James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Ham‑and‑Cheese Omelet in Post‑Maria Puerto Rico

Photo courtesy of Kasalta

A Ham‑and‑Cheese Omelet in Post‑Maria Puerto Rico

Omelet in San Juan

I went out to dinner with a friend of a friend. She was a FEMA worker who had been deployed to Puerto Rico since November, but seemed happy to spend her night off having dinner with a stranger from the U.S. As we swapped stories over gin and tonics in Santurce, it turned out she was staying not in a hotel, with the rest of the FEMA detail, but at a guesthouse near the beach—a guesthouse run by the proprietor of the inn I had been trying to get in touch with that very day, for a story.

It shouldn’t have been that surprising. Puerto Rico is a small island, and post-Maria it feels even smaller. Though life in San Juan is, five months later, relatively normal, nothing works as it should. Electricity is still unreliable. There are perhaps seven functional traffic lights. And while the storm debris has mostly been cleared from the roads, it remains piled in jagged heaps by the side of the highways. The friend with whom I was staying had not had running water for most of the month. Getting anything done at all takes three steps more than it used to, and one of those steps is often an impossibility. So this seemed like a stroke of good fortune.

My new friend got on her phone and texted the manager. The manager wrote back immediately: Come by the next morning for breakfast. Great!

When we arrived eager and hungry the next day, the manager on duty had no idea who we were. The other manager had the day off, the cook was at the doctor with a broken finger, and—apologies—there was no breakfast anywhere, for anyone. My friend just laughed. “Nothing happens in a straight line,” he said.

Instead of sitting down to breakfast in a Caribbean inn (which itself had been without power for months after the storm) we walked down the street, past patched-together buildings where the water lines from the flooding were still visible. There, outside the perimeter of the gated community that housed the inn, was a diner.

It’s a famous diner, where President Obama ate during the five hours he spent in Puerto Rico in 2011. He was the ninth sitting president ever to visit the island. There’s a banner detailing his visit on the wall, and a plaque commemorating the table where he sat. (The tenth president to visit Puerto Rico may have been too busy throwing paper towels to go out to eat.)

At 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, it was packed. At the next table, Tito Kayak—a famous environmental activist—was talking animatedly with two older men. A few tourists stood back from the line, looking stunned. Everywhere people were getting pastries, reading the paper, sipping coffee.

From the photos, it looks like Obama had a medianoche. I had a ham and cheese omelet. It was delicious; a thin layer of egg, salty, tissue-like squares of ham, soft and mild cheese, plus buttered and toasted pan de agua and a cafe con leche.

On an island where the new normal is always complicated, breakfast at Kasalta is reassuringly familiar.

1966 Calle McLeary
San Juan 00911, Puerto Rico
6 a.m.- 10 p.m.

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