant
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: : email@example.com