Thursday, January 1, 2009

The view from San Juan

Being air-dropped today into Puerto Rico’s restaurant scene revealed a few interesting points about the trade’s situation back home. For one thing, operators here have worries yet to befall their mainland American cousins. Many eating places are also clearly ahead in the evolution of their bathrooms, specifically in giving patrons flush options instead of a single-strength wooosh!

And then there’s the mystery of why more restaurants in New York City, despite its huge Puerto Rican population, don’t feature a local specialty that is universally available here. Indeed, I had to come to the source to have my first taste of mofongo relleno.

It was my dinner tonight, a delight that capped a long day of checking out menus in a search of places that would be acceptable to all four ugly Americans in our posse. Along the way, we noticed that every establishment had a sign posted at its cash registers to trumpet what appears to be a new regulation. The notice, coming from the Department of Consumer Affairs, alerts patrons that places promoting a particular item can’t pull a bait and switch. If the restaurant says it has run out of the discounted item, management has to provide something similar at the same price, or issue a rain check. Violators could be fined up to $10,000.

I thought the requirement was a bit over-reaching until we settled on a place for dinner. One of the attractions was the inclusion on the menu of several vegetarian choices. But when we tried to order something from that section, we were told the place was out of it. Ditto for iced tea—and, in slapping contrast to today’s New York weather, it’s hot down here.

We also overheard the waiter telling the family at the next table that the macaroni and cheese listed as an option for kids was not available today. Hmmm. Curious. The family looked as if it was going to bail, even though the adults had cracked open their beers. But the parents settled on a plain pork chop as an alternative for the little girl in the party. Presumably that pork chop, even plain, cost considerably more than a kid-sized serving of mac and cheese.

But, of course, the place had plenty of mofongo—fried plantains mashed with spices, olive oil and pork, into which is mixed vegetables or a protein of your choice. You’d have an easier time finding mofongo in San Juan than you would hunting down a burger in New York. A mofongo with seafood can run into the mid-$20 range; one with chicken or pork is usually around $11.

It had the consistency of mashed potatoes that have set too long, though the texture was extremely comforting. And it was engagingly spiced—complex, but not overpowering or sheer heat.

The cubed chicken in my mofongo also yielded an interesting amalgamation of textures. A member of our party attested that it had the same consistency—and much the same taste—as stuffed derma.

It was one of the marvels uncovered in our explorations. But the other find might be more noteworthy for restaurateurs back home. Several times, we encountered toilets that I also saw during my visit to Italy in the spring. The johns featured two flush buttons—one positioned next to four raised dots, presumably for blind customers, and the other next to six. The presentation clearly conveyed that the number of dots was correlated to, um, volume. One was the flush of choice for purely liquid situations. The other—well, you get the picture.

The objective is obviously to use less water by matching the volume of the flush to the type of disposal, and hence the size of the job. It’s an idea that the U.S. industry has been slow to embrace. Mainland restaurateurs need to spend more time in San Juan bathrooms—especially when much of the Lower 48 is in the throes of a cold snap. And they should try the mofongo while they’re here.


tempchef said...

You've gotten my curiosity up with your description of mofongo. I'm straight off to the kitchen with recipe notes to give this a whirl.

Please allow me to add to your toilet observations with a reference to a "hand washing" toilet you can see on my blog of November 21st at

Peter Romeo said...

Here's the link to tempchef's blog post about a very interesting and unusual "green" toilet: