Looks can be deceiving, especially when you drive past Cunoco Restaurant. You probably won’t even realize that it’s there. It’s an unassuming pink building right on the main road in Isabel Segunda, which looks more like a residential house rather than the home of a culinary delight.
Once you’ve discovered this hidden gem, however, you’ll be glad that you did. It was the best meal that I ate while on the island. In all fairness, there were several restaurants that I would have liked to visit, but were closed due to the low season. Even so, Cunoco is a place that you absolutely do not want to miss when you’re on the island of Vieques.
The name Conuco, a native Taino word meaning “vegetable garden”, holds great meaning to married owners Chef Rebecca Betancourt and Manuel Rodriguez. He points out that, on the one hand, “it’s from a lost dialect and naming the restaurant like that people learn about it.” Not only that, but their ancestors grew their own crops, and as a result, planted their roots in the soil that they so steadfastly took care of. Cunoco Restaurant, with its own small vegetable garden on the patio, is carrying on the tradition of planting roots and sharing the harvest with patrons.
Conuco opened its doors in 2009. Chef Rebecca and Manuel have poured their hearts and souls into creating something unique and special.
Chef Rebecca was initially schooled in Marine Biology, until she decided to change course a few years later and begin her culinary studies in Puerto Rico, while also working in a restaurant in San Juan at the same time.
Manuel has a BA in architecture, and is the front house man, responsible for the aesthetics of the restaurant, as well as promotions and client relations. Both are amazing at what they do, and it’s clear that they’ve found their callings.
I ascended the small set of stairs to the awaiting veranda. Two waitstaff sat at a small table, accented by a few flickering candles. They rose to greet me and showed me inside to a round table for two, next to an open window. Manuel came to my table and warmly greeted and welcomed me to the restaurant.
The decor is understated but entirely warm and welcoming. Look up and you’ll see an exposed metal roof supported by wooden beams. The warm yellow color on the walls is soothing, and the black clothed tables are accented by mismatched, pastel colored chairs.
Lets first start with the drink menu. There’s a great selection of cocktails, mostly concocted with rum, but I’m sure if you ask, they’ll make you something different. I was excited to see the tamarind whiskey sour. I drink whiskey infrequently, but with the addition of the tamarind, I couldn’t resist, and the drink didn’t disappoint. It was strong, yet flavorful, with the tamarind adding just the right hint of sourness to balance out the strong taste of the whiskey.
During this visit, the restaurant was in its “soft opening”, trying out a variety of weekly test menus before high season struck and they decided on their “regular” menu.
The menu is described by others as traditional Puerto Rican cuisine with a twist. Chef Rebecca says, “The food at the restaurant would be described as “criollo moderno”, just the simple classic Puerto Rican homestyle cooking, brought to the present refined with fresh and new ingredients.”
On this night, the offerings were exactly so, and I had a really hard time choosing. For appetizers, there were options such as root vegetable soup, crab turnovers, grilled octopus with arepas, yuca tostones stuffed with osso cucco, and creamy lobster salad piononitos, just to name a few.
Main entrees were items such as shrimp or conch mofongo, whole fried snapper, chicken stew rice served with red beans, and grilled pork steak with mashed yautia.
Decisions, decisions! Everything sounded mouthwatering. After much debate, I ended up choosing the grilled octopus with “mojito isleno” and arepas as my appetizer, and a mahi fillet with mango chutney and grilled veggies. I chose very well, and was not disappointed by anything.
The waiter, after delivering my tasty drink, brought over an unexpected treat, a pair of bacalaitos. The presentation impressed me immediately, with the bacalaitos speared on a skewer which was sticking out of a wooden block. I appreciate attention to detail and creativity such as this.
Bacalaitos are soft, pillowy cod fritters with herbs. I’d never had these before, but after trying them, I’d definitely order them again. They were thin, and slightly fried without tasting greasy. The inside of the fritter was warm and doughy, and paired with the creamy caper dip, was a feast for the senses.
Next out was my octopus appetizer. The perfectly grilled tentacle was slightly charred on the outside and incredibly chewy and tender. Not tough at all, which so often happens when octopus is not properly cooked. It was served on a warm salsa type concoction of pepper, onions and spices and gave it just the subtle tang it needed. The arepas complimented the dish nicely and was a great way to scoop up the sauce.
By this time, my stomach is already bulging and I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to eat my entree. Not to worry, when the mahi fillet was placed before me, I knew that I’d figure out my dilemma quickly.
First, the appearance of the plate. It looked like a work of art. The grilled veggies of zucchini, eggplant, and avocado served as the base for the flaky, white mahi fillet. The orange colored mango chutney topped that and a “flower” of red pepper ribbon with fresh greens graced the top. If a picture had been taken of me at the moment the plate was placed upon my table, you would have seen a look of sheer, pure pleasure and eager anticipation.
The meal was DELICIOUS. Everything was fresh and flavorful. The mango chutney was the perfect pairing with the fish, and added a pleasant acidic accompaniment to the white fish. The mahi was flaky, tender, and cooked to perfection. The grilled veggies weren’t soggy and added that extra healthy element that I had so been craving. You’ll sometimes find when in Puerto Rico, your diet becomes heavily influenced by heavy, fried meals complimented by copious amounts of beans and rice. I was looking for something healthier and lighter, and Conuco delivered and met my needs.
The restaurant has just reopened and high season on the island is in full swing. They also host an annual dinner theater event called “Noches de Cultura.” Manuel says that it was important to “make a space where arts and other forms of cultural expressions can manifest.”
It’s clearly not all about the food to this bright young couple. Conuco successfully fuses both food and culture in a welcoming space that will leave you craving another return visit.