It’s hard to say if famed Miami chef and restaurateur José Mendín was too early or too late going home to his native Puerto Rico. Trained in the United States and Europe, Mendín was eager to apply the techniques he’d acquired to the island ingredients he’d grown up with and loved.
Despite owning and operating a successful string of culinary concepts stateside, he had yet to open a restaurant on the island — until this past spring.
“It had always been my dream," said Mendín at the launch of PB Ysla, located in the eclectic neighborhood of Santurce, in metro area San Juan, which he opened with his partners from The Pubbelly Group. “I met this group of people that felt right.”
As one enters the restaurant, PB Ysla’s upscale but casual dining room gives way to an airy tropical modernist atrium. The Asian-Caribbean fusion menu features cochinillo (suckling pig) dumplings, veal brains “meuniere” and ribeye with yuzu truffle sauce alongside traditional staples like rice and beans, and Puerto Rican fried favorites like bacalaitos (codfish fritters) and alcapurrias (meat filled root vegetable turnovers).
Mendín chose a flamboyán (a flamboyant tree) for the restaurant’s logo, and the blossom-laden trees are in evidence on the road that leads to Frutos del Guacabo, a hydroponic farm headed by Angelie Martínez and Efrén D. Robles that supplies chefs with farm to table produce with an eye to developing local agriculture.
“It has to be flavorful. That’s what I strive for,” says Mendín. “When we cook, we want to hit people’s palate and we want to make people remember us. Puerto Rican flavor is very unique.”
It has been quite the successful culinary journey for Mendín. His acclaimed professional career started in Florida where he was part of the opening team at the world-famous Nobu, in Miami. He went on to work in London and Spain before returning to the United States. In 2010, he and his partners put everything they had into the original Pubbelly, now known as Pubbelly Noodle Bar, on a quiet corner of Miami's iconic South Beach neighborhood. Lines quickly formed around the block.
“When I opened Pubbelly, I knew that was going to be home,” said Mendín.
The equally popular Pubbelly Sushi, the tapas-oriented Barceloneta, and cocktail lounge PawnBroker followed, as did multiple James Beard award nominations. Most recently, Mendín and his partners opened Habitat, the rooftop restaurant at the luxury 1 Hotel South Beach. Capping it all, Mendín made this year’s People magazine list of sexiest chefs in America.
But then hurricane season hit with a vengeance.
Mendín felt it first with Hurricane Irma in South Florida. While his restaurants sustained only minor damage, he threw himself into relief work with the United Way, providing meals for rescue works in the Florida Keys in the immediate aftermath.
His adopted city was still recovering when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, dealing the chef both personal and professional blows. While still trying to confirm the safety and well being of friends and family on the island, Mendín was forced to temporarily close PB Ysla. But not only did he continue working with the United Way to raise funds for hurricane relief, he helped re-settle employees who wished to evacuate.
“We brought over ten employees and guaranteed all of them paid flights from Puerto Rico to Miami, as well as secured a home for them to live in free of rent for one month,” said Mendín. “They were all also guaranteed employment in our restaurants here, including our newest venture, Habitat. We were sure to help out everyone we could. It's the least we could do after such devastation to the island.”
It was an offer Ileana Montalvo, 31, readily accepted. “Everything was affected — there was no electricity or water, there was no way to communicate unless it was person to person,” she recalled. “Everything changed in less than 24 hours.”
Formerly part of the wait staff at PB Ysla, Montalvo now works in the accounting department at Habitat. “Obviously there’s been a lot sadness and loss,” said Montalvo. “But coming here has opened a lot of doors and we’ve learned a ton.”
Eloy Berlingeri, 30, traded his front of the house position for the kitchen at Habitat. “We didn’t expect this, but we’re here, and we’re happy to work with great chefs,” said Belingeri. “From my point of view, it's been an enriching experience.”
Back in Puerto Rico, PB Ysla re-opened at the end of November. Mendín was able to pick up his deferred dream where he left off.
As for the employees he brought to the United States, they don’t have immediate plans to return to the island. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida following the island's worst hurricane in over a century.
But if Mendín’s story is any indication, they may find their own way back one day.