The Many Flavors of Puerto Rico
There may be no better way to understand a region’s history than through its food. My visit to San Juan reveals a penchant for anything fried and nary a vegetable in sight - truly, comfort food for a people that spent 400 years under Spanish rule and withstood takeover attempts by the Dutch, French and British before we finally got there. I say what better way to soothe political oppression than with a bacalaito and fresh coconut milk?
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been under the United States’ watchful eye since 1898, when Spain ceded the archipelago as a result of the Spanish-American War. Since Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, the lines have continued to blur.
According to the New York City Department of City Planning, there are more Puerto Ricans living in New York City than any other city in the world - including San Juan, the island’s capital. It’s that blend of Uncle Sam and salsa that gave my recent experience in San Juan a feeling very much American while also retaining a rich past through a handful of historical sites, crispy bites of this and that, and more than my fair share of tropical rum-based drinks.
Three Flags Fly Over Castillo San Cristóbal
Castillo San Cristóbal offers insight into the historical value of Puerto Rico and why the island was a hotbed of conflict for so many centuries. European ships would sail along the coast of Africa and follow the winds that led to Puerto Rico, the "front door" to the Caribbean and a strategic gateway to the Americas.
Spain built the fortification to protect its discovery. The surviving structure is still a marvel, even by modern standards. Surrounded by the ocean, the fort relied on masonry cylinders and cisterns to collect upwards of 870,000 gallons of rainwater. A complex tunnel system included countermining galleries that were stoked with explosives ready to detonate if intruders entered. The U.S. later added a decontamination chamber in 1942 to treat soldiers in case of an attack with chemical weapons.
San Cristóbal still flies three flags above the fort: the Burgundy Cross (which was the Spanish military flag during the 16th century), as well as the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags. This convergence of past and present is a theme that runs throughout my island exploration. The strong influence of American culture and conveniences sometime mesh and at other times clash with the simple and beautiful Puerto Rican lifestyle.
After spending a couple of hours wandering around the fortress, I head into Old San Juan for my first real taste of Puerto Rico. Even though the city plays host to a revolving door of giant cruise ships, and wandering the streets reveals the typical T-shirt and souvenir shops that you’d expect to see at any tourist destination, it manages to retain much of its heritage and charm. High-end boutiques such as Ferragamo and Gucci appear like pop-up stores amid the tchotchkes.
But what I’m seeking won’t be coming home with me on the plane.
Traditional P.R. Cuisine: Familiar & Fused
Tucked on a side street a few blocks away from the main pedestrian action and displaying an unobtrusive sign set against a mint green façade is El Jibarito. Judging by the throngs of locals and tourists waiting to cram into the well-worn establishment, this seems to be the place to go for traditional Puerto Rican fare.
I’ve had better luck hailing a New York City cab in rush hour than trying to grab the attention of the bustling servers, but once I’m able to catch one’s attention, I’m greeted with a warm smile and an ice cold Medalla Light beer (the island’s local brew). There’s only one thing I’ve got my eye on at El Jibarito (actually, two - the televisions are all tuned into a muted episode of a telenovela and the eye candy is irresistible), and that is mofongo.
This traditional Puerto Rican dish is a savory starch-lover’s dream. Fried green plantains are mashed using a traditional wooden mortar and pestle called a pilón then typically combined with olive oil, lots of garlic and pork cracklings. Variations on the theme may include chicken or seafood, but I’m a traditionalist and dive into the molded concoction with abandon. Mofongo is no joke. I douse mine in homemade hot sauce and manage to consume everything on my plate, washing it all down with another beer.
Oceanfront Views in El Condado
Having had my fill of craft shops and day-trippers from the cruise ships, I head to El Condado, where I’ve chosen to set up base camp at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. The oceanfront district is a terrific blend of beautiful beachfront, pedestrian-friendly shopping and local flavor.
Heavily influenced by the Vanderbilts who built a summer home in the area in 1919 (now the luxurious Condado Vanderbilt Hotel), Condado was once a respite for the wealthy during the first part of the 20th century. The neighborhood has ebbed and flowed like the tides that wash up against it. Today it is undergoing another renaissance with a new crop of boutique and restaurant openings.
My hotel, the San Juan Marriott, is a comfortable property and the next best thing to having your own oceanfront pied-à-terre. "I love this property because it’s on the doorstep of whatever Condado has to offer," says the hotel’s Marketing Director Julian Cable-Treadwell. The hotel has a long history of popularity with the locals, strengthened by their encouraging the community to come to weekly live music events at the Red Coral Lounge.
"When I first started they were roasting pigs on the balcony," says Treadwell of the Marriott’s deep-rooted ties to the neighborhood, when locals would use unconventional means (at least from a hotel standpoint) to celebrate their culinary heritage. Nonplussed by the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel’s recent launch, Treadwell knows the Marriott still has its place on the bustling Ashford Avenue. The property feels as fresh-spirited as when it opened 23 years ago, inviting all walks of life to celebrate and participate in Puerto Rican culture.
