At This San Juan Restaurant, Connection and Community Are on the Menu

Dinner at Carlos Portela's Orujo is a delicious antidote to years of distanced dining

How Puerto Rican chef Carlos Portela is bringing back connection and community at San Juan's Orujo

Rafael Ruiz Mederos

When restaurants began to reopen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after lockdown, I knew immediately where I wanted to dine. The fondas could wait, I told my island-bred husband. I needed to go to Orujo, in the Miramar neighborhood, because I knew it would deliver more than just a meal. At Orujo, we would receive a rare kind of comfort, a form of holistic hospitality especially uncommon during pandemic times. We knew we would have a rare, deeply personal experience of connection with the food,  the chef, the staff and fellow diners.

Chef Carlos Portela greeted us at the door of the unassuming entrance to a small, former ice warehouse on busy Avenida Ponce de Leon. He led us up a few steps and drew back a curtain to reveal the 20-seat dining room. Colorful abstracts decorated the walls, while a tall cabinet on the side was stocked with craft dinnerware. Shelves upon shelves displayed cookbooks — everything from Escoffier to Mugaritz — and bins of vinyl records, from which diners are encouraged to pick favorites for the evening’s playlist. Puzzles and board games were stashed in nooks. An acoustic guitar leaned against a tapestry-covered buffet table, ready for strumming. Over the course of the evening, especially as the wine flowed, it wasn’t unusual if a diner decided to play a melody, toss on some vinyl, bide time between courses with a puzzle — extra frills of entertainment while enjoying the meal. Everything is intentionally placed to entertain and encourage engagement.

Portela disappeared after seating us and quickly returned with two glasses of Champagne. While welcoming us, he explained what we already knew, having dined at the restaurant before: We were in for a 15-to-20 course tasting menu highlighting island ingredients. We were welcome to go into the kitchen at any time to watch him and his colleagues prepare our dishes. But even while seated, we could still witness the kitchen action; the mise en place — itself a work of art — was projected on a screen on the opposite wall.

Despite white tablecloths, an elaborate tasting menu, and a wine list to rival any Michelin-starred restaurant, Orujo is anything but stuffy, precious, or anything normally used to describe fine dining. It’s decidedly bohemian, not bougie; it feels secret, while not being “clubby.” The experience of dining at Orujo is one of comfort, relaxation and above all, connection. Which is why it felt so special at that moment to dine in a space without plexiglass dividers or a six-foot buffer zone. To be invited into the kitchen at any time? Unheard of, even in pre-pandemic times. “Most places are like, ‘Do not enter! Employees only!,’” Portela says. “Why? It makes it feel like there’s something to hide.”

The open invitation to pop into the kitchen is just one way that sets Orujo apart from other restaurants. Portela’s intention with Orujo was to break standard restaurant conventions. There’s no menu, for example, and  dishes are often spontaneous. Portela, or one of his cooks, personally serve each course: the back of the house is also the front, closing the gap between diner and kitchen even more. Portela trains his staff to become more than cooks. “Everyone in my kitchen learns to be ready for any task, from prep to collaborating on creating a dish to pairing wines to dishwashing,” he says.

Opening up a dialogue with the diner allows the chefs to “read” tables throughout the night and adjust dishes accordingly. “From a diner’s behavior and how they are reacting to certain dishes, we can tell, for example, if maybe we should serve more courses in smaller portions,” Portela says. “Do they seem like they are in a rush? If so, we’ll serve less courses but larger portions.” As the chefs present dishes, explain ingredients, and pour wine, they note what diners are or are not eating with gusto. “I don’t have anything against the idea of front-of-the-house,” Portela says. “But throughout my career, I saw chefs put in the ‘hole,’ not tasting the wine, not talking with the diners. We want to be inspired by the people and the dynamics in the dining room.” The system also allows for a productive timeline for the evening. “We don’t want people to wait too long between courses, and setting up a dish, cooking, plating, garnishing is already a lot of steps and it’s more efficient not to wait for someone else to grab it and serve it.”

