In San Juan, Puerto Rico, a Culinary Movement Takes Off

by  Kelsy Chauvin | Jul 2, 2019
San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico / SeanPavonePhoto/iStock

Escaping to Puerto Rico is an easy way to feel relaxed, thanks to its soft sands, sparkling blue waters, and breezy Caribbean vibes. But lately the "Enchanted Isle" is seeing to shift travelers’ attention away from the beach, toward the exciting culinary scene in and around San Juan.

The capital city, including historic Old San Juan and the outer districts of Condado, Santurce, and Loíza, are home to a growing number of talented chefs and memorable restaurants committed to serving seasonal, local produce — solidifying the island’s place as a bona-fide foodie destination.

Growing Local

This Puerto Rican gastronomic revolution began growing roots about a decade ago, thanks in part to a modest collective-farming operation called Frutos del Guacabo that cropped up in the small town of Manatí. The collective is the vision of founder Efrén Robales and his wife Angelie Martinez. The couple wanted their island to reduce its reliance on food imports, and instead cultivate its own fruits, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, and other edible goods. 

Today, Frutos del Guacabo is succeeding in its mission, growing its own goods, raising chickens and other farm animals, and producing seeds and seedlings to sell to professional and backyard farmers. The collective also has a test kitchen where local chefs try out ingredients, hold cooking and butchering workshops, and host pop-up dining experiences. Its primary function, however, is working with more than 50 small farms devoted to “culinary agriculture,” supplying around 200 local eateries with fresh daily produce.

From Farm to Plate

San Juan has become a city of inventive food, fusion menus, and a return to historic dishes and indigenous ingredients like root vegetables, fish, and leafy greens. Since the early 2010s, the island has seen the wave of culinary enthusiasm grow. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in 2017, many restaurateurs temporarily shifted serve fellow Puerto Ricans stranded without power and water. Other native chefs returned to Puerto Rico to reinvest in the island and help fuel its recovery.

Among them is local star Chef Mario Ormaza, who stepped up post-storms; he’s now at the forefront of Puerto Rico’s food scene. His trio of Loíza restaurants embody the range of go-to dining options (they use produce from Frutos del Guacabo). Ormaza’s open-air Tresbé serves high-flavor bites like seafood empanadillas and tamarind-bbq wings from a converted shipping container, which shares space with a juice-centric bar and casual Japanese eatery Dospalillos. Across the street, his bistro, Sabrina, is a local go-to for elegant dining. Recently, Ormaza has put to use recipes from a rare 1859 Puerto Rican cookbook at Azucena Fonda.

Where to Go and What to Eat

Past the Calle Loíza’s vintage stores and vivid streets murals, Cocobana Café serves vegetarian fare; while nearby Double Cake bakery dazzles patrons with both sweet and savory treats. For more traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, join the locals who rely on Ana’s Café for perfect mofongo (mashed fried plantains) and other homemade staples. Or eat where Obama did back in 2011, at bustling cafeteria-style Kasalta, where you’ll find the island’s best bistec (steak) slider and P.R.’s famous Mallorca bread (a sweet or savory bread traditionally made with pork fat).

Blocks away in central Santurce, check out La Placita de Santurce, where you'll find a farmer's market during the day. On weekend nights, the plaza transforms into a popular bar zone and nightlife hotspot. In the vicinity are restaurants Santaella and Jose Enrique, each helmed by their acclaimed eponymous chefs. Or go casual with bites at gastronomic park Lote 23, where you can choose from assorted ethnic food stalls and trucks, and kick back in the cocktail garden with DJs or live music. 

The popular beachfront neighborhood of Condado is part of the culinary renaissance. Don’t miss the fresh surprises at Cocina Abierta on Calle Caribe, like its plantain carpaccio with tuna tataki and ginger and turmeric–braised chicken. A few blocks away, head to the rooftop of the new AC Hotel by Marriott for poolside tapas and tipples at AC Kitchen; or get romantic at its street-level speakeasy-style restaurant La Bodeguita de Manolo. If you’re more tempted to dine beachside, try fresh fare at Gingambo restaurant inside the Marriott San Juan Resort & Casino, which wraps up a $30-million renovation this year.

Old San Juan’s cobblestoned hills and colorful row houses make the neighborhood a photographer’s delight, but it’s the restaurants that keep you coming back. Don’t miss the Caribbean-Asian fusion dishes at Bluefin Scratch Kitchen (another Frutos del Guacabo customer). And, while La Factoría remains one of the world’s best bars for its craft cocktails (and rightfully so), you’d be right to front-load a base of traditional Puerto Rican classic dishes at El Jibarito on Calle Sol. 

Smart travelers might consider joining a jaunt with Spoon Food Tours for a filling overview of so many great tastes along the Loíza Food and Street Art tour, the Old San Juan tour, evening cocktail or microbrewery crawls, or even a cooking class with local ingredients (tours from $75). Because as Puerto Rico’s culinary dynamism continues, trend-watching tours are a reliable means to tasting just how rich and flavorful this island really is.

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