Ask most food snobs, travel writers or true enthusiasts what some of the best restaurants in the world are and they will rattle off the usual suspects: The French Laundry (for its German-Singaporean-Chinese obsession with perfection); El Bulli (for, jeez… I don’t know what for… perhaps for Ferra Adria’s ability for stripping food of ‘deliciousness’ and simply making it ‘interesting’); to obscure but temples of perfection like Miami’s Michy’s, for its haute-take on classics or Verona’s La Trattoria di Giovanni (opposite the iconic arena) for its delectable salt cod spread and its perfect veal tortellini; but I differ with them. All of them. I love the Laundry, Michy’s and T.G. just as much as the next guy but my favorite restaurant in the world is one most of you… actually; none of you have ever been to. It’s not around anymore mind you, but most people never knew it even existed. It had no phone, to no reservations and had no name. Some may argue, the humble establishment does not count as a restaurant at all.
The word “restaurant,” according to the American heritage Dictionary, is simply a “place where food is served.” Modernly we may update that to include “…and to make a profit.” For us, the philosophers of food we place an added adverb into the equation, the notion of excellence. The same Dictionary thus defines ‘excellence’: “…anything becoming perfect or on a path to attain perfection.”
When talking about my notion of a restaurant or the “craft” (in this case cooking) I often quoted Charlie Trotter who said, loosely: that one should always strive for perfection, in everything one does all the time, because, while actual temporal perfection is impossible, you would be closer to it than anyone else, because most people “don’t even try.” “Excellence in all you do.” My favorite restaurant in the world is long gone but still very alive in my memories; I can smell it, feel it, hear it… it wasn’t in Miami, Tokyo, Paris or even Manhattan but it did embody excellence in its every shape and form.
My mother raised me single, in the sense that she worked and my new step-father did also.She dropped me off at my grandmother’s (paternal) front-stoop every morning, in an ordinary neighborhood, in Puerto Nuevo, Puerto Rico. New Port (its anglicized name) was a run-of-the mill “becoming too commercial” type of place, abuela (grandma), had a house she owned since the fifties and paid only “five-thousand dollars for… imagine that!” she reminded me constantly. Like a good devout Catholic home, Jesus hung on every wall like torches in a medieval castle, looking and peering onto its sinning inhabitants.
Weekends were quite special, every Friday afternoon my tía (aunt) Pepa and her sister tía Mariíta would drop by, these were legitimately aunts, but as the day progressed several other honorary aunts, stopped by. They were all jovial, caring, loving but one in particular stood out in my mind. Titi Mendoza was a round, thick, dark woman with the biggest breasts I had ever seen. She had a knack for pinching my cheeks and when she hugged me she suffocated me deep in her bosom (possibly cementing an ‘idea-fixée’ I suffer from to this day), but, as we say in the hood, it was all good.
The women kissed, hugged and said hello and my grandma would start making coffee. One of the various aunts would start setting the table while yet another cut the queso blanco (white farmer’s cheese) and another set-up a plate of Ritz crackers and candied papaya chunks. This was often my grandfather’s cue to leave the house for an afternoon stroll to escape the squawking about to begin, or simply take his hand-held radio to the back of the house outside and fall asleep on the hammock. The regal women drank their café con leche (creamy milky sweet coffee), nibbled on cheese and crackers and caught up. After my fill of candied papaya, coffee and crackers I normally retired to the couch until things got more exciting. Sometime at around four they would get up, clean and make their way to the garden. By garden I am being incredibly generous, Puerto Nuevo was a fully urbanized suburb and surrounded by houses on all side, the garden was merely patches of dirt in a cramped back yard… nevertheless my grandmother to me it was an enchanted place where my grandmother gathered nearly everything she needed to create culinary magic: oregano, culantro, limes, sour oranges, and gandules or pigeon peas. Once the weekly harvest was over, the huddled mass returned to the dining room where under the gaze and watchful eye of a green-robed Jesus, they began to pick, chop, and mix.
