Are you a tourist or a traveler?
A tourist sees stuff. A traveler gets all five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste –involved in the experience.
And if you travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, your taste buds will thank you for not leaving them out of the fun. Dining on the authentic cuisine of Puerto Rico is one of the primary reasons to travel to this American Caribbean territory. But you need to know where to go…
…and I’m happy to help.
My wife and I recently returned from a weeklong trip to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico and the second oldest city in the Western Hemisphere.
We ate our way across the historic city, sampling fancy five-star, fine-dining establishments and locals-only diners alike. It was a tough job, but that is what I do for our loyal Proud American Travelers.
So, here are my seven favorite spots for an authentic taste of San Juan.
Santisimo is the newest restaurant in one of the oldest hotels in Old San Juan — El Convento.
The hotel, a former convent across the street from the historic Cathedral where Ponce de Leon is buried, drips in Old World atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where Spanish explorers decorate the dark hallways in monumental framed oil paintings, tropical plants cascade from the rafters, and ceiling fans turn slowly in the thick Caribbean air.
Even though I’ve never stayed at El Convento, we always make it a tradition to stop by the candlelit bar on the second floor balcony for an atmospheric late evening drink.
The food coming off the wood-fired grill looked tempting, so we returned for a Saturday afternoon lunch splurge. We weren’t disappointed.
The oysters grilled with bacon and bread crumbs were spectacular, but expensive at $20 for a half dozen.
My brazed short rib came on top of corn and grits cazuela, a type of Latin American stew. My wife had a flatbread with brie, prosciutto, and caramelized onions.
The $100 tab was a bit steep for lunch, but dining on an al fresco porch overlooking the courtyard of an ancient Spanish convent makes this an experience you won’t forget.
This is the kind of place that has the feel of a local hole-in-the-wall with its wobbly tables, mismatched chairs, giant portrait of the proprietor and a hand-painted Puerto Rican flag mural. But in this age of internet and TV travel shows, the reality is, most of the patrons are probably tourists like us searching for authenticity.
The menu is about as authentic as it gets. We started with an order of alcapurrias – plantain fritters stuffed with beef. Tasty, but the meat was a bit scarce.
My wife ordered a traditional dish of pork chunks with rice and sweet plantains.
I went a bit bolder with an order of “pastel de platano relleno de cerdo”. I had absolutely no idea what that meant either, but the English translation on the menu sounded promising – plantain tamale filled with pork.
I like plantains. I like tamales. I like pork. What could go wrong?
I knew I was in trouble when the two native Puerto Rican ladies dining next to us stopped their Spanish conversation mid-sentence, switched to English and told me how “shocked” they were that I ordered something so “adventurous.”
Uh oh. Not a good sign.
What I got was gelatinous plantain mush with a few small fatty bits of pork mixed in. It tasted okay, but the texture was off-putting to say the least.
The Puerto Rican ladies assured me El Jibarito was “the best place in Puerto Rico to order that.”
I said, “So you are saying it doesn’t get any better than this?” Oh well. You can’t say I wasn’t willing to try the native cuisine – even the cuisine the natives themselves don’t seem too anxious to try.
No tropical vacation is complete without at least one meal dining outside with an ocean view. Well, at Oceano, the waves crash right below your feet.
The proximity of the ocean is reflected in the menu. Corvina, a fresh local tropical fish with a sweet, flaky flesh came served lightly fried under a mound of fried onions and tangy homemade slaw.
The seafood paella came with saffron and lobster couscous instead of the more traditional rice. But the shellfish was the star of the show. Oceano doesn’t skimp on the clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, and fish.
Those two entrees were bookended by two non-seafood dishes.
The ropa vieja appetizer was the highlight of the entire meal. “Ropa Vieja” is Spanish for “old clothes”. Marinated beef is braised until so tender, it looks like shredded rags. Oceano’s version of this classic Cuban meal was a kaleidoscope of flavor with a black bean base, candied plantains and onions bringing the sweetness, and thin sliced Anaheim peppers adding a touch of spice.
Triple chocolate cake for dessert was the perfect ending to such a wonderful meal.
Rosa de Triana
Rosa de Triana is a literal hole in the wall of an ancient building lining Old San Juan’s oldest street, which leads up the hill from the famous red gate of Puerta de San Juan, the original entrance to the city.
You will dine in a vaulted cave that once served as the city’s prison.
The dark cozy atmosphere livens up considerably every Friday and Saturday night between 8:30 and 9:30 when a guitarist and flamenco dancer take to the tiny stage and entertain diners for free.
This is a throwback to San Juan’s Spanish roots. Flamenco dancing and its rhythmic and emotional theatrics originated in Andalucía, the southern part of Spain that was home to most of the Spanish Conquistadors who colonized Puerto Rico.
The cuisine at Rosa de Triana matches the entertainment. This is not traditional Puerto Rican food. Rather it is traditional Spanish food with lots of tasty small plates, like moist cod croquettes and garlic shrimp, as well as bigger entrées like Spanish seafood paella for two. Of course one of the best parts of any Spanish meal is the good bread to lap up all those garlicy sauces.
Unfortunately, the food doesn’t quite live up to the atmosphere and entertainment. The paella was a bit dry with a high rice to seafood ratio. But the giant mojitos and tableside flamenco make Rosa de Triana a fun-filled experience for your San Juan itinerary.
Tucked into the heart of historic Old San Juan along one of the blue cobblestone side streets, you’ll find this local’s-only lunchroom serving “cocina criolla” – traditional Puerto Rican “Creole cuisine.”
“Creole” means a mix of European and native cultures.
The day we visited, their special was tender, smoky BBQ ribs. That may not sound very traditional at first, but understand that pork is one of the traditional food groups in Puerto Rico.
When the Spanish began settling in Puerto Rico in the early 1500s, one of their greatest contributions was introducing the natives to the world’s most delicious animal – the pig. Ever since that fateful day more than 500 years ago, Puerto Ricans have been masters with all the various pig parts.
I enjoyed mofongo, the most famous of all Puerto Rican dishes. Mofongo is made from green plantains that are fried and mashed with garlic and olive oil and often formed into the shape of a bowl where other delicious meats and seafood are cradled. My mofongo happened to be topped with garlicy local shrimp. Delicious.
Why does hip and trendy always equate crowded and loud? Santaella, a local favorite in the hot Santurce section of San Juan, was jammed with tables crowded with well-dressed revelers. The bar was stacked four to five people deep with no room to stand or sit or maneuver.
Not to sound like an old guy, but I was beginning to have second thoughts until the hostess took us to the only private, quiet corner in the entire restaurant.
Hip and trendy also means expensive. Santaella isn’t cheap. Entrees were in the $30s. Our appetizer alone was a wallet-clutching $27.
Oh, but what an “appetizer” it was! The Spanish Cazuela ate like an entire meal, a clay pot full of baby octopus, white beans and chorizo sausage accompanied by good Spanish bread to mop it all up. And no, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty dining on baby octopus. They were delicious, like tender, succulent calamari.
My entrée was shrimp “trifongo”, a twist on the traditional Puerto Rican mofongo. Instead of mashing only green plantains, Santaella mixes in yucca and sweet plantains as well, lending a sweeter base to the white wine, butter and cream sautéed shrimp.
Most spectacular of all was our side dish of sweet plantains candied like dessert. Hip and trendy never tasted so good!
I saved the best for last. In fact, Marmalade is so life-altering, I wrote an entirely separate review. No trip to San Juan would be complete without this once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.
In fact, you should book a trip to San Juan and make a reservation at Marmalade right now. Your taste buds will be glad you did.