The other night, I tried barracuda for the first time, at a beachside stand made of branches and tarps with a palm tree for each corner and coolers on the sand instead of fridges.
The barracuda wasn’t on the menu; it was something the owner, Sombra (Spanish for shadow), had cooked up earlier for himself and his friends. We ate it with our fingers, straight out of the frying pan. The fish, which was only hours out of the ocean, was like swordfish but tastier, cooked with sweet onions and local vegetables. Sombra is a magician with food, so the barracuda was perfectly cooked: juicy and tender and bursting with tangy sweet flavor.
The makeshift restaurant has a name, Mar y Tierra (Sea and Earth), but few use or even know it. Most often it’s referred to as “Sombra’s place,” or “the new place,” and for the most part the only people referring to it at all are Viequenses who know Sombra. The tourists are not adventurous enough to find him on their own, and the word hasn’t spread yet, as Mar y Tierra has only been open for about a month.
Each meal eaten with Sombra is a unique experience, and I’m not just talking about the food. Mar y Tierra is not just a place to eat; it’s a place to hang out, to talk, to listen to the ocean, to meet new friends.
Sometimes there are lights and a portable CD boom box hooked up to a car battery. Other times the stand sits nearly invisible in darkness, and you can only find it if you know where it is. There is nearly always music, usually coming from a car stereo, and there are always two or three of Sombra’s friends hanging out—talking, laughing, telling stories of their wild exploits. At any time, someone may hand you a joint, a rum drink, or a Medalla (the Puerto Rican equivalent of Bud Light—it goes down like water and comes in 10 oz. cans).
Sombra’s setup is impossibly simple: a great big gas grill, a couple of burners, and three big coolers (one is full of Medalla). He shows up when he wants to, cooks what he wants to, charges what he wants to, and goes home when he wants to. The menu is tiny, only four or five items, and changes every day. The food is all incredibly fresh and local, and you get twice the food for half the price that you’d be charged in any of the gringo-owned restaurants on the Malecon (seaside promenade). A whole lobster with whatever the day’s two sides are is only fifteen dollars, and it damn sure hasn’t seen the inside of a tank.
In the past two weeks I have eaten at Mar y Tierra five times, and have become friends with Sombra and the four or five locals and rastas who are usually hanging out. I’ve had lamb, barracuda, kingfish, a vegetarian dish made of mostly root vegetables, and the best chicken I’ve tasted in years. After the second time, I didn’t bother asking what was on the menu. Instead, I’d walk up to Sombra and say in Spanish, “I’m hungry… no shellfish (allergy),” and trust Sombra to give me something magnificent.
Tonight’s chicken was incredible, and although I was almost painfully full, I was disappointed when it was gone. The chicken was marinated and smothered in a thick, sweet and salty sauce—reminiscent of teriyaki, but so much better. It was served with a creative salad of spinach, cherry tomatoes, blackberries, goat cheese, strawberries and an unfamiliar but amazing dressing, and a heaping serving of savory root vegetables. When I told Sombra that it was ridiculously good, he laughed. “I never taste my food,” he said with a thick Puerto Rican/rasta accent, “I know it gonna be good.”
For half an hour after I’d finished eating, I sat in one of the camp chairs around the stand, digging my toes in the soft sand, listening to reggae music from a car stereo and staring at the cloud-covered half moon above Esperanza.
As I got up to leave, I thought to myself, This is going to be one of the things I’ll miss the most.