Roberto Treviño established himself as one of Puerto Rico's most celebrated chefs thanks to such well-received restaurants as Budatai – a Latin-Asian concept – and his numerous Food Network appearances (most notably when he took on the Croc'd one on Iron Chef America). But his battle with Mario Batali is about as distant a memory as the 26 years he spent on the Island of Enchantment. Treviño's been living in the moment, focusing on reincarnating Budatai as El Buda on Church Street.
It certainly hasn't been without its challenges, what with the requisite permitting and construction delays, a name change, not to mention the space itself. The beautiful room inside the Bumby Arcade has proved tricky for many a restaurateur, and the absence of a true main entrance will always bestow the occupying restaurant with "hidden" status. (If you're wondering, enter through the side doors at the foot of Gertrude's Walk.)
A few visits to El Buda revealed some small details still in need of sweating, particularly for a restaurant run by a chef of such renown. Being presented with torn and tattered menus doesn't make a great first impression; neither does filling water glasses with plastic pizzeria-issue pitchers, but Treviño's cooking more than makes up for it. The guy is a major talent, and on any given day he'll improvise some off-the-menu specials that'll leave you wondering why they're not permanent fixtures.
Take the delicate dumplings con coco ($12). They're filled with pork and shredded coconut; dressed with toasted garlic, sesame and scallion curlicues; spiced with sambal oelek and anointed in a sauce of coconut milk, chicken stock, sugar and oyster sauce. The dumplings and sauce blew us away and had us brushing aside their more corpulent (and nearly as exceptional) dim-sum cousins filled with pork and sweet plantains ($15).
We'd probably lose our minds if Treviño served xiao long bao with a Latin spin (that's a not-so-subtle nudge, chef) but, until then, there's plenty more to go gaga over: seriously addictive fried edamame ($8) dotted with black and white sesame seeds tossed in a sweet and spicy chili sauce; or ropa vieja bibimbap ($21) crowned with a fried egg; or wonderfully grilled churrasco atop wide ho fun noodles ($24). Every dish is a true East-meets-West amalgam of flavors like the ones Treviño made famous in Puerto Rico. The chicharron sticky rice with pickled onions, watermelon radish and dollarweed ($16) – another off-menu special – evokes the essence of the isle. There are splendid seafood selections like zippy hirame con coco ($16), a ceviche of flounder in a coconut milk reduction, though Treviño has used grouper and fluke as well. One thing is clear – Treviño is an expert saucier, a fact made evident in a plate of seared sushi-grade tuna ($26) upon which he employs a "Sichuan-pepita" sauce fashioned from Sichuan peppercorns, pumpkin seeds and rice wine vinegar that outshines the fish. The star dish on the menu, however, has to be the sauce-free duck breast with miso-honey potatoes ($26). Treviño sous-vides the duck before searing it, slicing it, and serving it with honeycomb and potato dauphinoise. It's a magnificent preparation, and a dish I never fail to order.
Desserts like churros served with horchata ($8), pot de crème ($8), tres leches ($8) and chocolate lava cake ($12) shy away from the fusion label, but are nevertheless well prepared endings that left us gratified. It's no surprise that at a restaurant named "El Buda," we departed feeling fat and happy.