Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Friday, September 17, 2010

Los 3 Cuernos

Craft store by day, hipster bar by night, is probably the most concise description of the Old San Juan pub known as Los 3 Cuernos. This translates into three things: beautiful decor, limited space, and flavored chichaito.

Walking through Old San Juan at night, streets glistening after a recent rain as yellow and white streetlights reflected off the cobblestones, I made my way from the central square of Plaza de Armas down Calle San Francisco. I fell into pace behind a lady carrying several loaded bags of groceries, slightly hunched, and vaguely aware of someone following her, on occasion glancing over her shoulder discreetly. For some reason she felt familiar to me but I couldn’t place her. Soon the lights of Plaza Colón and the dark shadow of the San Cristóbal fort came into view but instead of turning down towards the plaza she continued past a crowd of twenty-something year olds hanging out of a narrow entrance, up a couple of steps, under a wooden sign with the words Los 3 Cuernos roughly painted on, and into a colorful cave where music played loudly while a few televisions showed old movies in mute. I went in behind her.

It turned out I’d been following Nykaulys Cruz, one of the owners and operators of the store and the bar Los 3 Cuernos. Her son, Francisco Alejandro, waited near the back. She cut through the crowd and handed over the grocery bags which I now saw contained several handles of rum and anisette as well as a few gallons of fruit juice. He disappeared into a small fluorescent kitchen and Nykaulys turned her attention to the bustling bar. What during the day is a store counter now had wooden stools in front and behind it Nykaulys’s daughter, also named Nykaulys, a marketing student at Ithaca college, quickly dispensed Medallas (a local beer) or shots to customers waving dollar bills.

The bar is a perfect example of necessity being the mother of invention. It’s a family business started by the father and appropriated by the son but run by the whole family.

A store turned bar

Los 3 Cuernos existed for many many years exclusively as a fine arts and craft stores on the north side of Plaza Colón. This square—named for the statue of Christopher Columbus atop a tall white column at its center—is flanked on the eastern side by the fort San Cristobal, Teatro Tapia (the oldest theater in the Caribbean) on the south, and lined by an array of restaurants, pubs, and souvenir stores making it both prime real estate and a hub of steep competition for a locale that is literally a hole in the wall.

The store, owned and operated by José Cruz, an artist, teacher (he was my art teacher in both elementary and high school and to this day I still refer to him as Mr. Cruz), and former hippie with salt and pepper hair and beard, glasses, and a loud, raspy laugh. The store specialized in Vejigante masks, giving Los 3 Cuernos—literally The Three Horns—its name. Vejigantes, a kind of colorful demon, are iconic characters of Puerto Rican folklore. The traditional mask is carved from a coconut (while the Ponce Vejigante is made with paper machê) and has slit-like eyes, a stub nose, and a grinning mouth with two square teeth and a tiny, rectangular tongue sticking out. The mask is topped off with long sharp horns, usually three but really as many as the artist wants/can fit on the head of the demon. The masks are chaotically colorful. Aside from the masks, handmade ceramics and woodcarvings with the Vejigante theme were also on display, each handmade by Cruz. But with steep competition and a failing economy the tiny store was floundering.

It was Cruz’s son, Francisco Alejandro, who masterminded the transformation of Los 3 Cuernos.

When I asked him how his father felt about turning the store into a bar he was very frank. “He doesn’t like it,” adding, “Pero es lo que deja chavos.” Its what makes money.

As a musician and college student, alcohol plus young people seemed like an obvious formula but its also common knowledge that opening a bar is generally a risky endeavor, specially in an area as saturated with well-known restaurants and bars as Old San Juan. So Francisco Alejandro, now an entrepreneurship student at the UPR, found a spin on a classic and created a niche for Los 3 Cuernos that draws young people to the bar in droves: flavored chichaito.

The original flavor tastes like licorice with a sharp sweetness from the rum. Spiked with fresh juice and fruit, the chichaito become beautifully colorful, belying a time bomb of sugar and alcohol that hits you like a truck once you finally get up. That first night that I went, I watched Nykaulys Sr. pull out several plastic gallons full of the stuff from giant refrigerators under the bar: cloudy white coconut, bright orange guava, murky brown tamarindo, and the clear original. She filled empty glass flasks of Palo Viejo rum, each with a different flavor. Occasionally she would serve out a shot if it was requested, handing the money to Nykaulys Jr. Soon Francisco Alejandro joined them, stopping first to change the music on the stereo.

Even now the green and blue walls of the bar—some with murals of Vejigantes dancing— are covered with ceramic plaques, masks, and other crafts. Handwritten menus on the walls and columns advertise their drink special—there’s El Combo #7, a shot of chichaito and a Medalla for $2 but for a group El Cuernazo is a particularly good value, a flask of chichaito and a six-pack of Medalla $10. They also serve different types of coffee and recently added tacos to the menu. Even the next few times I went the place was packed and the crowd consistently young, attractive, and talkative, often speaking in a mix of English and Spanish. It’s the kind of place where it’s easy to sit at the bar with a flask of chichaito, a couple of plastic shot glasses, and make friends. And maybe buy some high quality crafts while you’re at it.

Located at:
Calle San Francisco #403, Viejo San Juan( frente a la plaza Colon, parada #17 del trolley)

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1 comment:

  1. Hi, friend! Remember me? I hope so. I'm glad I found your blog, I like it a lot. Now, I'm a traveler writer myself with my new section "Tourism Tuesdays", on my blog. Although, not as beautiful written as yours, I have to admit. But I'm going to add your blog's link to my list. Purrrs and *nosetaps* for you