Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez developed a fondness for chuletas can-can, a dish emblematic of the country's "cocina criolla." It's a massive pork chop including the rib, loin and belly with some skin attached. It is fried until the skin flares into thick, crunchy and fatty edges.
Gonzalez has been the executive chef at the buzzy French Quarter restaurant SoBou since it opened six years ago. He added his take on chuletas can-can to the menu last year, after he revisited the dish on one of his trips back home.
Gonzalez re-imagined the criolla specialty with a modern Creole spirit. He brines a chop for 48 hours before cold-smoking it, similar to the method for curing tasso. The final touch is a dip in the fryer, so the skin and fat creates a delicious crispy crust. The chops are meant for at least two diners to share and are served with an array of colorful accoutrements, including saffron-pickled green apples for tang, red onions cooked until sweet and jammy, chimichurri, andouille-flecked dirty rice and Crystal aioli.
I've dined at SoBou many times over the years, but it wasn't until recently that I picked up on some of Gonzalez's subtle Latin touches. Regional and Creole influences still dominate the menu at the sister restaurant to Commander's Palace and Cafe Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar, but the kitchen seems to take joy in its creative and whimsical tweaks to New Orleans standbys.
Fried blue crab croquettes sit on a slick of saffron-tinged citrus mayonnaise. Buttery crawfish tails and corn maque choux are served with two golden-fried green tomato slices and a thick drizzle of spicy remoulade. Crispy-fried quail arrives atop peppery cornbread waffles with poached eggs and Crystal hollandaise, which delivers a sweet-savory punch.
A daily Gulf fish preparation is served crispy skinned with lump crabmeat and buttery Creole meuniere. A charred lemon adds a bright burst of smokiness and acidity. Also delicious is the crawfish tamale, for which Gonzalez flavors the masa dough with crawfish stock. It is topped with a velvety ragout of crawfish tails and sweet corn maque choux.
Sunday Brunch features a performance by burlesque dancer Bella Blue. Her "Legs & Eggs" show also is the name of a dish of corn-battered frog legs swimming in a seafood courtbouillon atop creamy grits. It seems thoroughly Creole except for the addition of spicy boiled eggs, which are at odds with the rest of the ingredients. Brunch has a festive atmosphere, but the restaurant is livelier at dinner, and the space gets very loud easily.
The restaurant's mainstays — including tuna tartare served in tiny cones, a foie gras burger and sweet potato beignets —are still there and still very good. But the instances where subtle Latin flavors and ingredients appear are the most exciting, and a big part of the restaurant's appeal.