The friendly Texan ladies next to me at the hotel bar are happily at work on identical plates of chicken quesadillas and french fries. Other dining options on the 17 acres that comprise the Caribe Hilton include a Northern Italian restaurant, a Spanish tapas bar, a Chicago steak house, and a dining room serving everyone's favorite cuisine, International. All of which should be enough to satisfy any normal tourist down from the mainland, but it is my misfortune to be plagued by visions of life outside the Hilton compound. I happen to know that elsewhere in Puerto Rico, suckling pigs are turning slowly over burning charcoal, plantains are swaying in hot fat, vats of red beans are murmuring on back burners.
What I need is a local guide. Somebody island-born and Spanish-speaking who knows the difference between mofongo and mondongo, and can tell them apart at 50 paces. Somebody with a gut that billows proudly before him like the front grille of a PT Cruiser.
What I've got is a skinny French guy. I'm in Puerto Rico with Eric Ripert, the chef at one of New York's greatest and most expensive restaurants, Le Bernardin. Normally you won't hear me complaining about hanging out with a man whose idea of a grilled cheese sandwich involves smoked salmon and sevruga caviar. In Manhattan, Eric Ripert can do no wrong. But in San Juan?