Miguel’s long beard moves wonderfully up and down as he smiles. “Ask me anything,” he says. “Anything at all.” Over the next two hours, I do just that. We talk about his island home of Puerto Rico, the people, the politics, the food. We speak of his two sons, one still here and one in Los Angeles pursuing a dream of working in video game animation. We talk about my travels, his travels, travel in general. It’s a tiny reminder of what life used to be like before the pandemic, before people were a reason for fear.
Miguel and I sit outside, a table and stools set up under a canopy at El Cuerito de la 15, a small restaurant – more a food stall – in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, close to the Museum of Contemporary Art and a Walmart that Miguel says has put most of the local businesses under. His brother Yan owns this place, and does the cooking. The specialty: lechon, beautiful roasted suckling pig, cooked slowly over hot coals since about five this morning. Cuerito, Miguel tells me, refers to the crispy skin of the pig. It smells amazing, but due to the humidity from last night’s rain, it will be a bit longer, past the joint’s 11am opening, for the lechon to be ready. A few other customers are here at opening like I am. Some choose to wait or to return; others part with roasted chicken, turning slowly on a spit over the fire. Yan chops it up with a cleaver, adding rice, morcilla – pork blood sausage that is one of the wonderful things in life – green plantain salad, beans, or any other side he made today. Those change daily.
The restaurant is open Friday through Sunday, from 11am until food runs out. Yesterday, I arrived around 1:15pm, securing the last plate of chicken – lechon was long gone – and vowing to return. Here I am.
Sundays at El Cuerito de la 15 are a family affair. Miguel and his wife, Mariela, sit in the shade. Miguel and Yan’s father, Miguel Sr., holds court, joking with customers, beaming with pride at his two sons, both business owners here in San Juan. His sister, Miguel and Yan’s aunt, makes homemade lemonade with sweet orange added, bringing cups to the family, and to me. As with everywhere else on the island so far, I am welcomed, made to feel at home and at ease. It’s a far cry from my life in Los Angeles.
Miguel Sr. approaches the table. His English, while not as good as Miguel’s, is good enough to explain a bottle of homemade coconut rum he holds. A generous pour follows. I sit back in the sun, flushed from the heat and the alcohol, sipping, talking. Happy.
A line forms at the front counter, as the main event gets pulled from the low outdoor oven, and I rush to join it. Miguel laughs, but I am not willing to miss out a second day in a row, especially not one on which I was on time. The aroma is smoky and sweet, the wonderful smell of beautifully rendered fatty skin and perfectly roasted meat. I order two plates, with sides of yellow rice and morcilla, so that I can take a second home with me for dinner. One is eaten in the sun, shared with an incredible family.
Yan’s exact recipe is a secret, differing slightly in both ingredients and preparation from the other lechoneras on the island. I taste – I think – garlic and brown sugar, but my palate isn’t sensitive enough to truly discern. What I do know: the crunch of the skin, the burst of juice at the bites of fattier parts, and the intense pork flavor of the leaner pork. Each piece brings a different experience. The morcilla has a slight spicy note to it. The rice is soft and seasoned with – you guessed it – pork. While yesterday’s chicken was great, this is what I was craving, a meal easily worth the 40 minute walk from my rented apartment in the Parque neighborhood, and an equally long and hot walk back. Each plate is a mere $13, a price almost insultingly small given the hours of work and love put in, but one set to remain affordable for the mainly local clientele. (Side note: you know a place is good when local uniformed police show up each day at opening to get food for their lunch on patrol.)
It occurs to me a couple hours later that this is exactly the sort of place Anthony Bourdain would have loved. Great food, strong booze, and a deep conversation about some fascinating topics. That thought pleases me immensely.
Meal finished, I bid farewell to the family. It is only day three of my time here in San Juan, but I know with certainty that this will be among the highlights. I gaze back at Miguel and Mariela, eating their Sunday lunch, at Yan hacking away at the delicious chicken and pork, and at Miguel Sr. joking with those who park on the side near his table that the prices are lower at the front counter (the front counter is the only place to get food). Here, over a perfect meal of roast pork and some sweet coconut rum, I had the perfect Puerto Rico experience.
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