Eat List: San Juan, Puerto Rico : New Worlder

A popular vacation destination for its casino-fueled luxury resorts, colorful Old City, thumping nightlight and sandy beaches, San Juan, Puerto Rico is also a culinary hotspot in its own right. With chefs like Jose Enrique, Wilo Benet, Mario Pagan, and Jose Santaella setting the bar over the last 15 years, a new generation of young chef talent, interested in sustainability, seasonality, locavorism and a commitment to the island’s farms has emerged, prompting a renewed interest in the island’s cuisine. There has never been a better time to explore the gastronomic side of San Juan, and here’s the definitive list to help guide you through.

Pikayo

Once housed inside Santurce’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Pikayo’s current home is at the Condado Plaza Hilton where Chef Wilo Benet, the O.G. of fine dining on the island, reigns supreme. Hospitality comes naturally to Benet who has a resume that includes Culinary Institute of America, The Water Club and Le Bernardin, and it is on display here; service is always impeccable. Opened in 1990, Benet and Pikayo set a new standard for Puerto Rican cuisine, moving it away from fried roadside snacks and rice and beans, and adding both quality ingredient and haute technique into the equation. The generous bar area allows for light grazing on snacks like tuna pegao, a tuna tartar over crispy rice, beef alcapurrias, and lamb carne frita, bite-sized modern takes on classic Puerto Rican flavors. The spacious dining room delivers multi-course meals including a decadent foie gras. www.wilobenet.com/pikayo

Jose Enrique

For most, Jose Enrique Montes’ eponymous restaurant is a must-visit stop on any trip to San Juan. The young, laid-back chef’s spot, which is a no-frills joint on the perimeter of buzzy weekend hangout La Placita, dishes out the flavors of Puerto Rico with modern culinary stylings. The chef, who was the first-ever Puerto Rican nominated for a James Beard award in 2013 (and every year since!), emphasizes local ingredients and sustainability on his menus and has been at the front of the island’s locavore movement. Seasonally inspired, the hand-written board menu changes daily, but be sure to start with some addictive mero (sea bass) poppers, local butcher Pedro Alcor’s artisanal longaniza sausages, or the light, fresh crab. Simply grilled whole fish, aged meats, and vegetables often shine here, and all are executed with finesse. joseenriquepr.com 

La Jaquita Baya

Helmed by Chef Xavier Pacheco, an ardent support of the farm-to-table movement on the island, this laid-back spot in Miramar is an homage to the native recipes and flavors of the island, comida criolla at its best. Incorporating local product into timeless recipes — think pork belly mofongo, arroz mampostea (rice with pigeon peas), and arañitas de plantano (fried plantains) — the relaxed, dive-bar vibe belies the culinary dexterity of the kitchen, which churns out consistently delicious food, while the front area bar is a gathering spot for both locals and visitors alike, as well as a homage (and storefront) for locally-produced produce and foodstuff. Open for lunch and dinner, this is one of the island’s gems. Facebook Page.

Lote 23

Like the many other food pockets of the world, food trucks have risen in popularity in San Juan, so it follows that food courts would hit the island soon enough. Enter Lote 23, an outdoor collection of 16 food vendors spread over four terraces in Santurce. Our only advice? Come hungry. Vendors include Puerto Rican styled bao buns from El Baoricua, pizza from chef Raul Correa at Dorotea’s, Peruvian fare at Panka by Martin Louzao, and if you’re craving pork, head over to Pernilerīa Los Prōceres. Coffee, sweets and burgers round out the experience. Cocktails are courtesy of the world-class bar mind of La Factoría. Finish strong with an ice pop from Señor Paleta. lote23.com

Parcela

Located along Condado’s Ashford Avenue, rife with hotels, upscale shops and buzzing restaurants, Parcela has quietly become a foodie’s favorite since it opened in 2014. The beauty of Parcela is that it does two things: at lunchtime, it offers comfort staples such as crispy chicken and roast beef sandwiches, French onion soup, and salads, but dinner is more ambitious with selections such as house-made pasta in goat ragú, pork tongue tostadas, braised rabbit ravioli, and local snapper rice bowls. Billed as a gastropub, Parcela has a hefty selection of beers and cocktails, and the tapas-style chalkboard menu plus welcoming environment have secured a place for chef Sebastian Ramirez’ spot on San Juan’s culinary map. Facebook Page.

Zest

Chef Raúl Correa, who oversees the food and beverage program at the boutique San Juan Water Beach Club, is an advocate for sustainability, a mentor for young chefs around the island, and an accomplished culinary talent. With emphasis on hand-picked ingredients from the island’s farming community, Correa helms Zest, the hotel’s main restaurant, which serves both creative dishes like popcorn soup with truffle butter and chicharrón and simple plates like sea bass with a green papaya compote. The space’s décor, which combines the elements—earth, wind, fire and water—is soothing, while the bar program is worth checking out. On Sundays, the brunch on Mist Rooftop is a must-visit stop for both excellent eggs and a breathtaking ocean view. waterbeachhotel.com/zest.

