By Mark Chesnut
With its inviting beaches, natural beauty, sophisticated hotels and historic architecture, Puerto Rico is a multifaceted Caribbean vacation paradise. But no trip to the so-called “Isla del Encanto” (island of enchantment) would be complete without sampling the diverse and delicious Puerto Rican cuisine.
A rich blend of Spanish, African and indigenous Taíno Indian influences, Puerto Rican cooking can satisfy a variety of palates. Here are a few places to sample authentic dishes in San Juan:
• Zest, at the San Juan Water and Beach Club Hotel: This stylish restaurant—located within an equally stylish hotel—serves beautifully presented specialties like lamb empanadas with caramelized maduros (ripe plantains), energized by a tiny topping of fresh citrus gremolata. Also tasty is the pan-fried snapper topped with ajilimojili (a semi-sweet sauce made from peppers, garlic and vinegar) served atop a bed of mashed plaintain mofongo with a saffron chorizo broth.
• Orozco’s (1126 Ashford Avenue, Condado district): This casual eatery, in the heart of the beachfront Condado district, serves delicious canoa—sweet plantains cut open like a canoe (which is what the name means) and stuffed with beef and cheese. Take a table in front and enjoy the people watching while you dig in.
• Casa Lola (1006 Ashford Avenue, Condado district): This elegant venue, set in a former private home, serves gourmet variations on Puerto Rican dishes, with specialties including sancocho de res (beef stew) and pinchos puertorriqueños (Puerto Rican shish kebobs) made with chicken and served with pineapple-and-coconut fried rice.
• Perurrican Restaurant & Lounge: An upscale, waterfront venue located in the lobby at the budget-priced San Juan Beach Hotel, Perurrican blends Puerto Rican and Peruvian cuisine, with mouthwatering results. Among the options here are tostones rellenos de ceviche (fried plantains topped with ceviche) and mofongo (mashed and fried plantain, filled with seafood or chicken).
• Caribe Hilton: The piña colada was invented in Puerto Rico, and one of the places that claims to be its birthplace is the Caribe Hilton, a beachfront hotel where guests can sip the creamy rum-based treat at the pool. Also laying claim to the creation of the cocktail is Barrachina (104 Fortaleza Street, Old San Juan), a restaurant and bar just steps from the governor’s mansion in San Juan’s historic heart. After a day spent touring this fascinating neighborhood, a refreshing drink—accompanied, perhaps, by pork chops can can or a grouper filet—might be just the thing to restore your energy.
Mark Chesnut is a travel writer, editor and publisher of LatinFlyer.com, which focuses on travel to Latin America. He owned a condo in San Juan for more than three years.