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Savouring San Juan

The range of Puerto Rico’s culinary talent yields a smorgasbord of taste sensations, from the fine dining to the food trucks…

By Doug Wallace

The extra pandemic pounds are a bit of a shock when I go to throw on my best pair of trunks. Having not worn summer clothes for a few months, it is more than annoying to find that they now don’t fit, particularly on San Juan’s Condado Beach, where all the boys are, sunning themselves like lizards in their little swimsuits. I silently hate them and their stupid abs. My first trip to the beach in two years and I’m a negative Nellie.

The problem is, Puerto Rico is not the place to be on a diet or to pass up any food. I should have “shrunk the package” beforehand, as a friend puts it, but now it’s too late. San Juan is a culinary wonderland and I must eat everything in sight.

Within a week-long food extravaganza, we go from traditional to fine dining to offbeat menus, appreciating the expertise of some of San Juan’s top chefs and taking history lessons from time-tested food rituals. Here, even the plain-Jane meals are great. Luckily, my going-out pants have a drawstring – one that no one can see.

We begin on Condado’s main drag at Ropa Vieja Grill, a cab driver-recommended eatery with a Cuban-Puerto Rican fusion menu that is so massive it takes twice as long to decide what to have. The patio is swinging, the portions are big, the value terrific – so every table is full. Specialties like black bean risotto with beef tenderloin tips and a seafood cazuela top the list, but I have my heart set on the traditional mofongo: fried and mashed plantains served with meat or seafood. My chicken version comes swimming in a tidal wave of oil and garlic. And as my plate empties, I find myself taking smaller and smaller bites to make it last longer.

A few doors down at casual, bohemian-style 1950 Condado restaurant, more traditional Puerto Rican dishes await us the next night in the form of ham and manchego croquettes, stuffed tostones with ceviche, and pork ribs. The mamposteao rice is a true highlight, a richly spiced mixture of stewed red beans and rice. I could truly eat my weight in rice and beans.

Eating practice makes perfect
At the other end of the sliding dining scale, we take two evenings to discover the restaurants of Puerto Rican celebrity chef Mario Pagán of Food Network’s Next Iron Chef fame. The first is the buzz-worthy La Central by Mario Pagán, a cavernous steakhouse in the Distrito T-Mobil, a new entertainment complex with restaurants, cinemas, a concert venue and a convention centre all rolled into one. Everything at La Central is cooked on a wood-fired grill, the kitchen on full display, almost like dinner theatre. Groups of obvious businesspeople traipse in and jaw-off in little cliques, many heading to even more dining space upstairs. We tuck into swordfish with white bean stew and a 20-ounce New York steak with cilantro béarnaise with black truffle butter melting away on top, and finish with a corn brûlée, a caramel popcorn-and-custard combo.

Latin-Asian fusion reigns at Raya by Mario Pagán, located in the chic O:LV 55 Hotel, a boutique gem. Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese influences meld here in the form of miso sea bass with truffled white yam croquetas and foie-sake emulsion, plus a black cod with lemongrass crema and yuca aniseed buñuelos (i.e., little fritters). Both of these restaurants are powerfully good and we linger at each to the point of overstaying.

When the time comes to work off at least one of these fabulous meals, what do we do? Take a walking food tour, like that’s the most brilliant answer ever. There’s nothing like a little exercise to walk off what turns out to be two breakfasts, two lunches and three cocktails in quick succession with The Spoon Experience, San Juan’s premier food tour. Five stops around Old San Juan have us eating super-local, as the history of Puerto Rican food is neatly woven into details of the island’s heritage and the timelines of its Spanish and American past by informative tour personality Pablo Garcia Smith. Over rice and pork, we get into discussions about things like hot peppers and beer and cilantro, and about sofrito, the base of many Puerto Rican dishes: garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes and cilantro cooked in olive oil. At the iconic La Taberna Lúpulo, proper Cuban sandwiches are passed around: a ham and cheese with marinated roast pork, dill pickles and mustard on a crispy Cuban loaf, washed down with a shandy. We finish up at luxury hotel El Convento – which was once, yes, a 17th-century convent – where we polish off a lovely plate of red snapper with a daiquiri – just rum, sugar and lime – so simple but so good.

Girls just wanna have fun
San Juan really knows how to relax. I don’t mean that other cities don’t know how to relax, it’s just that San Juan is very outgoing, and the people socialize regularly, not just every other weekend when they can fit it into their calendars like us. One of the most convivial atmospheres to experience this is La Placita de Santurce, a square of bars, restaurants and chinchorros – takeout kiosks – ringing the old market in the neighbourhood of Santurce.

Locals of varying ages collect in the corner bars or in clumps in front of the market, music spilling from a half-dozen spots. We are soon taken in by the yellow neon lights of Jungle Bird, a tapas bar run by the owners of the impossibly cool La Factoría in Old San Juan. We soon have tropical drinks in our hands: mine, a Spicy Dead Lady, a mixture of mezcal, lime, cappelletti (a wine-based aperitivo) and falernum (a ginger-lime-almond syrup). The cocktails are not really Tiki per se, but more Taíno, rooted in the culinary spirit of Puerto Rico’s Indigenous forebearers. The kitchen, until recently fronted by noted trans queer chef Paxx Caraballo Moll, focuses on Caribbean dishes with an Asian twist, and we pounce on shrimp puppies with chili guava sauce, snook ceviche with cucumber and starfruit, and a tomato salad with toasted quinoa, shredded nori and pickled onion.

The outdoor carnival atmosphere in Santurce gets even more foodie-forward in nearby Lote 23, a gastronomic picnic-table park, with a walkway of food kiosks serving a variety of Puerto Rican comfort foods. There’s a food truck serving only mofongo, one doing burgers, others only pizza or poke bowls. This open-air food court was created with the help of a culinary mentorship program that supports and encourages young hospitality industry entrepreneurs looking to follow their food passion.

We do the slow-wander past the chalkboard menus, narrowing down our choices. I have a whisky sour from Caneca, a mobile bar located in an Airstream trailer, and then select a fried chicken sandwich from a vendor called Hen House. It is shut-my-eyes-and-exhale delicious, the most exquisite thing I have ever tasted.

DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource and podcast TravelRight.Today.

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