SAN JUAN, P.R. -- Walking into the Casita Blanca restaurant
is like walking into a country home, one with ceiling fans, bare
cement floors and live poultry -- in this case a turkey named
Gabino and a rooster known as Pancho -- roaming the indoor patio.
In this small restaurant in the working-class neighborhood
of Villa Palmeras, Jesús Pérez has created something
that is simple yet rare: a place where you can experience the
full scope of Puerto Rican cuisine, including the traditional
dishes that are usually not found outside a home, even here on
the island. Mr. Pérez cooks the recipes he learned from
his mother, Aurora Ruiz, dishes like pastelón, a sweet
plantain pie with layers of string beans and ground beef that
is baked like lasagna, and majarete, a creamy porridge made with
rice meal, coconut milk and cinnamon.
"I grew up in a poor house, in a slum, but every day
we had a banquet," Mr. Pérez said. "There was
always an open pot simmering on the stove for anyone who wanted
to drop in to eat."
This is food that is complex in flavor, not spicy, never hot,
but well seasoned, full bodied and like cooking nowhere else,
even though the ingredients are similar to other cuisines of
But the true character of Puerto Rico's cooking remains largely
a secret because it has been for the most part kept at home.
Serious restaurants serving Puerto Rican food are scarce in the
United States. More often, the best -- if limited -- examples
of Puerto Rican food in American cities like New York is found
in neighborhood fondas, lunch-counter type places like La Fonda
Boricua on 106th Street and Third Avenue in East Harlem (under
a sign reading Gina y George, its former name), where the food
is served in big heaps.
Some chefs explained this underrepresentation by noting that
the Puerto Rican clientele are hard to please because they often
find restaurant dishes lacking and expensive when compared with
what is served at the family table.
In New York, some chefs said, the nature of the Puerto Rican
migration -- one of constant travel back and forth between Puerto
Rico and the mainland -- makes restaurants less vital.
"A restaurant indicates nostalgia or not being able to
go to your country," said Alex Garcia, the executive chef
of Calle Ocho, a pan-Latin restaurant on the Upper West Side.
"And the reality is that even though there are many Puerto
Ricans here, Puerto Rico is very accessible to them."
When Puerto Ricans crave their food, they think beyond the
tostones and fritters, the rice and beans, the roast pork shoulder
and other staples commonly associated with their cuisine. Instead,
one might think of a serenata, a salad of dried codfish and boiled
root vegetables like yautía, ñame, malanga, green
bananas and yuca, in a peppery lime vinaigrette. Or salmorejo
de jueyes, sautéed crab meat with the intense taste of
the island's small native crabs, which are increasingly hard
to find as they lose their habitat to new development. Or pasteles,
the tamale-shaped packets made up of a paste of grated plantains,
pork, garbanzo beans, olives and raisins wrapped in plantain
Mr. Garcia, who was born in Cuba but spent part of his childhood
in Puerto Rico, found the restaurant business particularly difficult
on the island, where he closed a restaurant after only eight
"How do I sell an empanada for $10 if they can make it
better or find it elsewhere for $2?" Mr. Garcia asked.
But there are a few chefs who are taking Puerto Rican cuisine
into high-toned restaurants. At places like Pikayo in the Condado
tourist area of San Juan and Su Casa at the Hyatt Dorado Beach
in Dorado, a half-hour drive east of San Juan, chefs are reinterpreting
traditional recipes in the way so many other pan-Latin chefs
have in recent years. They offer fusion inventions like conch
egg roll, sautéed foie gras over candied plantains, and
grilled veal chops served with terrine of eggplants in tamarind
This new Puerto Rican cooking, called nueva cocina criolla,
is not unlike the dishes found in Manhattan restaurants like
Calle Ocho and Cuba Libre in Chelsea, except that it emphasizes
Puerto Rican flavors. At Pikayo, for example, Wilo Benet, the
chef and an owner, serves sushi tuna on arroz pegao, the crispy
layer of rice scraped from the bottom of the cast-iron pot that
some Puerto Ricans fight over at the end of the meal. It's a
surprising, delicious combination.
Like that of other Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries, Puerto
Rican cuisine has its roots in Spain and in influences that can
be traced to African slaves and the native Indians of the region.
But the food is different, island to island, and one key difference
is the mix and proportion of the herbs and spices used in stews
and rice dishes.
Cubans, for instance, are partial to cumin, and Dominicans
to oregano. In Puerto Rico, the indispensable ingredients are
cilantro and recao, a strong-smelling herb with long, spiky leaves
found there in backyards.