Sorrullos (center) flanked by Empanadillas (P.Rican 'empanadas')
As night came these ladies did nothing but work; my grandmother busied herself rolling fat cigar-shaped dumplings of cornmeal, surullos, stuffed with meat or cheese that were later fried (in lard, of course). Titi Mendoza busy shucking pigeon peas and making the cod-fritter, bacalaito, batter would spread the latest church gossip “El padre (the priest), well, Annita says she saw him, smoking at the liquor store buying some rum…” she would say, eyebrows raised as the rest of the women shook their heads in obvious disapproval. Titi Mariíta was my grandmother’s surullos-auxiliary while Titi Pepa shaped the taro and green banana fritters, alcapurrias. These are tricky, as the taro and green bananas are shredded and made into a runny and sticky batter which needs to handled just so in order to be shaped correctly. But these women were pros. Over the melodramatic background music of Latin soap-operas, the Caribbean breeze lazily blowing through the window-screens, and Jesus incessant gaze, no one broke so much as a sweat. The effortless mastery and efficiency of these ladies’ craft would surely make any white-robed television-show-famous-master-chef blush.
Sunday was the day that the cooking and prepping frenzy of the last two days finally bore fruit, almost literally. Sunday, like in all good ole Catholic centers, was Church-Day but Church was only part of it. The true miracle of the day was not on the altar, but what came after it: lunch. You see these aunts, along with several other of the church-women, ran the little cafeteria attached to the church where the pious Catholics of the local neighborhood congregation stuffed their newly-sanctified faces after mass, along with other locals who had picked-up on the event. This little Creole-outpost had no name; locals here simply called it “La Cafeteria.”
To me this was the heaven all those saints and the angels raved about—this after all these years, after formal culinary training, stints in the kitchens of Manhattan and Miami, and traveling the world eating at some of the planets culinary Meccas… that little dingy cafeteria was and is to me, to this very day, the “perfect restaurant”. The cafeteria was not much from the outside (in fact without the food it wasn’t much on the inside either); it was a plain white concrete box with an odd-cornflower-blue hedge. Inside on the right-hand side, were white scuffed linoleum counters, a cash register and a large rickety glass warmer case that kept the fritters nice and hot. Behind the counters amassed a team, a homegrown brigade that would have made Carême red with envy: busy, courteous, and perfectionists- every single one of them. Carême, however would have been baffled, no grill, salamander, flat-top, nothing… just big pots, with a whole lotta boiling fat.
Fried Puerto Rican Goodness...
The second you walked in the smell of various hand-crafted morsels frying in hot lard hit you right in the face, now, to most Americans this doesn’t seem very appealing, but to Hispanics, African Americans, and the odd-Filipino, a mere waft would have had them flat on the floor, face down, in their own drool. Where’s the excellence you say? It was in the small things. These ladies knew everyone, from behind the counter and over their large caldrons of bubbling fat they asked hungry patrons, most of them neighbors, about their families, their jobs, and their lives. When they ran out of a particular fritter that a certain person never got to taste, one of them ran-off to their house to fetch a morsel or two from the stash they had reserved for themselves and hand deliver it, piping hot, to the person who had asked for it. The money came in, fritters went out. My grandmother’s surrullos, glistening in the halls flickering fluorescent lights looked like fat golden fingers and were the craze of the joint. I certainly nearly made myself sick eating so many of them.
Ultimately the church band would set themselves up in a corner and music would begin to fill the joint soon followed by large gyrating bodies, many of them, still clutching their food in their hands. By four everyone dispersed and every so often the fryers were turned back on for someone who wanted a third or eighth serving of something, the ladies all too happy to oblige. This was not fine dining, it didn’t have to be, this was the energy a restaurant should have and what it can be, and yet, seldom is. Looking back at it now, that feeling, the intimacy, the kindness… that was excellence, excellence in its purest form. No one went home hungry, and between the orgy of dance and food, no one ever went home unhappy. This kitchen, these ladies, that caferiíta and that food, I’d throw unto any of those overrated chefs in cities like New York and Paris and say “this is perfection.”