How Puerto Rican chef Carlos Portela is bringing back connection and community at San Juan's Orujo

Rafael Ruiz Mederos

Though Portela’s menu changes frequently, his dishes consistently serve one purpose: to tell the story of Puerto Rican cuisine. The presentations are unconventional, yet the flavors reflect the true essence of island cooking. “Puerto Rican food has been stereotyped,” he says. “Everyone thinks it’s just lechon or rice and beans or pasteles at Christmas. It’s much more than that. We are the oldest colony in the world, yet we are unrecognized as a world cuisine. I want to change that. I would love Europe to understand what a guanabana [soursop] is and how to use it.” His dishes showcase island staples such as yuca, calabaza (pumpkin), yautia (taniers) and gandules (pigeon peas) in creative presentations. A goat cheese and beet cracker amuse looked like a butterfly had flitted onto my plate; alcapurria fritters topped with Wagyu beef are lined up like bites of sushi on a lava rock; that tall wall cabinet serves as a veritable gallery of quirky pottery and antique dinnerware . He’s also currently cultivating farmland in the central west of the island with the goal of supplying the restaurant.

Portela’s “never say no” policy for purveyors fosters close-knit relationships while driving the ever-impromptu menu, which changes daily depending on availability of ingredients and the chef’s own whimsy. “I don’t order four pounds of carrots,” he says. “We use what we get. It’s like collecting alchemy.”

A supportive community makes Orujo feel like the “gastronomic hub” Portela set out to create, and chefs, farmers, wine merchants are apt to be patrons. (Another esteemed local chef, Gabriel Hernandez, first brought Carlos to my attention).  Named after the Spanish liqueur made from wine remnants, the restaurant first opened in 2014 in Portela’s hometown of Caguas, a city in the central mountains about 30 minutes south of San Juan. Though off-the-beaten-path, Orujo quietly developed a cult following, becoming an industry hangout. In 2021 Portela moved Orujo to the capital. 

In spite of his iconoclastic leanings, Portela learned the rules so he could shatter them. He followed a traditional culinary career path, studying at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, then working in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Spain and at various restaurants across the states and Puerto Rico. “I worked in every type of restaurant, from Hawaiian to French, dropping in and doing my best and learning as much as I could,” he says of his training. His command of wine is what ingratiated him to the local wine society when he first opened Orujo. “They trusted us with splendid wines and collections that on my own I might not have tasted.” The list, and his pairings, are as extemporaneous and engaging as the food.

Portela doesn’t have a signature dish, and what may cross a diner’s plate on one visit may never again, at least not in the exact same form. “We don’t standardize anything,” he points out, stressing the a la minute nature of, and improvisational style, of his cooking. Diners may encounter Mallorca bread waffles with seti, a tiny fish from the northern coast; a deep, rich cabrito (goat) stew with sweet potato, sausage and crunchy root vegetable shreds; mahi mahi with pistachio, cabbage and coconut; or chocolates, hollowed and filled with pitorro, the local moonshine. Each dish is put together in what he describes as a “guerilla” approach, which is unsurprising, as Portela — as comfortable in camo as chef’s whites — resembles a tall, lean Che Guevara. Incidentally, Portela says that the Orujo model is based on the paladares of Cuba, with its underground vibe, dependence on product availability, personalized service, and a no-waste conviction. 

Orujo adds a sense of community to San Juan’s dining scene that is unparalleled on the island, and frankly, most anywhere. It’s Portela’s engagement with diners that promotes an extraordinary energy in the room, one that makes every table in the house feel communal. We started as a party of two that night, but found ourselves chatting with people at nearby tables about the music, art, and of course, the food. After seeing us connect with the others, Portela introduced us to each other. Soon we were moving our chairs to make space at our table for others. By the end of the evening, we were a party of six, having picked up new friends over the course of the meal.

“That happens every single night,” Portela says proudly. “It’s always like Six Degrees of Separation in here. People always find things in common, whether it’s knowing the same people or discussing a wine. My job is to transfer that energy — the energy of the farmer or the fisherman or the winemaker goes from them to me to everyone in the dining room. I’m just the messenger.”

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