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Puerto Rico’s cuisine is a delectable mix of African, French, Spanish and Caribbean flavors. The island’s access to fresh seafood and tropical delights makes for some truly mouthwatering signature dishes — think crunchy tostones, freshly-caught mero glazed with Creole spices, and tropical fruits like guava and mango sold out of the back of a local’s pickup truck for a quarter.
Lately, San Juan has been making waves across the food scene, as chefs born and raised on the island are getting noticed throughout the foodie community. Their aim isn’t Michelin Stars, but simply sharing their love of warm, comforting food that reveals the history and soul of Puerto Rico.
No matter your budget or style, you can find everything in San Juan, from trendy beachfront dining to steaming-hot, deep-fried arepas served on paper plates at food shacks — you should also pay attention to fondas, what the locals call the hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop style restaurants serving up hearty, traditional recipes. Here’s a look at what you should be eating on your next trip to San Juan and where to find it.
San Juan offers many options for fresh seafood, and typically at a very decent price. The most common dishes you’ll find are camarones (shrimp), mero (grouper) and chillo (a variety of red snapper). You can order these battered and fried at local food stands, cooked al ajillo (with garlic sauce) or estilo criolla (Creole-style). The recipes and sauces are uncomplicated and really let the taste of the fresh seafood speak for itself.
Feast on fresh seafood at Oceano, a mansion-turned-eatery located in the Condado area with beachfront seating, or at José Enrique, located in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, which prides itself on using fresh Puerto Rican produce. Varadero Seaside Grill, located in Fajardo about 45 minutes from San Juan, offers fresh seafood served in a laid-back atmosphere on the docks as well as live music.
Mofongo is a classic Caribbean dish created by mashing a giant mound of plantains into a small bowl filled with seafood, chicken, meat or pork — it can also be made from yuca. The plantains are usually mashed with salt, garlic and chicharrones (crackled pork skins) for flavor, resulting in a savory main or side dish that’s loved by tourists and locals alike.
Seeking out the best mofongo in Puerto Rico is challenging since almost every single restaurant offers it and each gives the meal its own spin. On the bright side though, this hearty dish is pretty tough to mess up. Mojitos in Old San Juan is a great place to find it that’s also known for having affordable prices — be sure to order yours stuffed with the house specialties of pork or codfish stew. Another popular restaurant is El Jibarito, known for the flavorful garlic sauce that’s paired with its version of mofongo.
Sorullitos de Maiz
Resembling a mozzarella stick, this deep-fried delight is filled with a mashed cornmeal mixture and while the outside is crunchy, the buttery, creamy corn interior will melt in your mouth. These can be made with or without cheese and are usually eaten as an appetizer.
Cafe Puerto Rico in Old San Juan is the perfect place to enjoy a plate of these kinds of corn fritters as you watch passersby stroll through the Plaza de Colón.
Arepas de Coco
While arepas are common in many Latin American countries, in Puerto Rico they are often made with coconut and flour as opposed to corn. This sweetly tropical substitution is perfect for ingesting that island feel, refreshingly like that first whiff of sunblock after a long winter. You can eat them plain or stuffed with meat or fish.
Arepas can be found at street food stalls or casual restaurants. Altantica Vieja is a Spanish-Puerto Rican fusion spot that serves up trendier arepas de coco topped with grouper ceviche. Los Chamos Arepas en Carolina, where you can order the reina pepidada arepas de coco (stuffed with chicken and avocado), will ensure you leave a full and satisfied customer. The restaurant is also known for its excellent empanadas.
Tostones are plantains fried once on each side and then pounded flat, sliced and served with a dip as a side dish or appetizer. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, tostones are to Puerto Ricans what french fries are to Americans. Pair them with seafood and meats — as you devour them, you’ll be reminded of the catchy Pringles tagline, “Once you pop, you can’t stop.” Puerto Ricans even have a special kitchen utensil just for flattening tostones, the trusty wooden tostonera.
For a real treat, try the crab-stuffed tostones at Yerba Buena in Condado, or traditional-style tostones at Ropa Vieja in Old San Juan.
See if you can catch the ice cream man who pedals his small cart around the beaches by day and Old San Juan in the evening. Typically, there are only a few flavors, often fresa (strawberry), piña (pineapple) and coco (coconut). Served in a small cup, a single portion of several scoops costs $3. Another option is Señor Paletas, a tiny shop in Old San Juan selling organic, homemade popsicles — favorites include coconut and mojito flavors.
San Juan is full of gustatory delights waiting around every corner, and you should wander off the beaten path to discover your own favorite foods. One last recommendation: Everything I’ve mentioned (except for the desserts) should be paired with a bottle of Puerto Rico’s national beer, Medalla, which has a light, smooth flavor.
What are some of your favorite restaurants and foods in San Juan? Let us know in the comments, below.
Featured image and all other images courtesy of the author.
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