1919 Restaurant

An elegant dining room in the upscale Condado Vanderbilt hotel, 1919 is one of the more formal dining experiences in San Juan. With an illustrious resume that includes Lespinasse, Alain Ducasse, and Blue Hill, Chef Juan Jose Cuevas is a talent with technical chops who insists on showcasing local, seasonal ingredients on his menus, which highlight vegetables just as vocally as meat and fish. Four-course prix fixe menus are available, as well as ala carte options, but we suggest the chef’s tasting menu which dazzles and delights. 1919 also boasts an impressive wine list, with pairing options available.  1919restaurant.com.

Santaella

The vibe at this Santurce restaurant is always bustling and the sexy, social crowd is well-heeled and hungry. Wall to wall diners wait on tables while nibbling on whimsical snacks like tuna lollipops, morcilla spring rolls, and malanga fritters and sipping creative cocktails at the bar. The dimly-lit dining room, which is anchored by a wall of lush tropical plants, is full of diners lapping up dishes such as a fried red snapper with herb chimichurri and tostones or pulled pork au gratin over mashed sweet plantains. One of the most jovial host chefs in town, Jose Santaella is always on hand to greet (and chat with) guests. But while this is definitely “the” spot to eat and drink, see and be seen, don’t mistake the culinary lineage of this chef, who trained with both Ferran Adriá and Eric Ripert. josesantaella.com

Sabrina

The bright, pretty space that houses Sabrina is Chef Mario Ormaza’s latest and if the popularity of his Cafe Tresbe (see below) is any indication, we’re looking at another winner. Pull up a stool at the colorful, tiled bar or sit back in palm-tree lined banquette and get ready for a killer brunch. Complete with live music on Sundays, the Tropical Benedict, or eggs Benedict with mangú (mashed plantains) and longaniza sausage is the way to go. Open for dinner as well, we suggest the mussels. Facebook Page.

Café Tresbe

Operated out of a recycled bright yellow shipping container, Chef Mario Ormaza, who has worked with legends like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, has created a spot known for good fried food and fish snacks including the popular battered fish tacos. Other options to try include empanadillas stuffed with crab, lobster, octopus or chicken, marlin skewers, tostones de pana (breadfruit tostones). The vibe at Tresbe is completely relaxed, so grab a seat on the shaded deck, order a Medalla beer, and snack away. Facebook Page.

Verde Mesa

A chalkboard on the wall of this Old San Juan standout explains the ideology for this cozy, rustic, French country-inspired spot: “Our kitchen’s purpose is to rescue the indigenous tropical ingredients, fresh fish, and local vegetables from the garden of our farmers, challenging the scarcity of farming and fishing.”  With that in mind, the menu changes daily, depending on availability, however year-round highlights from chef Gabriel Hernandez’ kitchen such as the Verde Mesa house rice and pigeon pea hummus shouldn’t be missed. Reservations aren’t accepted, so be prepared for a wait, but drown your impatience in the many featured rum infusion cocktails to pass the time quickly. Facebook Page.

La Alcapurría Quemá

Located diagonally from José Enrique off the bustling Placita, this divey spot is an homage to the country’s national snack: la alcapurría, a fritter made of green bananas and yautia (taro root) and stuffed with meat or crab.  In addition to the beloved fritter, the limited menu changes daily but dishes like rabbit stew, piñon (beef and plantain dish resembling lasagna), and arroz con tocino (rice with salt pork) are usually on the menu. Owned by same folks responsible for Puerto Rico’s most famous bar, La Factoría, drinks here are simple, but important. Think Don Q with toronja (grapefruit), whiskey with coconut, and a pretty good old-fashioned. Facebook Page

Cocina Abierta

Argentine chef and owner Martin Louzao has a winner in Cocina Abierta, a relative newcomer to the San Juan food scene after a four-year run in Guaynabo. With an affiliated atelier cooking school where local chefs interchangeably teach courses, the pan-Latin restaurant led by Louzao is an interactive experience for diners. The menu is divided into four sections of small plates that emphasize vegetables, fish, poultry, and other meats, respectively. Diners mix and match their favorite items in each category to create their most memorable tasting. From Peruvian causas to Spanish fideua to Caribbean seafood stew, to plantain carpaccio, at this cocina abierta, or open-air kitchen, guest whim is at the forefront. cocinaabierta.com.

