Off the eaten track in San Juan
A foodie trip to Puerto Rico might evoke images of traditional island fare: red beans and white rice, lechón – a roasted suckling pig – or even the island’s ubiquitous signature dish mofongo, made with garlicky smashed green plantains stuffed with meat or vegetables. Do a little searching, though, and you’ll find that clandestine culinary secrets ripple just beneath the surface.
Puerto Rican food is a varied mix thanks to its multicultural past. Influences from the peaceful hunter-gatherer Taínos manifest in the uses of cassava, ñame, yuca and other root vegetables, as well as the tradition of mashing corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other assorted ingredients with a maceta y pilón (mortar and pestle). West African culture also played a key role in shaping the island’s foodscape by introducing frying as a cooking method. Spaniards brought livestock and a couple of other items you might not expect – mango and plantain. These fruits weren’t indigenous to the island, but are now an iconic part of it.
Below, we’ve listed some of the best foodie secrets in San Juan: hit the town with an empty belly and an appetite for exploration, and you’re sure to find something delicious.
Tucked away in the southern section of Old San Juan, this tiny mom-and-pop shop would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line of eager folks snaking around the block, happily waiting their turn to indulge in some of the tastiest and coldest treats this little islet has to offer: handcrafted paletas (www.facebook.com/srpaletaoldsanjuan).
Paleterias, or ice-pop stands, are a growing culinary trend across the US and in several parts of Latin America. Shop owners Ramon and Jennifer craft refreshing natural popsicles in a variety of both milk and fruit-based flavors. Nutella? Got it. Cookies and Cream? Sure. But you might want to hold out for their best-seller, strawberry mojito. The shop stands apart thanks to its emphasis on using fresh fruit and high quality ingredients – many of their products are sourced locally, and they offer the only farm-to-table paletas in town.
Coffee first arrived Puerto Rico in 1736, soon becoming one of the dominant cash crops on the island; today, Puerto Rican coffee is known for its high quality and its strong, but not bitter flavor. Old San Juan is chock-a-block with several coffee spots, but Cuatro Sombras stands apart not only for its quality, locally grown beans, but because they are the only coffee shop in Old San Juan that roasts its own coffee fresh, right there on site. Cuatro Sombras is the “shop face” of the owner’s family coffee plantation, Hacienda Santa Clara, founded in 1846 and located in the mountains of Yauco.
These beans are single origin, which means they come from a single location and are not mixed with any other beans from other farms or even other countries. When you visit Cuatro Sombras, be sure to ask for the local’s drink, the cortadito. Think of it as the Puerto Rican version of the macchiato.
Princesa Gastrobar (princesapr.com) is nestled in a beautiful garden patio at the edge of the famous city wall that historically encompassed all of Old San Juan. Founded in 2015, owner Jose Daniel and head chef Luis Freire were inspired by a historic cookbook that featured recipes dating as far back as 1859 – the two decided to create a unique menu that blends Spanish and Puerto Rican dishes to make what they call ‘island cuisine’. These recipes are indicated on their menu with a local tree frog called a coqui.
The restaurant’s specialty is a Spanish staple: croquettes. These heavenly bites are made with chicken and Iberian ham and served over béchamel sauce – they require four days of prep and more than twenty ingredients. Fun fact: the recipe dates back 300 years to the kitchens of El Botín Restaurant in Spain, where Chef Luis completed his training.
La Alcapurria Quemá
Head to La Alcapurria Quemá for a big dose of local Caribbean charm (facebook.com/laalcapurriaquema); located in a foodie spot known as La Placita, the restaurant is close to Ocean Park and Condado in an urban area known as Santurce. La Placita technically refers to the local market, the oldest operating farmers market in San Juan (dating back to the 1850s), but the surrounding area includes a number of bars and restaurants. For many years, this plaza has attracted locals who come for a long Friday lunch that often extends into the evening – it’s a great place to dance to live music into the wee hours of the morning.
The restaurant’s menu changes on a daily basis, but some staples are always present; be sure to try their namesake alcapurria, a type of Puerto Rican fritter. These delectable dishes are usually made with a batter of local root vegetable yautia (taro) and guineos verdes (green bananas), then stuffed with crab, lobster, shrimp, ground meat filling or vegetables. Top it off with local piqué, a Puerto Rican hot sauce, but proceed with caution – some piqués are on the mild side, while others set your mouth on fire.
If you’re looking for a dose of off-the-beaten path charm, Tresbé is the place to go (facebook.com/tresbecafe). It’s unusual name stands for three Bs – bueno, bonito and barato – translating to ‘good, pretty and affordable’ in English.
Tresbé is located off San Juan’s newly trending foodie street, Calle Loíza, which is holding tight to its reputation as a great place to find a variety of local, creative and delicious cuisines in a true urban ambiance. Another plus: the restaurant has parking next door, a rarity in that part of town.
Try their fresh ceviche (with octopus, if you want to eat like a local) and add some tostones – twice fried plantain slices. Still hungry? They also have chicken wings with a delicious tamarind BBQ glaze, various empandadillas and tasty fried fish tacos with local slaw on top. While you’re at it, order yourself one of their piña coladas – the ingredients are fresh, taking the flavor up a notch. Fun fact: the piña colada is a Puerto Rican original, created in San Juan in the 1950s.