San Juan Cafe (Wilmington, NC)

San Juan Cafe Dining Room

San Juan Cafe Dining Room

San Juan Café distinguishes itself through serving Puerto Rican cuisine in a city bereft of compelling Puerto Rican (or Latin American) choices. Chef Danny Keegan opened San Juan Café in February of 2010 and based on an admittedly small sample size, the restaurant seems to do pretty well. The restaurant piqued my interest for two reasons: first, I am Puerto Rican, love the cuisine, and rarely have the chance to sample it in a restaurant. Second, I was curious to observe how broad a scope the restaurant took; Puerto Rican restaurants are quite rare in North Carolina, and I wanted to see which (if any) concessions the restaurant takes in order to maximize customers.

As the picture at the top demonstrates, the interior is rose-colored and reflects the vibrancy one finds in many Hispanic restaurants. The warm colors established a welcoming feel—a hospitable tone commensurate with the restaurant’s website description “At San Juan Café, your happiness is our highest priority.” There are photographs and kitschy artificats, such as a parrot. I suppose that the décor is designed to maximize exoticism, but I actually found it had the opposite effect, to the point that its “exoticism” should be referred to with quotation marks. What was ostensibly exotic—the bright colors and loud decorations—were clichéd rather than out of the ordinary, and it was actually amusing to consider the sheer number of clichés at work within a relatively confined space. Although the artwork was of Puerto Rico, I think anyone entering the restaurant (unaware of the name) would assume that it was Mexican, and it is a bit sad to me that San Juan Café borrowed from the interior stylings of Mexican family restaurants rather than shooting for a more original ambience. Paradoxically, the décor would have been more arresting if it showed more restraint, thereby distancing itself from the visual signs of Mexican eateries.

To its credit, San Juan Café is honest about its cultural heterogeneity and lists Puerto Rican, Colombian, Venezualan, Dominican, and Cuban cuisines as falling under its purview. At the same time, a quick glance at the menu reveals an even broader focus, with Mexican classics such as nachos, burritos, and tacos. Considering how rare Puerto Rican restaurants are, it is remarkable just how familiar the menu feels—with the inclusion of the Mexican dishes, one senses that the chef is afraid of alienating customers. Overall, the menu confuses because there are nicely composed, chef-driven Puerto Rican/Caribbean items standing side-by-side with kitschy Mexican items. For example, the duck two ways and lobster mofongo contrasted sharply with the nachos and steak burritos. This menu contrast made me wonder, does a restaurant actually have a culinary style when its menu items contain such diversity? Or can one simply excuse the Mexican items under the premise that the restaurant needs to offer them in order to stay financially afloat? I suppose my opinion is somewhere in between, but in any case the restaurant’s attractive niche (there are other Mexican restaurants in Wilmington but no Puerto Rican ones) is diluted.

Another aspect of the menu that I didn’t care for was its declaration that “San Juan Café’s Cuisine Contains NO MSG or Preservatives!” I suppose I can understand why they feel the need to dispel any cultural stigmas that might engender people to believe that they would use MSG. However, I think there are broader implications behind this seemingly benign notification—why even invite the possibility that people will harbor these beliefs? The very mention of MSG reflects timidity from the kitchen, as though they had internalized the worst forms of culinary prejudice regarding ethnic cuisine.

Naturally, we selected the Puerto Rican/Caribbean options. To start, we shared the Tostones with tuna tartare and caviar, Camarones al Ajillo, and Seared Portales Chorizo. As a main, I chose Dos Patos (duck two ways), and my brother selected the Pollo Ajili Mojili.

We were surprised when the first item to arrive was a completely unnecessary basket of chips and salsa. They were fine.

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The tostones arrived in a quartet—two with tuna tartare and two with paddlefish caviar and cilantro lime crema. These were terrific and would have constituted a far more satisfying set of opening bites than the chips and salsa.

