José Enrique, chef-owner of José Enrique in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was just named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs (along with Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food in New York, Justin Cogley of Aubergine in Carmel and our own Michael Voltaggio of ink in WeHo, among others). When's the last time you've seen a chef in Puerto Rico on such a list?
I'm pretty sure the answer is never. And in my opinion, the award is richly deserved. After spending a few days in Puerto Rico in January, the touted new resort restaurants paled beside the vivid flavors, funk and sheer fun of José Enrique in the ragged neighborhood near the city's covered market on la Placita de Santurce. I would have eaten every meal there during my four-day stay, if I could have.
First of all, the restaurant has great cocktails, a sassy knowledgeable staff and food that makes you want to linger -- long -- at the table. In fact, the night I was there, table holders didn't budge, too busy dipping swordfish into his fire-breathing hot sauce, and savoring his amazing custardy veal brains, guinea hen fricasée or crispy fried yellowtail snapper with cooling papaya-avocado salsa. The menu of updated island dishes changes all the time, scrawled on a portable white board.
The restaurant celebrates the best of Puerto Rican products in a high-energy, extremely casual setting. Before coming home to the island, Enrique attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked at Café Centro in New York, Riche in New Orleans and elsewhere around the world.
A no-reservations policy means there's almost always a wait. The best strategy is to get there early (opening time is 6 p.m.) or late and grab a seat at the bar if you can. If not, leave your name and wander over to the streets around the placita. Live music leaks from bars with doors flung open. Locals sip beers and sway to the music in the streets. The scene is a great, joyous mix of ages and ethnicities, the street-smart mingling with sedate older couples. Palms sway in the tropical breeze. Life is good -- and no hulking cruise ship to block the view.
José Enrique, 176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan, Puerto Rico, (787) 725-3518.