Puerto Rico Eats
Any time I vacation in El Caribe, I get very excited for obvious reasons. I spent summers in Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico as a child and teenager, and hold onto fond memories of food and fun in the sun. It has been over ten years since I’ve revisited, partly because of life changes and other travel destinations, and partly because I’m concerned over the modernization of islands which are pristine in my memory, a time with few cars and no fast food franchises. But, alas, even third world Caribbean islands have caught up in this internet age, and finding the petals that were once flowers has proven elusive, given the over development of resort tourism.
Tired of the extended NYC winter, I booked a great deal to San Juan, PR in the Condado area of Santurce. Tropical breezes met fickle weather, but for the most part sunny and temps in the 80’s. It only occurred to me that I needed research on where to eat and drink, and that not much has been written about PR outside of Frommer’s and Trip Advisor.
My encounters in PR dining was very mixed, with lots of tourist traps, high end criolla cuisine and in betweens, topped off by a diamond in the rough. Criolla refers to a style of cuisine prominent on most Caribbean islands, a marriage of European technique and local ingredients and native cooking, and is unique to each island but universal in approach.
In this respect Puerto Rico, Dom. Republic, and Cuba serve very similar tasting food, with slight nuances and touches. Tropical fruits, fried foods, rice and beans, and fresh fish, stewed and grilled meats are core ingredients, adapted pasta dishes and the like are add-ons from Euro-recipes.
On Ashford Avenue, I ate small meals at La Hacienda, a PR-Mex place which has basic fare from both sides, cheap drinks, and a resounding view to the ocean. Some highlights of the menu are flautas, mole and chimichangas as well as fried pork chunks and fried snapper fish.
There is hotel eating which can be perilous. I had some decent small plates at Pikayo in the Conrad Plaza Hotel. There were some proper cocktails had and a credible wine list, albeit curious one. To watch the NCAA b-ball finals, I had some forgettable pizza at Mike’s, where I’m sure the product is tailored towards Latin flavor profiles.
Also near the hotel is a resto called Ropa Vieja, which served a proper plate of mofongo with shredded beef. I would return for that one dish alone. We consumed an obscure bottle of Yunquera Albillo 2009, a delicious bottle and a bargain at $28 USD. I say USD because at lunch at El Jibbarito in old San Juan, a couple of tourists asked the waitress if the resto accepted USD or would they have to convert to pesos. God Bless U.S. geography lessons. The food was fair at El Jib, but not worth a special trip.
In Old San Juan, there are lots of restos spending way too much on tourist décor and palates, overpriced with very fruit juicy sangria and wine lists heavy on Californian wine. If I want 15% in my wine, I’ll stick to rum and coke. Most of the wine lists seemed synchronized by the same importer, and the prices varied wildly.
A more successful visit was made to La Bombonera, which reminds of the typical luncheonette in the Bronx and El Barrio in NYC. Cuban sandwiches and strong coffees. La Mallorca, the specialty of the house is divine. This is a must have sugar attack.
Academically speaking I was very interested in the Spanish restaurants, which are well known in PR. I was very disappointed in many ways. First, the wine lists seemed the same. Second, the dishes were all familiar, but poorly executed. The jamon guy should have been taken out and…. The paella looked terrible, again perhaps a modification for the local tourists, and key ingredients were left out of classics as interpretations of the chef. At Picoteo, at least there was 5 star Mahou beer in a beautiful setting. At Compostela Santiago, some wines on the list were a steal, such as a “94 Pesquera for $125. The Pulpo ala Gallega was served without potatoes, but the octopus was tender and juicy. The arroz a banda was an imposter, and the cochinillo, priced at $45., came two portions sizes too small with no sides. The only salvaging part of the meal was a great bottle of Sameira from the Ribeiro and a standby from Ribeira Sacra, Vina Caneiro.
After a nice conversation with the Maitre d’Hotel, whose brother is the chef at Macondo on Houston, he tipped me off to a place off the beaten path in the Plaza de Mercado in Santurce. The neighborhood houses a small plaza with fruit and vegetable vendors and lots of local makeshift bars with outdoor seating serving cold Medalla beer, rum, and fritura (fried foods). After several attempts at local GPS (asking around), I came up to a house off to the side with no sign. This was the house (resto) of Jose Enrique, chef and proprietor. Once through the front porch and door is a scene, one that instinctually I know is the “promised island”. A non-descript room with a bar, bustling with people in the know, speaking Spanish and having long lunches full of tropical drinks and colorful plates. Eureaka! Save that there were no available seats in the dining room and a 1.5 hour wait. But in the patio…I was afeared there was no AC, but this patio was adorned with ceiling fans, wooden benches and salsa over the speakers. All that was missing was a hammock.
Fresh juices with or without rum to start, followed by sangria and a good short wine list. Who is going back to work after this outing? Amelia brought over a handwritten menu on dry erase board with apps for the day. Every one seemed tantalizing. Homemade longaniza, empanadas with tiny fish, crab salad filled arepita cups, smoked, fried pork chunks, head cheese, langoustines, scallops, tomato and eggplant salad, salmon fritters. A meal could be constructed from these. My partner and I could only eat five. Then the main course billboard comprised of whatever was caught or from local farms, skirt steak, mahi mahi, sea bream, tuna, yellow snapper, filet mignon empanizada, and so on. Just what was available for the day Amelia assured us. The meal was brilliant, just what the essence of criolla cuisine is: not a fancification of home cooked dishes, just home cooked dishes using the freshest and best of the island. Twists on classics such as mofongo and mamposteao, playful deconstruction of a dessert classic like temblake. This meal stacks up against any of the fine meals from my recent memory of the big five (Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, & New American). Convivial atmosphere, feeling at home, great staff and a desire to return for my next meal.
Amelia tells me there are many regulars, and no reservations, which can prove difficult in terms of planning a time for a visit. I suggest to come when you please and have a few beers at any of the next door bars while you wait. It’s worth the trip.