The essence of the cooking is the sofrito, a mixture of recao
and cilantro leaves, small sweet chili peppers, onions, green
peppers and garlic. Sautéed in corn or olive oil, it becomes
the foundation for most dishes, like chicken with rice, red beans
and asopao, a soupy rice stew made with chicken or shrimp.
So vital is the sofrito in Puerto Rican kitchens that cooks
-- using a blender to grind or, even better, mortar and pestle
to crush the ingredients -- make it in bulk and freeze it to
have it handy at any moment.
"You mix those ingredients up and it's like magic,"
Mr. Pérez said, bringing out a mortar whose aroma impregnated
the air at his restaurant like incense.
The other defining seasoning is adobo, a blend of salt, oregano,
peppercorn and garlic, all crushed by mortar and pestle with
olive oil and vinegar. So powerful is this seasoning that when
applied to turkey it can make it taste like pork. In Puerto Rico,
the term pavochón -- from pavo (turkey) and lechón
(pig) -- has been coined for turkey seasoned and roasted like
Despite such intense flavors, Puerto Rican food is never spicy.
(Puerto Ricans who want a stinging experience sprinkle their
dishes with pique, a water-based hot sauce that is homemade but
can also be bought at stores and some restaurants.) If anything,
there is a tendency toward sweet and salty combinations that
make heavy use of ripe plantains and sweet vegetables like pumpkin
and sweet potato.
Nueva cocina criolla can be traced to Alfredo Ayala, an industrial
engineer who in 1979 decided to make a career out of his cooking
hobby. His first restaurant, Ali Oli, opened in 1981 in a middle-class
neighborhood in Carolina, next door to San Juan, with a menu
rich in Puerto Rican produce and ingredients.
Mr. Ayala, who sold Ali Oli in 1988 and is now the chef and
owner of Su Casa, was heavily influenced by chefs in San Francisco,
where he lived during the rage over chefs like Alice Waters and
Jeremiah Tower and their emphasis on the French-style preparation
of local produce.
"They were discovering passion fruit and I'd say, I've
eaten passion fruit since childhood!" Mr. Ayala said.
In Puerto Rico, Mr. Ayala turned to homegrown ingredients
for his dishes -- things like squash, arugula, mango, pineapple
and swordfish caught off Puerto Rico's coast. While other restaurants
offered soup with canned asparagus or mushrooms, Mr. Ayala served
celery root soup. He started a revolution.
Mr. Ayala, however, dislikes the term "new cuisine."
"What's new about it?" he said. "What it has is
an actualization of the cuisine, but I'm not reinventing Puerto
Rican cuisine. I'm using very basic knowledge and combining it
with ideas from outside Puerto Rico, but I try to maintain the
basic roots pure."
Even old standards like mofongo, a garlicky mound of mashed
plantains filled with chunks of pork, shellfish and other meats,
can rise to the occasion. At Pikayo, a mofongo with shrimp is
$28. Asked what made his mofongo worth nearly double what most
others charge, Mr. Benet answered: "Five pieces of very
Mr. Benet, who worked as the chef for the governor of Puerto
Rico before opening Pikayo in 1990, heightens traditional dishes
by using the best ingredients possible. For his version of bistec
encebollado, an onion-smothered dish usually made with tenderized
top round, Mr. Benet uses beef tenderloin.
"There are things I like to invent, but I also like to
do the classics really well," he said. "My point of
departure is childhood -- what did your mother feed you?"
In my case, some of the best Puerto Rican food I have had. This
year, as a millennium gift, I gave my family a calendar filled
with recipes I grew up with, the traditional dishes that no one
had ever bothered to write down.
There is arroz con pollo de Dora (my mom, Dinorah E. Pérez,
enhances the flavor by boiling the chicken separately, then using
the broth to cook the rice), and las costi llitas con berenjena
de Mami Lucy, my 82-year-old aunt's country-style ribs with eggplant
fricassee. In Mami Lucy's creation, the meat is as tender as
the eggplant. My Titi Edda's arroz con gandules, or rice with
pigeon peas, is so fluffy and flavorful it can be eaten by itself.
Professional chefs bemoan the fact that many Puerto Ricans,
my relatives included, have grown accustomed to using artificial
flavors and seasonings as shortcuts to speed up cooking time.
But some also note that the talent found in private kitchens
is to blame for the scarcity of Puerto Rican restaurants.
"It has nothing to do with the food," Mr. Ayala
said. "It has to do with the mentality that I'd rather eat
at home because my mom or my grandmother makes the best beans."