Mario Pagan 

Pagan, a worldwide ambassador for Puerto Rican cuisine, has been a driving force in the growth of the island’s fine dining scene. With eponymous Mario Pagan, his latest opening, he continues to take Puerto Rican staples and creatively manipulate them into memorable (and delicious) dishes. His pig ear mofongo, a playful interpretation of the island’s national dish is a standout, as are the dirty rice with morcilla and sea bass over yuca mash in a foie gras and truffle sauce. Pagan has another spot, a modern steakhouse, nearby at Condado’s Olive Boutique Hotel (see below). Facebook Page.

Sage Steak Loft

Just craving a steak? Mario Pagan’s other restaurant in Condado, Sage Steak Loft, is a modern steakhouse set on the bottom floor of the swank Olive Boutique Hotel. The room, which uses light woods, rope and metal to stylish, chic effect, is an elegant space where playful interpretations of steakhouse classics take center stage. Start with pork belly sliders and veal parm croquettes, move onto an oyster Caesar salad, and then choose from a variety of cuts including a Waygu tomahawk for two. On the side? The blue yuca gnocchi gets our vote. After dinner, retire to Olive’s sexy rooftop for a nightcap. http://oliveboutiquehotel.com/sage-steak-loft

Bodegas Compostela

Part wine cellar, part Spanish restaurant, Bodegas Compostela has been serving a high-end clientele interested in classic Spanish cooking since 1982. Though the restaurant was known for typical Galician fare when it opened, owners Maximino Rey and José Rey (no relation), both from small towns near Santiago de Compostela, moved to a lighter tapas concept and unveiled a more sleek, modern renovation a few years back to better focus on the wines and wine-food pairings. Facebook Page.

Kasalta

Spanish bakeries abound in San Juan. The most beloved is Ocean Park’s Kasalta, which has hosted President Obama for lunch in the past (look for the plaque commemorating this visit), and offers much more than pan dulce and sweets. There are two sides of Kasalta; one serves tapas — albondigas, chorizo, croquetas — and more hearty Spanish-inspired dishes including paella, while the other sells over-the-counter Cubanos, soups like caldo gallego (Galician bean) and sancocho (meat and veggie stew), pastries including quesitos (cheese in puff pastry), and desserts like tembleque, arroz con leche and flan. Shoppers can also purchase Spanish staples including an assortment of olives, Manchego cheese, and requisite Serrano ham.  kasalta.com.

1041 Gastronomia de Barrio

Located in the city’s up-and-coming gastronomic hub of Miramar, this cool, casual Argentine spot is a hit with locals and visitors alike. Simple in design, it’s a great spot for chivito and choripan sandwiches and lunch salads by day. At night, homemade pastas like gnocchi, risotto and fettucine are on display, as well as an asado plate and a hearty bife. Facebook Page.

Acapulco Taquería on Calle Loíza

Do you just need  a taco fix? Luckily this small taquería has you covered. Serving a real deal assortment of Mexican classics (think: al pastor, cochinita pibil, barbacoa, lengua), an entry sign let’s you know that anything resembling Tex-Mex is not available or tolerated. Authentic, corn tortillas are made fresh daily, as are hot sauces, and the pork al pastor deepens in flavor with each turn of the spit. Wash it all down with any of the featured Mexican drink specialties — from agua frescas to horchatas, margaritas to micheladas. If Mexican breakfast is more your speed, brunch is served on Sundays. Facebook Page

La Casita Blanca

A local staple for the comida criolla that the island is known for, this Santurce spot’s cozy, cluttered decor is evocative of a long-lost relative’s living quarters with wacky, plastic tablecloths, a decorated, corner Christmas tree, and mismatched flower pots decorating the space. Get past the kitsch and enjoy board-written favorites including bacalaitos (cod fritters), carne guisada (beef stew), crab salmorejo (stewed crab), asopao (chicken rice soup) and tostones. If patitas con garbanzos (pig’s feet with chickpeas) is one of the daily specials, it’s not to be missed. Facebook Page

Budatai

Buddha statues, deep colors, and a zen vibe set the scene at this two-story Asian fusion spot on Condado’s Ashford Avenue. Chef Roberto Treviño, one of the pioneers of the area, has been creating mash-up dishes and elaborate sushi platters at the sultry spot to great fanfare for over 10 years. If you can’t seem to find the restaurant’s entrance, you’ll need to take a street-level elevator up to the restaurant, where a vast bar greets diners. Book a table in one of the atmospheric rooms or the on the second floor terrace, if it’s open. Don’t get overwhelmed by the massive menu. Our advice? Stick with the creative sushi rolls and you’ll come away happy.  Facebook Page.

Marmalade

One of the standout options in Old San Juan, Peter Schintler’s fine-dining restaurant draws consistent raves for its spot-on service and inventive plates. The U.S. born chef marches to the beat of his own drum, using French technique to put new spins on dishes such as sea bass served with persimmon, lime, and coconut or harissa-spiced mussels. Build your own tasting menu or choose ala carte options, just arrive a few minutes early to enjoy a drink at the restaurant’s chic bar before your meal. marmaladepr.com