Tras-Patio Bets on Fresh and Local
SAN JUAN — There are many restaurants in San Juan’s Hato Rey district that hide among the grand buildings in the Golden Mile, better known as the Milla de Oro. They are often in small nooks and crannies passed by area workers and residents going about their daily rounds. Over the past seven years, the Puerto Rican bistro, Trans-Patio, has been one of these places, but don’t let its humble exterior fool you.
With its hand-painted wooden signs and decorative details that harken back to old houses, its exterior seems to have been taken straight out of the country and dropped into the city. This aesthetic continues inside, although the interior includes more modern and colorful elements. Framed stamps, shelves half-filled with books and bottles, paintings and murals—all celebrating traditional Puerto Rican culture—provide a different atmosphere and personality to each section of this labyrinth-like restaurant.
It’s clear that this place was once a home and its varying parlors accommodate themselves within the original architectural structure. The somber main room with its small bar contains thresholds that lead into the wine and beer room ($12 to uncork a bottle of wine) as well as a hallway with high tables that ends in a rear bar in what was once a backyard.
Each room also consists of different menus. At the entrance, they offer the farm-to-table menu, an innovation the chef and owner, Javier Nassar, assures has made a notable difference in not just the taste but also the design of the dishes. Every two weeks, he alters the selection of tapas and main courses depending on the produce in season and the availability of fish and meat, such as suckling pig, rabbit, pork or duck. He indicates that 90% of the products used are from local farmers and the majority of the fruits and vegetables come from the Plaza del Mercado, or Famers Market, in Santurce.
“Supporting local farmers was something we had proposed [doing] for this year. It’s something that should be greatly encouraged because people keep buying foreign goods, while [locally], there are so many things you can get. Before, I used to bring pigs from France, but now the ones I receive are…local, from Hatillo, fresh, and raised exactly how I want them to be raised. Meaning, they feed the mother with what I want her to be fed so the pig comes out how I want. They don’t freeze them. They separate them for me. It’s a much closer relationship than when you order…from abroad,” explains the chef, who studied in professional kitchens in Austria, Spain, Italy and Germany.
The appetizers in this restaurant can be something like cod crisps with a crunchy exterior and creamy interior with a spicy garlic sauce of annatto, or something more exotic like razor clams or plump dumplings filled with steak and pumpkin that are complemented with soy sauce, orange and cilantro.
Those who come for the main courses often opt for the fish, the chef reveals. They also tend to go for casserole dishes such as the Puerto Rico Pot Pie, with confected duck, chickpeas and pumpkin, or the tender pig cheek crisps and chewy balls of sticky rice. Nonetheless, they always provide a significant cut of meat such as a dry-aged strip loin that is lightly seasoned so the flavor of the meat is at the forefront.
“Fresh is fresh. Sometimes, I notice that people hide the natural flavor of their food and I don’t understand why. If you are paying for such a high-quality product but are covering its flavor, then you’re better off purchasing a cheap product and coating that instead. What the heck. But if you’re always getting something good, fresh and of high quality, then you should let the customer taste it. Don’t hide it. That’s not the point,” he asserts.
Burger Deck offerings
On the other hand, the patio-bar, known as the Burger Deck, relies upon a fixed menu that is a bit more economic with creatively designed hamburgers, such as the Hamburger Tras-Patio with avocado, bacon and cheese from the island, or the Dirty Burger with its caramelized onion, blue cheese, sweet plantains, and guava and port barbecue sauce. Both of these burgers are served with local bread. There are also wraps and salads and, through a special order, the restaurant can even put out vegetarian and vegan plates as well.
The drink selection is based mostly around wines, craft beers and straight-up drinks. Soon, they are expecting to have Cocktail Nights on Fridays inspired by traditional and lesser-known Puerto Rican drinks.
One of the last ways in which Tras-Patio distinguishes itself is that it also has a café and ice cream shop. Nassar lets himself be carried by the flavors of the seasons, churning out delicacies such as the honeycomb and lavender cake, avocado, dulce de leche, and grapefruit and champagne sorbet. His mother recently made dulce de leche and this was also incorporated into a cake, and a light tart sprinkled with caramelized mango.
Though they have always worked with high-quality products, the shift in focus to locally grown products was a natural and welcome process that now places Tras-Patio within San Juan’s growing garden-to-table restaurant scene. For Nassar, now there is no turning back.
“There are so many things going on right now [Puerto Rico is currently undergoing a difficult economic situation] that we [need] to start to support our own, so we can at least be part of a solution to the problem. What you receive [from the island] is an excellent product. Even if tomorrow everything is fine again in Puerto Rico, I wouldn’t stop using local produce because, in reality, it’s fresh, good and there is nothing to look for in other places,” he affirms.