Mofongo is magic — that’s indisputable — but Puerto Rico’s gastronomical delights extend well beyond traditional dishes. The island is brimming with immensely talented, critically celebrated chefs who do more than perfect classics to a science. Not everyone can enjoy it all, though. Dining out is a luxury many locals living in a disastrous economical climate can’t regularly indulge in, much less at a restaurant helmed by a world-renowned chef.
Two weeks ago, however, Lote 23 changed that, providing not only greater access to affordable top-notch cuisine, but also growth opportunities for those who make the food.
Conceived by siblings Cristina and Fernando Sumaza, Lote 23 boasts 14 kioscos (kiosks) and two Airstream trailers serving pernil, tacos, pizza, donuts, burgers, popsicles, noodles, cocktails, coffee and more—all of it inspired, gathered together in what was once an empty expanse between buildings in Santurce. The lot had gone unused for so long, nature was beginning to reclaim it. Now, it’s overflowing with people daily: followers of the beloved participating chefs, curious folks investigating the hype (of which there’s been loads), and passersby drawn in by the savory smells wafting throughout.
“It’s really not something new; you go around the world and you always have these different food halls and food markets and stuff like that,” says Cristina Sumaza. “Puerto Rico had a lot of talent, but there was nothing kind of like that, organizing a lot of chefs, and…I was like, why don’t they organize and do something really cool? Not only for tourists, but for locals.”
Sumaza returned to Puerto Rico, venturing into real estate development, about three years ago; she’d been living in New York, where she worked in marketing and talent recruitment and also co-founded ConPRmetidos, a nonprofit focused on the economic development of the island and diaspora through social innovation. Combating the “brain drain” issue—losing massive chunks of the millennial workforce among the more than 400,000 Puerto Ricans who’ve left the island since 2004—is one of the organization’s primary concerns.
“I’m very passionate about Puerto Rico,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I moved back.”
This endeavor, then, is the convergence of both Sumaza’s savvy and her preoccupations about the island’s future, in conjunction with the skills of her brother, who owns a general construction company. The investment needed for a spot at Lote 23 is considerably less than opening a business from scratch, making it significantly easier for a dining entrepreneur to actually realize their dreams.
One of those people is Paxx Caraballo Moll of El Baoricua, who has spent the past several years trying to get their “asianrican” food truck going, but were consistently thwarted by the hurdles of operational permits and other issues. Now, at Lote 23, Paxx’s struggle is a happy one: They’re running out of food before closing time. And they aren’t the only ones, either.
“We’re having a big problem [with] trying to keep up with the demand,” Sumaza laughs. “We don’t want to sacrifice quality; quality for us is priority number one.”
The majority of the Lote 23 members, though, are already established chefs, Sumaza notes – like Raúl Correa, owner of Zest y Mist at the Hotel San Juan Water Beach Club, who runs brick-oven pizza spot Dorotea at the Lot. But the condensed, lower-cost setting offers a chance to expand, to test out new ideas on an at-the-ready audience, with minimal risk.
“A lot of them are validating concepts that they want to try to expand eventually throughout the island, which is a great tool for economic development in the crisis that we’re in now,” she says.
Uplifting local creative minds goes beyond the food, too. Lote 23 is decorated with murals painted by Puerto Rican long-lauded artists like Bik Ismo, whose work highlights the history of los Cangrejeros, Santurce’s baseball team, alongside less familiar names, like mixed media artist Natalie Almonte, whose mural marked her first—ever. Among others featured are Sofía Maldonado, Susana Cacho, Javier Cintrón, Amy Cabrero and Sebastian Sagardía, plus Jonathan Ortiz, who’s part of Lote 23’s design team.
“It’s been an interesting mix, and it really was super organic as well. We started out with Bik Ismo because we wanted this portrait of los Cangrejeros painted, and he did a really great job. Then it kind of was all flowing; people were interested, and one person recommended the other one, which was very similar to the chefs,” Sumaza notes. “We had a little group, then people started recommending, because it’s a very small industry. And theyre all really great friends, so it was pretty cool.”
At the far center of Lote 23, there’s a sizeable stage; in the short span of its existence so far, they’ve already hosted bomba, indie rock, a progressive Puerto Rican fusion group and Remezcla favorite Los Wálters.
“I think that one concept that we’ve been trying to follow in everything here at Lote is very Puerto Rican, but contemporary,” Sumaza summarizes. “What’s very true to our culture, but [also show] how everyone is reinventing and kind of interpreting in a different, modern way.”