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Our other starters arrived with the tostones. The Camarones Al Ajillo were served with strips of plantain and a lemon and garbanzo puree. The menu description mentioned that they were served with Serrano chile (as is common with gambas al ajillo preparations) but there was no chile to be found. This was not a problem as I don’t care for hot peppers anyhow. Overall, the composition was a bit messier than I’d like but this was still a tasty dish.

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The chorizo didn’t look like any I’d ever seen. The thick patty was actually reminiscent of a hamburger. The flavor was quite spicy but not overwhelming. However, the thick texture made the spice overwhelming, transforming what could have been a nice dish into an unpleasant one.

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My duck arrived in a capacious portion featuring generous amounts of both breast and confit leg. The arepas were an outstanding accompaniment, and while I don’t care for green beans, they were a suitable complement. I have mixed feelings about the meat itself; the breast was terrific and went nicely with the caremlized onion demi glace, but the skin of the leg was overly salty, necessitating its removal. Overall, this was still a terrific dish that simply needed a bit less seasoning on the leg.

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My brother was eager to try his Pollo Ajili Mojili. He took the picture below with his phone camera after he’d started eating the dish, and the presentation was more composed than it appears. The meat itself was quite tender and my brother enjoyed it. This preparation sought to replicate an iconic Puerto Rican dish rather than offering a more original design, but that is in line with the restaurant’s mission and so it wasn’t a problem.

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There were three dessert offerings (flan, chocolate cake, and coconut cake), but they weren’t very inspired and we’d had already consumed quite a bit of food anyhow.

Ultimately, we were satisfied with our meal and most of the dishes were very appealing. I am confident that anyone dining at San Juan Café—even someone with a narrow palate—could find something to their liking. This has the benefit of keeping the restaurant popular, but at the same time, including banal Mexican dishes obscures what could be a distinct niche concentrating on Puerto Rican/Caribbean cuisine. I don’t subscribe to the belief that an ethnic restaurant can or should serve as a sort of classroom educating the diner about a particular culture. However, the kitchen’s cultural mingling muddles the expectation for Puerto Rican cuisine one would harbor from the restaurant’s name. The menu feels as though the chef devised several interesting dishes and retroactively decided to add some standard offerings to avoid alienating his customer base. The menu construction, in conjunction with the clichéd interior decoration and “No MSG” pronouncement, all speak to a lack of confidence. On its own merits, San Juan Café is certainly satisfying enough, but I would love to see what the restaurant could become with a more assertive personality.

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4 thoughts on “San Juan Cafe (Wilmington, NC)

  1. It would be a shame if the owner decided to include Mexican decor, chips and salsa, and burritos as to not alienate Americans, especially because the rest of the menu shows ambition above and beyond the type of restaurants that need to resort to these tactics.

    I really like how the chef combined tostones with high-brow items. Elevation and pop art at the same time. Very cool and creative.

    How was the duck seasoned (beyond salt)? I failed to see the reference to Puerto Rico….

    Btw, you might want to check out what David Chang had to say about MSG recently. Interesting and annoying at the same time…

  2. I completely agree with you about the tostones. Ordinarily I think tuna tartare is sort of a dated item, but it’s so unusual with tostones that I really enjoyed it. The duck was not seasoned in any Puerto Rican way (and the caramelized onion demi glace was obviously not Puerto Rican), but the arepas added a Puerto Rican touch.

    Re: David Chang’s comments about MSG: I agree with him to an extent that MSG gets a bit of an unfair stigma. I don’t have a bias against MSG per se, and the cultural connotations that are associated with it are unfair at best. Ultimately, I find it sad that the chef at San Juan Cafe feels he needs to address MSG in the first place.

    • It is sad. While ethnic places like San Juan Cafe have to deal with the MSG stereotype and irrational fear, Haute cuisine is rewarded for embracing “umami,” which is all glutamate-based. While I understand what Chang was getting at, the fact that he could taunt so openly and stay successful kind of rubbed it in.

      • Indeed. As the rare famous chef who can lay claim to ethnic and haute cuisines, Chang is (for better or worse) one of the only chefs who could emerge from a speech like that unscathed.

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