Alicia Kennedy, Food & Drink Writer

old blog

the time i went to san juan to eat, drink, and write

I went to San Juan last week. I got in at 5 a.m. on Monday morning after a delayed flight, and left on Wednesday evening. In between, I had a ridiculous time. 

My first stop on Monday was El Departamento de La Comida in the Tres Talleres neighborhood. It is a grocer, CSA, café, and more. I was there to experience the kitchen's prep day and to interview the owner, Tara, and the chef, Paxx. I wrote a profile of Paxx for Munchies that they published last week: "This Trans Chef Is Putting Rock ‘n’ Roll into Puerto Rican Cuisine." There are a few things not in there that I wish I might've said, like how the plating is both pristine and inviting, and I think that's kind of rare. You look at those plates and appraise them aesthetically, but they still look and are hearty and homey. I think when you're doing fine dining for the audience they're doing it for, this is an important balance. 

El Departamento is an amazing model that should be replicated EVERYWHERE. They get produce from farms across Puerto Rico, and even if one farmer is selling something more cheaply, they purchase from each. They've been open since 2010 and serving food for three, inspired by the social media response to pictures of meals cooked with their produce. They're hoping to do an RSA—restaurant-supported agriculture. In the café space, they are, in general, breaking farm-to-table out of its fancy mold, making it accessible. This is, like, mind-blowingly important work, and that's why I pitched this profile. It was humbling to get the opportunity to be there and experience it so fully. 

After I left, I went back to my hotel—Dreamcatcher Guest House, a beautiful place with anxiety-inducing outdoor showers—to get myself cleaned up to go out in Old San Juan to drink piña coladas. This sounds rather dreamy, and when I got the assignment, I was very excited, but because I got in so early and hadn't really had a full night's sleep for days, I was a bit pissed off that I had to go do this. WHAT AN ASSHOLE I WAS, because it ended up being one of the most fun nights I have ever had, precisely because I had this silly assignment to talk to everyone about. My piece about the night, which I wrote like seven hours after I got back to the hotel while hungover, is here: "I Searched for the Last Great Piña Colada in Puerto Rico"

It's likely obvious that I spent the most time at the fabulous cocktail bar La Factoria, with some of the best bartenders I've ever met—all of whom have the bar's logo tattooed on them, such is the extent of their dedication to it. There, I had four cocktails and a shot, plus dinner, over five hours. I talked to tourists and locals about their views on the piña colada, and more. I got so drunk that I spoke Spanish to the cab driver whom I had drive me to the Caribe Hilton, wait for me, and then drive me back to the hotel. (When, in the article, I say that I ran from the fireman, I mean it. I literally ran out of the bar and back to the cab, flailing, apologizing to the driver for only speaking in the present tense.)

The guys at La Factoria talked a lot, giving me much more than I could've put in the article, about the piña colada being the foundation of cocktail culture in Puerto Rico, and how you can update it with absinthe or amaro. Carlos made me a beautiful daiquiri, as well as something called the PELIGROSO that lived up to its name. He called the daiquiri "the Negroni of the Caribbean" and likened sitting at the bar to seeing a concert: "When you see a band, you've got to get up close." When a fellow bargoer challenged him to remember everyone's names, he went down the bar naming everyone's drinks. The Beauty and the Beet that I was served initially there was truly the first time I have ever enjoyed mezcal. Now I want to not fear its smokiness. It was very, very fun; I learned a lot; and I want to go back.

On Tuesday, after spending the morning writing, I went back to El Departamento to experience lunch service. The kitchen was hot as hell, and they kept feeding me. I was, pretty much, the happiest, sweatiest person alive. Afterwards, as I wrote in the piece, I biked with Paxx to Río Piedras and ate an amazing, very unexpected falafel at a concert venue. After getting back to the hotel that night, I passed out and slept for about 12 hours, then got up and wrote the entirety of that piece.

Being able to do awesome shit, then write about it in peace, was an actual dream come true.

But I do feel all complicated about shit. Puerto Rico is experiencing a drought and the governor just announced it can't repay any of its debts and it's a fucking colony that the U.S. ignores and unemployment is ridiculously high. A woman who brought acerola from her yard to El Departamento on prep day said she didn't have enough money to eat the food there. And I was there to write about food and fucking piña coladas. What I wanted to do in pitching the piece on Paxx was bring attention to someone who's dedicated themselves to cooking local, organic produce even when their country is hostile to their very body. And in the piña colada piece, I hope I inspire someone who's going to be hanging out in Old San Juan to go to an amazing fucking bar staffed by people who really know what they're doing.

Anyway, I can't communicate how great it felt to be doing what I want to be doing, even briefly. There are more pictures if you mouse over "Fotos" in the menu.

P.S. Last Friday, the Awl published my Club-Mate explainer: "The Other Red Bull." And here are photos of and thoughts on the Coney Island Mermaid Parade for Coco Rave Swimwear.