Puerto Rico on a Plate
Though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States, Charlotte Steinway explains how the island’s ever-evolving food scene is still worlds away
The third of six courses, a truffle honey-drizzled plate of foie gras over a single sweet plantain, emerges from the restaurant’s buzzing kitchen and into a modern art-flanked dining room. Close your eyes and you could be anywhere — New York’s Upper East Side, Boston’s South End — but you’re in a different part of the United States. Puerto Rico, to be exact.
From heaping Styrofoam plates of empanadas and pernil con arroz to multicourse Asian fusion tasting menus, San Juan’s culinary scene runs the gamut from traditional Spanish and Latin American-influenced dishes to sophisticated foodie hotspots. Ingredients are sourced in a similarly diverse fashion: The island has some native agriculture of its own, though many restaurants outsource their products from the mainland. Most, however, tend to utilize a mix of the two. Whether it’s a Mediterranean fusion restaurant housed in one of San Juan’s new boutique hotels or an open-air mountainside eatery specializing in spit-roasted pig, the island’s culinary scene is an ever-evolving mix of tastes, budgets and influences.
Here, we round up 10 of the island’s best spots, from the buzzing beachfront newbies to the off-the-beaten path gems:
After training at New York icons Le Bernadin and The Water Club, celebrity chef Wilo Benet returned to his native island of Puerto Rico to open Pikayo, the elegant Condado restaurant he’s run for the past 24 years. Offering a tasting menu dotted with dishes like coconut milk polenta and corned beef brisket stew (pictured) to foie gras-topped plantains, Benet has long been a proponent of mixing tastes. “One of the things that makes Puerto Rico special is the mix of sweet and salty elements that permeate each dish,” Benet says. “But I do believe that it takes proper execution to find a balance.”
Espresso Art by Finca Cialitos
Despite being rocked by a rough economic climate, coffee production is still a huge part of Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy, thanks to the island’s rich volcanic soil and temperate weather. Run by veteran roaster Joaquin Pastor, Finca Cialitos in Old San Juan doles out some of the island’s best—from traditional espressos and Americanos to inventive frozen concoctions. “People mix coffee with syrup to hide bad coffee,” Pastor says. “If I’m adding syrup, I’m adding it to make the coffee express itself.”
Hotel El Convento
Old San Juan’s Hotel El Convento is located in a historic former nunnery, just across from San Juan Cathedral, the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The charming courtyard Patio del Nispero restaurant is a must when visiting Old San Juan: look out for traditional Puerto Rican dishes made with ingredients from the hotel’s rooftop garden. What to order? Executive chef Luis Castillo explains, “We have all sorts of mains on our dinner menu — scallops, churrasco — but people tend to keep coming back for the red snapper.”
Roadside Limber Popsicles
For dessert like a local, stop by one of Puerto Rico’s many roadside fruit and vegetable markets for a wide selection of limber popsicles, whose name comes from the Spanish lamer, meaning “to lick.” Choose from flavors like avocado, creamy strawberry or even sweet cheese, and use the heat of your hand to warm up the frozen dessert just enough to propel it out of the plastic cup and into popsicle form. It’s the perfect finish to a beer-soaked afternoon of spit-roasted pork in Guavate.
Set inside the super swank (and recently reopened) Condado Vanderbilt hotel, 1919 Restaurant is all about atmosphere. With glittering ocean views from its beachfront location in Condado, the contemporary space is spearheaded by Michelin-starred Executive Chef Juan Jose Cuevas, who doles out a menu that could hold its own in New York City — think coriander-dusted tuna crudo and truffled Waygu beef — alongside a killer wine selection.
La Casita Blanca
For an authentic Puerto Rican dining experience in a homey atmosphere, look no further than La Casita Blanca in Villa Palermas. Located in a breezy converted house with a tree growing right through the main dining room, La Casita Blanca has a rooftop herb and vegetable garden and traditional feel to it: the menu changes regularly, few of the staff members speak English, but nearly anything you blindly point to will be delicious. But to be safe, order up a basket of bacalaitos (codfish fritters, which come nearly six inches in diameter), fresh avocado slices, and the arroz con pollo (roasted chicken with rice and beans in traditional sauce, pictured).
O:liva Dieta Mediterranea
The newcomer of the list, O:liva is the groundfloor restaurant inside newcomer Olive Boutique Hotel. With a focus on Mediterranean and Italian cuisine, O:liva is just one of many Condado restaurants to focus on a cuisine other than Puerto Rican. But some native influence still remains: Executive Chef Nicolas Gomez’s menu is dotted with Spanish and Latin American-inspired ingredients like sweet plantains, chorizo and piquillo peppers, like the octopus with local artisan chorizo, red bliss potatoes and crispy onions, pictured above.
Perhaps the most buzzed about restaurant in San Juan, José Enrique is packed nearly every night of the week. They don’t take reservations so it’s worth getting there early, but even so it’s worth the wait. Chef José Enrique’s eponymous Sancture restaurant was voted one of Conde Nast Traveler’s best new restaurants after its 2007 opening and Enrique has since been nominated for a James Beard award. In spite of all its hype, the lively restaurant is still not one to break the bank — signature entrees like dorado with salsa criolla and tostones and churrasco hover around $20, and their famous coffee flan comes in a portion big enough for three.
Lechoneras in Guavate
To truly experience Puerto Rico like a local, you’ll have to rent a car (or find a willing driver you can pay in pork). Guavate, about 45 minutes outside of San Juan, is the lush, almost jungle-like mountainside with a winding road flanked by lechoneras, expansive outdoor restaurants serving up slow-cooked, spit-roasted whole hogs. Nicknamed “Pork Highway,” the area is dotted with open-air dining spots offering live music and some of the best suckling pig in the game. Celebrity chef Roberto Trevino, owner of three restaurants in Condado, explains: “[Lechon] is a staple up in the mountains. People here will eat it for every meal —even for breakfast over rice with eggs.” The area standout is El Rancho Original, which was featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The restaurant’s treehouse-like dining area is bisected by a roaring brook, where locals post up for a full day’s worth of weekend drinking and dining.
Santaella is San Juan’s poster child of modern Puerto Rican dining. Housed in a former hardware store, Santaella’s industrial-chic space is marked by reclaimed wood and clusters of Edison bulb lamps, plus a keynote interior tropical garden. Chef José Santaella sources some of his ingredients from the adjacent La Placita Mercado, while others come from the island’s more bucolic interior. But Santaella explains he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed when it comes to his cuisine: “Although I make contemporary dishes mixed with Puerto Rican products, I don’t like to be put in one particular niche when it comes to my cooking.” And at Santaella, variation is the name of the game: the restaurant is as renowned for their goat cheese quesadillas with honey and arugula as they are for their curry beef stew with sweet plantains. Don’t miss their house-made Sandia Mojito, a cocktail made with watermelon, rum, mint and fresh lime juice.
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