Il Cuoco Trattoria e Pizzeria @ San Juan, Puerto Rico

Il CuocoCozy, quaint, and charming. The first thoughts that passed through my head as I walked into Il Cuoco, located at 270 Avenida Piñero in San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico. The place had been recommended and I’ve passed right beside it many times for as long as I can remember. It’s been around for (I think) almost 20 years. Any restaurant that lasts longer than 3 years in Puerto Rico must be good, otherwise the most recent “follón” (that means fad, craze, trend, etc.) will certainly drown it out. So it was with a certain excitement that I walked in, finally about to taste the fresh pastas everyone kept talking about.

Let me just say it was absolutely worth it! We sat in a little corner near the window looking out onto the street. It was like a hidden corner, making it quite private.  We were greeted by the owner. His strong Argentinian accent instantly made me want to dance some Tango, but alas we were there to eat, not dance (I wish. Why don’t they make restaurants with a dance floor?).

As soon as we sat down we received bread and garlic butter; the kind that you can tell is made from fresh-cut garlic and real butter, not crappy margarine and bottled diced garlic. Kudos to the fresh ingredients! Everything on the menu seemed delicious, but as soon as I wondered over to the meats and noticed my all time favorite Veal Marsala, I knew I was in the right part of the menu. For the sake of variety and trying new things (I always try to vary my choices) I opted for the Vitello Cuoco, a delicious veal steak with sweet Marsala sauce and cream served with Spaghetti and Alfredo Sauce. The veal simply melted in my mouth, as it should. The sauce was divine, creamy, and just the way I imagined it. The fresh pasta and Alfredo was homemade and delicious; a real treat.

My boyfriend had some pasta with chicken, broccoli and pink sauce, but he does not remember the name. It was equally delicious. To end the night we had Milk Caramel Crepes (Crepas de Dulce de Leche) served with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup. Oh Lord! Please forgive us! We promise to work out tomorrow!

The only thing that needed improvement was the service, as it was a bit slow considering the restaurant wasn’t that full. However, I think being in the little cozy corner might have affected that. Regardless, although slow, the service was friendly and respectful.

I give Il Cuoco 4.5 stars (of 5) and will definitely be going back. Check out their menu here:

¡Buen Provecho!


Chains, Knives & Saucepans

We have all been to a restaurant. I’m sure most of us enjoy it too. The pretty hostess greets you with a smile; the cute bartender sends you a free shot and the food borders on orgasmic. To end it right… No dishes! Life is good when you go to a restaurant.

Now go spend an hour in the kitchen… You probably won’t see the Chef there. Nope. The Chef: the guy who designed the menu; he’s outside mingling with the guests, fidgeting with paperwork and probably screwing some employee in the freezer.  If you do see the Chef, he’s very likely yelling at somebody.

Welcome to Hell! It’s hot, steamy and loud. Yeah! I know it sounds like the description of a porn flick, but hardly. The typical cook spends a good 10 -12 hours standing in front of a hot stove or fryer, getting constantly yelled at, burned, cut, made to carry heavy shit and all while the rest of the world eats and gets drunk. Yup, my idea of the perfect job! NOT! (In case the sarcasm wasn’t evident.)

No, I’m not a chef… I was married to one! I also worked as a waitress for some time. And I can tell you, the restaurant world is Hell! And the cooks are the ones who pay for it all. If I wrote about servers as slaves… (you have no idea about chefs! At least servers get tips.)

Like I said, cooks spend 10+ hours a day sweating in the kitchen. In Puerto Rico, a lot of them don’t even get a full break to sit down and have a meal. When it’s slow, it’s not so bad, but once that rush begins the tension rises. Sounds of pans clanking, meat sizzling, someone yelling about a dish, the printer that keeps shooting out orders… Chaos unfolds. Suddenly, a waiter comes in and returns a dish. Some client complained about the term of the meat. The whole line gets backed up.

“La cocina está arrollá.” It’s how they say it in Spanish; when the rush hits and there’s 20 dishes to put out all at once. Those were the moments when, as a waitress, I behaved my most humbly towards the guys in the back. (Yes, most of them are men. Women chefs are either lesbians or tom boys. Sorry, not a bias or anything, just a fact. Those Barbie girls could not possibly survive back there!) You don’t want to piss off the guy with the big ass knife!

