The island of Puerto Rico conjures up images of blue Caribbean waters, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze, maybe a round of resort golf and casino gambling. But when you’re hungry in San Juan, here’s what I’d suggest around the capital city.
Lunch Like a Local at La Casita Blanca
You won’t see many tourists in this cute, unassuming restaurant run by the same family for the past 35 years in a building constructed in 1922. You will find a tree growing right through the dining room, a tiny herb garden on the roof, and big portions of the well prepared, home cooked classics of Puerto Rican cuisine. Bacalauditas are flat codfish fritters, perfectly fried and irresistible. Arepas de coco bacalao arrive as fluffy little pockets of fried dough into which you spoon savory codfish stew. Among mains from a menu that changes daily, fricase de pollo (stewed chicken) is a solid choice, as is pork offered either shredded or on chops. I enjoyed my filete de mero, a plainly prepared local grouper topped with cooked onions and served with fried plantains, as well as the ubiquitous rice and beans. If you have room, the tres leches cake and a caramel cake-like flan are very good.
Dinner with the Cool Kids at Santaella
In a lively section of Santurce sits Santaella, a trendy, good looking spot populated by a handsome young crowd. Chef José Santaella brings serious fine dining credentials to an ambitious and eclectic “global” menu. Quesadilla with goat cheese, black truffle, honey and arugula was an excellent starter, as were chorizo-filled croquettes. While my tablemates enjoyed Oriental-style roasted salmon and a beautifully plated roasted lamb shank, I was satisfied with the Chinese five-spice flavored skirt steak. Caramel and meringue cake with ice cream is a worthy dessert.
Indulge Your Chocolate Fantasy at Casa Cortés ChocoBar
If you love chocolate - and who doesn’t? - head straight to the delightful Casa Cortés ChocoBar in the heart of Old San Juan. This retail restaurant operation was opened recently by the fourth generation of the family whose cacao business dominates the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, their excellent product also dominates the menu. The hot chocolate is perfection (even if you don’t choose to spike it with the bourbon option). Elongated donut-like churros come with rich melted chocolate for dipping. Naturally, you’ll find chocolate in pancakes, waffles and oatmeal, but there are even chunks strewn throughout the fruit salad with yogurt and granola. Later in the day the menu features soups, salads and sandwiches, as well as beverages for the adults, like a choco martini. But whatever you do, do not miss the pastries. The supremely talented chef they’ve imported from Spain is masterful with them. Check out those flaky croissants oozing melty chocolate hazelnut, bite into their version of a cronut filled with caramelized banana, or experiment with the grilled cheese and chocolate sandwich. If you have kids, they’ll love you forever if you take them here. The whole place is cleverly designed with the company’s history lining the walls and cocoa-related art. Speaking of which, try to take in their smart collection of contemporary Puerto Rican art in the bi-level gallery atop the restaurant.
Take to the Pork Highway
Drive 45 minutes to an hour south of San Juan and you’ll find yourself somewhere in a mountainous area called Guavate, on what is otherwise known as Puerto Rico’s Pork Highway. You’ll discover a series of roadside restaurants known as lechonerias that specialize in the making of lechon, whole roasted pig. Seasoned whole hogs are slowly cooked on a spit over an open fire in huge metallic boxes, eventually yielding soft, sensuous pork and intensely crisp skin called chicharron. Done well, this is glorious good eating. The grandaddy of lechonerias is the immense El Rancho Original. Hop in line, watch them hack up the meat with a machete and serve it with traditional sides of rice and pigeon peas, plantains and other starchy tubers. Go during the week if you prefer quiet and solitude; go on a Sunday if you want the full throttle Puerto Rican experience that includes live music and dancing.
Enjoy An Elegant Dinner at OLIVA
Set in a classy, nouveau boutique hotel, Chef Nicolas Gomez is putting out refined, first class cuisine. Start with cocktails on the roof overlooking the city. Then proceed to the very small dining room where you can oversee the chef and his team preparing a serious dinner. Home grown tomato bisque surrounding a delicate crab cake was wonderful. Local organic arugula with fresh berries and goat cheese vinaigrette stimulates the palate. Superb octopus is paired with local artisanal chorizo, red potatoes and crispy onions. Although I don’t generally order gnocchi, not a a single bite of their exemplary version was left on my plate. Local pumpkin softly sweetened the pillowy gnocchi and pancetta added a salty crunch, while roasted cherry tomatoes and organic arugula completed the beautifully balanced composition. And I certainly understand why the crackling crème brûlée is their signature dessert. All in all, a terrific meal.
Have Fun with Fusion at Budatai
Budatai is the brainchild of local celebrity chef Roberto Treviño, one of the originators of Puerto Rico’s fusion food movement. This lively, multi-story space, located in the heart of the Condado community of San Juan, serves up inventive Latin-Asian fusion on steroids. Although a full variety of main dishes is offered, one could easily create an entire meal out of dim sum, sushi, ceviches and rice, noodles and sides. I loved the fatty, sweet and salty, glazed lamb ribs. Pork dumplings were massive and meaty. Octopus is braised in olive oil for so long that it melts on the tongue. Lo Mein with chicken chicharones (little fried pieces) works for me. Duck fried rice sweetened by the addition of plantains will not hurt you either.
Say Yo Ho Ho at The Bacardi Distillery
If you have a few hours to kill and you want to see how and where rum is made by one of world’s largest producers, take a tour of the Bacardi Distillery. Sure you can expect some crowds, both because of, and alleviated by, the two rum drinks they offer on the house.