Dining with a dash of drama

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The menu of the day, with Grouper as the late addition

After 90 minutes of waiting, our family finally sat down to dinner.

“We’re so sorry. Our fisherman…well, he never came today. We don’t have fish. Ready for appetizers?”

We glanced at the menu, meticulously transcribed onto a whiteboard that was propped in front of our table. There were 7 total options listed between appetizers and main courses. All three of the entrees were beef dishes.

This would prove to be problematic, given that one of the six of us did not eat beef.

“So, I guess one of everything then?” suggested my mom cheerfully, clearly trying to make the best of a bad situation.

I was not impressed. I’d been talking up this restaurant, Jose Enrique, for weeks leading up to our trip.

“You have to try the fish there,” I kept priming them. “I’m telling you, this is the place that taught me how to love whole fish. I sat right there at the bar, and it was unbelievably good. You’ll see. You’ll fall in love with Puerto Rican cuisine, too.”

We waited over an hour and a half for a table here, and I promenaded my family all around La Placita, even giving us all a taste of karaoke in Spanish as we passed the time. By the time we finally set foot inside the restaurant, an unmarked green house with 8 tables, a bar, and no menu, they gave me the look that plainly said, “This is what we’ve been waiting for?”

Trust the system, I’d told them. You’ll see.

And of course, this is the day their fisherman doesn’t deliver.

We make a show of it at our table, doubling up on some of the vegetarian appetizers, claiming two of the last three available portions of the crab crackers dish. I keep stealing glances around the table, trying to suss out whether my family will ever trust me again with restaurant decisions.

And then — somewhere in between the cheese fritters and the chicken wings, our waiters sidles up to our table and breaths in almost a whisper:

“We just got fish. You want some?”

It felt like he was offering us some illicit drug.

“What kind of fish?” I challenge.

“Grouper. Literally just came out of the ocean.” I look around the table to evaluate the vibe.

“How big are they?” I ask.

“About six ounces or so.” I see his eyes shift quickly to other tables in the room, and it strikes me that if we don’t make our move now, we may never get the chance.

“Okay,” I assert. “We’ll take two.”

The grouper was the best dish on the menu.

After our table cleaned up on grouper, I stand up to head to the bathroom and walk past a few employees lighting up cigars right in the restaurant. I pass them on my way, then do an about-face. Not so fast, I think. I turn to one of them and ask point-blank:

“Hey, so what’s the story with your fisherman today? Did he get lost or just have a bad day out or what?”

He stops what he’s doing and says cleanly, “We don’t call the fisherman. They call us.” I think it’s an interesting idea, but I’m not satisfied with the answer.

“How does that work? No offense, but this dinner was almost a disaster for my family. If he hadn’t shown up after 9 p.m. with that fish, I never would have heard the end of it.”

He smiles at that.

“Yes, but doesn’t that make it a little more interesting?” he presses me.

“Sure,” I say. “But also a little dangerous. What if it didn’t show? You’d have rioting people.”

“Look,” he tells me. “In this restaurant, I promise only the most local cuisine, the freshest there is. We want the best. We never say, ‘We need 25 pounds of mahi,” so we say, ‘Catch the best. Let us know when you have something.’ That fish you ate was in the ocean less than four hours ago. You can’t get better than that. When you come here, you never know what you’re going to get. That’s how I like it.”

I have to say, I respect the integrity behind the idea.

“Your restaurant,” I tell him, “It’s like a play then. You’re taking us all on this emotional roller-coaster and drama, we’re all a part of what’s happening live around us.”

“Exactly,” he says. “And isn’t that more fun? So sometimes we have grouper, sometimes we have sardines. You never know.” That comment lights up a memory for me.

“Sardines!” I cry out. “That’s the fish I had here three years ago. I sat at that bar and I spent 45 minutes picking the meat off every last bone. It was my first time eating fish off the bone like that, and I’ve had so much more since. I really attribute this restaurant to teaching me how it’s done. That’s why I wanted to come back, with my family.”

‘You’ve been here before!” his face softens, then he puts out his hand. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Bethany.”

“Great to meet you, Bethany. I’m Jose. Jose Enrique. This is my place. I’m glad you like it. Hopefully we’ll see you again soon.”

At that, he headed outside to smoke.

I’m going back on Saturday.

Originally published on Dry Erase.

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