If you look down at the guy with the big ass knife, you will notice a ball and chain on his leg. Yup. He’s a slave. The worst kind of slave; hard manual labor. You would think that the sacrifice is getting rewarded with good pay, but that is just not the case. Most cooks start earning minimum wage and as they move up the kitchen ladder they stop getting paid hourly rates and instead get a salary. Ha! Poor guy thought he was moving up.  Only in name. Now he earns more, but spends 3 to 4 extra hours a day in his beloved Hell. End result: He’s a “not so poor” slave with white pallid skin and circles under his eyes. Yup! Your dream guy! Most are single and available at any decent restaurant. Free for all.  Good luck!

The slaves are kept subdued by alcohol and whatever drug might be available. I urge all kitchen workers to request payment instead of beer as an end of the night chill break. Really, seriously, they don’t do this to be nice or reward you. The bosses know the beer will make you forget you’re in hell. And when you finish the first one, you’ll want another one! Now the slave, like the “jornaleros” of the past, spends his check in the same place he makes it. Nice little trick. Works every time!

So now we have a man (or woman) who works half the day in a hot place, with people yelling and screaming and never sitting down, and slowly being turned into an alcoholic so their life becomes nothing but work. And to top it all off, when it’s time for a vacation, God forbid they should let you off during Christmas. Nobody gets a vay-cay during high season! And you can forget about taking 3 weeks in a row or something like that. 1 week and they’re threatening to fire you! Work, work, work, work, work… that is of course… as long as the season demands it. As soon as it starts to slow down… know your hours will be cut.

Meanwhile the head chef keeps coming out of the freezer with a curious little smile on his face. Did I just see a hostess come out the freezer behind him or was it the kid from the dessert station? You won’t know unless you actually go to the kitchen and see the chains, knives and saucepans for yourself.

The Slave Serving Your Table

Waiters, bartenders, servers and restaurant workers in general should unite and stand for their rights! Consumers should join them. The average waiter or bartender earns about $3 an hour. The current minimum wage is $7 -$8 an hour. That is less than half of minimum wage! Yes, I’m sure at this point you’ve already reasoned away that 15% of tip that always looms at the bottom of the receipt. “It’s ok because they get 15%” you think. This is where consumers need to join them.  Who says they get 15%? I used to be a waitress myself and the truth is the tip is OPTIONAL! It is an extra the customer gives the server for a “job well done.” Why then, are servers and restaurant owners exempt from minimum wage laws?

It should be illegal to automatically impose any kind of service charge in a restaurant! I mean, there is no way any restaurant, no matter how good the chef, can get away with selling a $30 plate without accompanying that with service. Part of the whole point of the dinning experience is to have the food and drink brought over to you. We all want to be properly tended to. So, in other words, the restaurant cannot run without servers. The servers are part of the operational cost of the restaurant. Why are the consumers paying the servers salary? It seems owners are allowed to pay less than minimum wage to their employees based on the assumption that there will be a 15% tip.  Except there isn’t always a tip, much less a 15%. Sometimes the kitchen takes too long, or the client didn’t like the food, suddenly the table is not happy.  What is the first thing to go? The tip. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t spend 8 hours or more cleaning, carrying heavy plates, tolerating irritated guests and managers who yell at you. These people should get paid at least minimum wage!!

On the other hand, as a consumer, it seems I’m expected to pay a 15% commission on everything I consume regardless of how crappy the service is.  If that is the case, then I would rather the restaurant inflate the prices an extra 15% or whatever and I’ll skip the tip, thank you. That way, I don’t have to feel bad for not wanting to tip an incompetent server who takes my first order and forgets about me the rest of the night. Why should I give them 15%? Really, I shouldn’t even leave a dollar and I shouldn’t have to feel that I’m doing something wrong if I don’t. Once again, the restaurant should be paying the servers salary, not me! Also, if I know their pay is fair and guaranteed, when I do get excellent service I can let the server know by leaving a tip; one that is proportional to how happy I was with the service. That way, the server knows I tipped because of a job well done, and not because it’s the standard.

Frankly, I can’t believe this keeps going on and nobody does anything about it. I can’t believe the government actually allows for less than minimum wage based on an assumption!  An assumption that has already been proven wrong and is not guaranteed by any law. Servers should be paid minimum wage or more. End of story.