At La Isla in Seattle, the food is billed as Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American all at the same time. I went in blind, knowing only that my friend Leslie loved the place. She told me I would as well. A party of five, we sat outside and watched the comings and goings on the street. We watched as plates of food floated by. They were colorful, and trailed behind them aromas that were both exotic and familiar. The anticipation grew in my hungry belly.
Next to me, a member of our group leaned in to read the menu over my shoulder. She boasted a Puerto Rican heritage, and had some knowledge regarding the cuisine. Understand, though, that she was not raised in the Mother Land. Her accent is decidedly American English. She started making suggestions of what I should order. While I did initially appreciate the gesture, I started to realize that her “input” was going to make this meal a long one.
Due to her own ethnicity, she felt compelled to explain to me that the dishes offered were not authentic to Puerto Rico. “What do you mean?” I asked, somewhat baffled. Personally, I had not expected to eat a Puerto Rican* meal. I expected to eat food inspired by the region that surrounds Puerto Rico. For the record, and to further enhance the rest of this story, it is important to note that this magical place is called the Caribbean. Say it with me: C A R I B B E A N.
(*La Isla does bill their food as Puerto Rican, to be fair. However, prior to our meal I took out the trusty SmertPhone and did the Bing thing. 90 percent of what I read characterized this restaurant as, in effect, Caribbean fusion – with flavors from Puerto Rico, to Cuba to Latin American. Rather broad, wouldn’t you say? I was not expecting a truly authentic Puerto Rican meal. I just wanted to eat some good food.)
“They don’t even serve this in Puerto Rico,” she said, pointing to an appetizer made of beans and flavored with a hint of sweetness and vinegar. It was a terrific treat to scoop the relish into small cups made from mashed plantain. “We don’t use vinegar,” she stated, condescendingly. “We don’t pickle things,” she said with a snooty air. I nodded, thinking, she’s trying to help. I continued to stare at the menu, nothing in particular leaping out at my palate. Again, she leaned in with her authoritarian opinion and started telling me what to order. I became increasingly uncomfortable.
I finally asked her what she was going to order. “Oh, I’m not eating.”
I exchanged a glance with another diner at our table. “What?”
“I already ate,” she explained and continued by elaborating on her special diet, which consists mostly of bananas. Suppressing a roll of my eyes, I turned the page of my menu that she was examining with intensity (and apparently, extreme prejudice) and promptly ordered ceviche, a dish she had not suggested.
I believe at the time this occurred, she was explaining adobo sauce to me in a bossy tone that made me bristle. One of my coping skills kicked in, as I tried to focus on anything that was coming out of her mouth that had any merit. When she mentioned cilantro, and the fact that this leafy herb may grow to be as large as one’s hand in Puerto Rico, I seized on it. “I do love cilantro. I’ve never seen it quite that big.” She pointed to the relish appetizer on the table and again declared it inauthentic, right as I took another bite.
I turned to the person on my right and said in a low voice, “I should have ordered a drink.” Without a word, he promptly put his beer directly in front of me. I took a long swig.
I started to notice that the table was wobbly and needed a shim. It irritated me like a mosquito trying to have its way with my earlobe. The fourteen year old kid in our group was happily ingesting an empanada that was filled with cheese. I was jealous of him. I think he was the only one that was oblivious to the lesson in Puerto Rican cuisine that was being shoved down our throats. A couple of times while Crazy Pants had her mouth moving, it did occur to me that we were eating Caribbean-influenced food in Seattle, not Santo Domingo. This was lost on Chatty Cathy (or should I call her Chatty Caterina to keep it more authentic, I dunno).
I declared that I liked the ceviche, which was a huge mistake. This initiated a commentary on how ceviche should be made and what kind of fish should be used. Ordinarily, I may have embraced this and contributed my own take on what makes good ceviche. Instead, I tried distraction, “So really these flavors are very Caribbean. This must be similar to Cuban food.” (stupid move, Jenn – shoulda never looked this place up on Yelp!, ya big dummy)
This was met with a firm “no” from Bossy McBosserson (oh – sorry – Senora Bossy La Bosserson). Once again, my inner dialog responded. I’m no crackerjack at geography, but I am pretty sure Puerto Rico and Cuba are both Caribbean islands. She also was sure to add that Puerto Rican food cannot be compared to Cuban. At all. Ever. [Naturally an internet search yielded the following phrase over and over again: Puerto Rican cooking is somewhat similar to both Cuban and Mexican cuisine. Please note that any entity who has dared written this blasphemy – including Wikipedia – is wrong.]
I eyeballed my friend’s beer again, but from the look on his face he clearly needed it. Nobody else was talking. We were all chewing in silence, save La Opinionata. Now she was eyeing the food that was being placed in front of other diners and commenting on their choices. I don’t remember her breathing at all – it was just pure diarrhea of the mouth, and no one she was talking at was invited to comment. We just let her go because we had no choice, and the sooner we finished our food, the sooner we could all part ways and go about our collective business.
I was reminded of a concert that my parents took me to when I was a teenager. It was Miles Davis at a large venue in Madrid. Yeah, go ahead. Do a double take – the Miles Davis. We were accompanied by a Spanish gentleman and his wife, friends of our family. We had sat through a good portion of the show, when the legendary Mr. Davis busted out with a Michael Jackson song. Our companion recognized this tune, promptly stood up and said, (insert indignant Spanish accent here) “THIS ISN’T MILES DAVIS”, and left. He even left his wife sitting there. We all rounded up our belongings and followed him out because we had carpooled with the guy. I walked out of a Miles Davis concert because some douche with a picky sense of what was “real” jazz dictated the exit. That was over twenty five years ago and I am still pissed.
This situation was different, but the same – and may have even been worse. The individual in question wasn’t even breaking bread with us. She was just there to trash the authenticity in the food, how the restaurant was doing it wrong, and how her grandmother was the best Puerto Rican cook since the dawn of time. It’s great when people take pride in their heritage, but she took it too far. I was seated at the table of a food dictator, and I was not having fun.
Near the end of the meal, she started calling out to wait staff as they tried to hustle to their customers, “Is that [insert Puerto Rican dish here]? Is it? Hey? It is, right? Right?” At this point, she would get a nod from the staff member that was being verbally assaulted, turn to the rest of us and say, “See? I was right.” Could you imagine being a waitress and having a question yelled at you while trying to balance a tray full of food and remembering not to fall on your face because you are in a really big hurry?
In the final analysis, the food was fresh and so were the flavors, but it was one of the worst meals I have ever had.
Remember, the company you keep can be a great part of your dining experience, but can also play a significant hand in ruining every single bite. And for those of you out there that feel compelled to share every thought that crosses your frontal lobe without any deference to those around you, and feel you can only make a point by delivering this information in an authoritarian, condescending manner, take some time to shut up (or take some lithium).
As for me, I am willing to return to Seattle, if only to eat at La Isla and have the meal that I was supposed to.
Odds are, I will be dining alone.