In Puerto Rico, chef Jose Enrique makes pineapple mojitos and garlicky pork shoulder to fuel San Juan’s nightlife.
Glazed Mackerel with Fried Eggplant and Mojo
Credit: © Con Poulos

In Puerto Rico, chef Jose Enrique makes pineapple mojitos and garlicky pork shoulder to fuel San Juan’s nightlife.

San Juan’s La Placita square is a low-key marketplace with a 100-year-old hall where vendors sell bananas, avocados and other Puerto Rican staples. But on Friday nights, the plaza transforms into a vast, exhilarating party with live music, DJs, crowds of gorgeous salsa dancers, and stands that sell beer and shrimp and octopus ceviche in clear plastic cups.

The party encompasses the entire square and the bars that surround it. One of the busiest spots is the pink stucco building facing the market, home to the restaurant Jose Enrique. People fill the porch; they may leave to dance, but they always return, waiting two to three hours for a table. The 60-seat spot often has 100 names on the wait list.

The man behind what might be the world’s most fun restaurant is Jose Enrique himself. At his restaurant, the F&W Best New Chef 2013 (the first ever from Puerto Rico) serves Latin American food that’s both vibrant and thoughtful. Enrique likes to enhance classic flavors; for instance, he’ll add sweet roasted tomatoes to the chimichurri served with grilled skirt steak. Eschewing paper menus (he thinks they’re boring), he scrawls dishes on white boards that are updated several times a night (“Sometimes hourly,” he says). If a fisherman comes in with beautiful mackerel in the middle of dinner, Enrique might glaze the fish with a citrus-ginger-chile mix. “Boom, it’s on the menu,” he says. The one item always on hand: his outstanding, rich hot sauce, made with confited chiles and tomatoes.

Food has always been important to Enrique’s family.

His grandparents are from Cuba, where they produced a pineapple soda that was the country’s most popular soft drink after Coke. After moving to Puerto Rico, they opened a restaurant, near to where Jose Enrique is now. “As a kid, we’d go to my grandmother Seyda Montes’s house and eat and drink. I was always jumping in, trying to help out,” he recalls.

Now Enrique is launching his first place outside San Juan, on the island of Vieques: El Blok, in the hotel of the same name, opens in late summer, with an emphasis on grilled dishes. He is confident the hotel restaurant will be as great as his flagship, where the party goes on until 4 a.m. Does he ever get up and dance? “No,” Enrique says. Then, “Well, yes. Sometimes.”

Jose Enrique, 176 Duffaut St., San Juan;