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Wandering Chef: Chris Shepherd in Puerto Rico

When Chris Shepherd of Houston’s Underbelly restaurant was named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in America this year he didn’t realize that he would bond so strongly with his fellow award winners. Recently the 2013 best new chefs had a reunion in Puerto Rico, hosted by Jose Enrique, chef of the eponymous San Juan restaurant. “Jose Enrique had an idea that we should all get together and host a party that showcased the best of our talents and the best of Puerto Rico,” says Shepherd. “It was also an excuse to hang out in Puerto Rico for four days and it was a hell of a good time.”


Food & Wine’s best new chefs in America on the beach in Puerto Rico

It was Shepherd’s first trip to Puerto Rico. “I went in with a very non-judgmental attitude and was completely impressed by these people who just live for food,” he says. “It felt like going to a Hispanic country but without the hassle of going through customs or dealing with an exchange rate.” Shepherd was grateful to have Enrique as his local guide. “I feel like I was getting sent to tourist spots in Old San Juan that wouldn’t offend or scare people. The instinct is to send you to places that are so vanilla. But Jose took me to the places he and his family eat. We definitely got off the beaten path. I walked away from Puerto Rico wanting to go back,” he says. Here, Shepherd shares his most memorable meals.

2013WanderingChefNov12Yellowtail Snapper at Jose Enrique

Yellowtail snapper at Jose Enrique

Jose Enrique
“Of everything Jose Enrique planned for us in Puerto Rico, the one place I looked forward to the most was eating at his restaurant, Jose Enrique. I’d met him twice before—once in New York for the Food & Wine Best New Chefs photo shoot and then again at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen—so I knew he was a talented chef. But I wasn’t fully prepared for this dinner. Jose’s food showed us his Puerto Rico, and his talent is staggering. Jose’s blood sausage was one of my favorite dishes. He prepared it three ways: seared; stuffed inside a spring roll; and with Galician clams. But the standout dish of the night was the yellowtail snapper. The freshness and the way Jose butchered it made me want to cry. He butterfly cuts the snapper and cuts from the belly and takes the rib and spine out of the fish then folds it over so that the back fin is still on. Then he dusts the fish in cornmeal and fries it—the technique was just great. This was his signature dish and it was awesome. We ate here on the first night and I wish I had gone back at the end of the trip to eat again for perspective. He explained all of the dishes to us and I understood the concept and knew they were delicious, but then to go eat on the streets, food stalls and return to Jose’s I think you’d better appreciate what inspires his cooking.” 176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan, 787-725-3518, joseenriquepr.com

2013Nov12WanderingChefMofongo in Pinones


“I wanted to try traditional mofongo. This dish is such a part of Puerto Rican’s heritage. The people at our hotel sent me to a place in Old San Juan and I ordered mofongo and they served me a big bowl of fried plantains that had a funky taste. It was horrible. Within an hour and a half I get a phone call from Jose saying, ‘we’re picking you up and taking you to Pinones.’ I had no idea what that meant but I was game. We drove past the airport, past the fancy hotels, and across a bridge into the town of Pinones. This is where a lot of Dominicans live and where there’s really good food. You just saw shack after shack lining the water with open fires out front and big rondos of pork fat oil. Each shack had a window full of traditional fried foods and seafood cocktails and ceviche. Mofongo is Puerto Rico’s national dish—a plantain puree with stuffing in the middle. I tried a version here and it was absolutely delicious. I loved that I could ask for a coconut and a guy would just whack the top off and hand it to me with a straw. I heard that the area turns into a huge party on Friday and Saturday nights, with drinks, dancing and, of course, fried food.  When I come back to Puerto Rico, I’m definitely coming back here.”

Bodega Compostola
“This is a rad Spanish restaurant. I can see why this is Jose Enrique’s favorite restaurant in San Juan. Here, you get perfectly executed Spanish food. From the octopus carpaccio to the fideos (paella with angel hair pasta) to the pressed baby lamb, everything was beyond unbelievable. During the slave trade the Spanish came into the U.S. and passed through Puerto Rico so you see a lot of Spanish influence in the food. The baby lamb is one of the best things I’ve put in my mouth in a long time. The chef braised the baby lamb, then pressed it, and seared it so that it would just fall and flake apart. It was braised deliciousness. At the point that dish came out we were probably on our tenth course but not a single one of us left a bite on our plate. The restaurant had one of the finest Spanish wine collections that I’ve seen. The sommelier would say, ‘this producer only makes 20 cases of this wine and we have four of them.’ They had more Billecart-Salmon than I’ve ever seen. We have to wait forever to get that in Texas and they had cases of it. The highlight was the 2005 Dorado Alvarinho.” 106 Puerto Rico 37, San Juan, 787-724-6099, bodegascompostela.com

Pig Roast
“One night Jose and his family held a pig roast on the beach for us and I had never really had Puerto Rican-style pork. The skin was like glass. It was so crispy and delicious and the meat had so much flavor.”

2013Nov12WanderingChefLechonera Junior at the mercado

Lechonera Junior

Plaza del Mercado de Rio Piedras
“Every time I travel to a new city, I like to check out local markets—to see their products and, more importantly, eat out of their food stalls. We were definitely the only white folks at the market. I stopped at Lechonera Junior inside the Mercado where there was a long line, which is always a good sign. I ordered blood sausage (again), roasted pork, and boiled green bananas with a vinegary hot sauce. I really enjoyed the hot sauce in Puerto Rico, especially Jose Enrique’s. The pork was slow-cooked with a glassy, crunchy garlicky skin. I also stopped by a few other stalls to try fried meat pies and empanadas. The dough was amazing. Inside the market, there are men playing dominos, women shelling peas. It’s places like this where you really get a feel for the local flavor.” Paseo de Diego, Rio Piedras

Photos courtesy of Chris Shepherd