Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Soup & Sandwich

Lunchtime in Puerto Rico sounds like this:

“Me das una medianoche.” (“I’ll have a midnight.”)

“Un Cubano, para llevar.” (“A Cuban to go.”)

“Nada, un bocadillo y un café.” (Eh, just a little bite and some coffe.”)

Like most things, when translated literally the above phrases become almost comical but if you’re a resident of Puerto Rico you’re probably really hungry after reading that list.

The rest of your order might sound like:

“También me das un Mondongo.”

“¿Tienen Caldo Gallego?”

“Y un sancochito.”

Mondongo, Caldo Gallego, and sancocho are Puerto Rico’s answer to broccoli cheddar, chicken noodle, and clam chowder. Except there’s nothing light about having a soup and sandwich for lunch in Puerto Rico.

There are some decent America-style places in San Juan—Camille’s, Saint-Germaine, Ponte Fresco, to name a few— where you can order fancy ingredients like sundried tomatoes and spinach on 7-grain bread. But the real action is in the dozens of little Spanish bakeries scattered around the Metropolitan area.

Spanish bakeries are the gold standard for breakfast and lunch on the island. They all have the same aesthetic: run down classy. The floors are generally white linoleum covered in black skid marks from heavy foot traffic. Glass storefronts have a bar or tables along the windows so people eating can enjoy the view of the cars parked in front. The glass food counters have their displays subdivided into stations: pastries and cakes (where you can also order coffee), savory pastries, and cold cuts and cheeses by the pound. Each station is manned by a young man who— after he’s done talking with the guy who makes the sandwiches or the owner— will scribble down your order. That whole the customer comes first business is strictly an American misconception. On top of the counter are glass boxes displaying fried finger foods like croquetas, empanadillas, and pastelillos de carne (see the Cheat Sheet) and the soup pots, if they’re offering soup that day. Then there’s the sandwich station where one guy is simultaneously slicing ham, scrambling eggs on the large griddle, and toasting sandwiches with a surprising level of efficiency. The walls are usually decorated with shelves sporting a deli’s-worth of canned and boxed goods, Spanish wines, and some decorations that allude to the part of Spain the owner is from.

Asking a Puerto Rican which is “the best” is like asking a New Yorker what’s the best pizza. They each specialize in something and everyone has a particular sandwich and soup that aligns with them at any particular bakery. Its like the Zodiac, you were born with a sign and each month your sign is in a different “house.” So if you tend to like a medianoche (you’re a Capricorn) but you’re in La Ceiba (the House of Venus) then you’re probably going to order the Caldo Gallego (OK, maybe I pushed the metaphor a little far).

For the uninitiated, Kasalta in Ocean Park is a good pick. The aesthetic is a little more polished but don’t let that deter you, the long line to order is evidence of its reputation. While they’re pricey, you’re getting your money’s worth. Order a classic breakfast sandwich called jamón-queso-y-huevo (ham, cheese, and egg) on a soft white bread called pan criollo, a simple and delicious crowd pleaser. But if you’re serious about your sandwich, order the choripan: bright red Spanish chorizo sliced thinly and layered high packs a sharp, greasy kick balanced by a few inches of sweet ham, this whole umami bomb topped off by a layer of swiss cheese—all between two pieces of bread. (No, that’s not excessive. Why do you ask? Would you also like an egg?) The best part: after you eat, the beach is a short walk away.

On the other end of the aesthetic and location spectrum is Altamira Bakery in Garden Hills, a hole in the wall up on the mountains of Guaynabo (my town). Altamira has no decorations to speak of, the tables are overcrowded, and the guy who takes your order doesn’t like you, but it’s all worth it. The Cubano is the sandwich to get there—juicy sliced pork folded over sweet ham, topped with an inch of swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Each flavor is both distinct and in harmony, the bread barely containing the juiciness of the meat. The croqueta sandwich also comes highly recommended if freebasing cholesterol is your thing.

For a solid soup, visit one of the granddaddies of Spanish bakeries: El Antiguo Bilbao on Franklin Roosevelt Avenue. Their crowning glory is their Mondongo, a beautifully seasoned tripe soup that keep you on your toes. The pieces of tripe vary between melting in your mouth softness to tough chewiness and there’s a lot of them in the thick broth. Touch it up with some Tabasco sauce for a kick.

And the crowning jewel, in my short list, of Spanish Bakeries: La Ceiba. Just down the street from Antiguo Bilbao, the thing to get at this bakery is the Caldo Gallego. Each spoonful of this stew packs shredded cabbage, diced ham, and occasionally a little wheel of Spanish chorizo balanced with the smooth starchiness of white beans and potatoes. Served in a clay bowl with a roll of pan de agua, it’s a full meal and should be accompanied by either a glass of red wine or a beer.

While eating like this every day will probably kill you, these lunchtime gems are what are called “gustazos,” which roughly translates into real treats. And when you walk into one of these Spanish bakeries you have to do as you would in Spain: check your guilt at the door, you’re here to enjoy. Go to church and sweat it out later.

If you’ve been to any of these, what’s you sandwich and/or soup of choice? Where else would you recommend for this kind of fare?

1 comment:

  1. Do the roadside vendors fall under the category of "gustazos", or are they something else entirely?

    Also, these sandwiches make me want to go throw things at Subway for the lies that they try to pass off on us.