Asian-Island Fusion at Budatai
After a much-needed afternoon siesta, I meet up with some travel companions and we stroll a few blocks to a neighborhood restaurant for dinner. The chef at Budatai, Roberto Treviño, began his career in San Francisco, but he left his heart in Puerto Rico where he now helms the kitchen in three restaurants and hopes to expand to the U.S. mainland as well as Spain. Budatai’s oceanfront location is the ideal spot for a romantic dinner or lively celebration.
Treviño’s menu offers enough eclectic options to satisfy any diner. The menu, offering a fusion of Asian flavors with traditional Puerto Rican dishes, features original concepts along with the occasional misfire. Standouts include the lamb ribs - succulent with a sweet glaze, the fall-off-the-bone preparation strikes the perfect balance with the slight gaminess of the meat. The spicy tuna pegao combines the venerable Puerto Rican tradition of sticky rice (think Korean bibimbap) with a refreshing touch of sushi-grade raw tuna.
Less successful are the pork belly profiteroles with salted caramel sauce. Cloyingly sweet, the caramel and pate a choux pastry dough feel like miscalculated vehicles for the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, which would be better served by a brightly acidic and crunchy vegetable. I’m stuffed by the time dessert rolls around, but can’t resist a taste of wasabi chocolate cake. I appreciate the nonconventional flavor combination, but the furrowed brows around the table indicate the wasabi may best be left for the sushi platter. The pineapple and dulce de leche bread pudding, on the other hand, is worth the indulgence.
Walking back to the hotel, the streets are still buzzing with joggers, tourists and an array of teens whizzing through traffic on bikes or skateboards. Condado is bustling, though our pace is a bit slower due to our multicourse feast at Budatai.
Roadside Delights in Piñones
The following morning we all pile into a van for a day-trip adventure for Piñones, far off the beaten path from Old San Juan’s cruise ship ports. To better pursue our search for authentic fried delights and unspoiled ocean views, we rent bikes from COPI, a local cooperative established to promote eco-friendly tourism in the area. The rusted frames and squeaky gears carry us along a wooden boardwalk as afternoon showers sweep in from the Atlantic. (If you plan on wearing a helmet, it’s best to bring a shower cap to wear underneath. This is the tropics.)
We witness everything from local fishermen perched on the rocky bits of shore to toddlers waddling in the shallow waters. Off in the distance is a percussive ’happening’ where performance art meets several empty six-packs of Medalla Light. Further along we veer off the ocean path and head inland along Vereda de Las Casuarina, an isolated bike path overgrown with tropical plants and an array of chirping birds.
The real highlight of Piñones is the roadside food shacks offering sizzling paper plates piled high with alcapurias, bacalaitos, tacos, pastelillos, arepas and more. If you’re concerned about HACCP food safety (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), it’s probably best to stick to bottled water or a freshly decapitated coconut. But I throw caution and potential food poisoning to the wind and dive into the greasy treats. My strategy here as in any food stall situation is to follow the crowd, figuring that there’s safety in numbers. The variations on the fried food theme are subtle. The bacalaitos showcase salt cod and bit of fresh herb while the tacos and arepas are filled with a variety of meats and cheeses.
Piñones itself is rich with flavor. The Spanish forced the natives into slavery and later imported African slaves to work the nearby sugar plantations. Modern-day Piñones is a melting pot of African and Caribbean heritage. The food-inspired authenticity of this working-class neighborhood is worth a rattling ride on a rickety bike.
High-End Tapas at Bodega Compostela
The following day, I submit to what is de rigeur for any Caribbean tourist: the beach. Curled up with my favorite magazines, I alternate dips in the warm ocean waters with refreshing cocktails from La Isla Beach Bar. The frozen drinks are toothache sweet, so I stick to rum with a splash of juice which the friendly bar staff is happy to accommodate. After the inevitable post-sunbathing afternoon nap, I’m ready for my final food hurrah before heading stateside.
For our final night in San Juan, we descend upon Bodega Compostela. The tapas-style restaurant carries a hefty price tag with small plates costing up to $26 for salt-cured foie gras. Most items are in the $13 to $18 range and are meant to be shared.
The menu leans toward classic Spanish preparations with local influences. Octopus Carpaccio with aged Parmesan and sundried tomatoes is a Mediterranean dream, while stuffed piquillo peppers and potato gratin with chorizo drive home the Spanish influence. The restaurant also holds a substantial wine collection - upwards of 10,000 bottles. From Old World reds to refreshing whites from around the globe, the expansive list offers a plethora of options to complement any meal.
Even with all of this culinary discovery, I only scratch the surface of what San Juan has to offer, let alone the rest of the island. The locals tell me I should head to Ponce to discover an entirely different interpretation of agricultural and culinary traditions. A ferry ride would take me to Vieques, the popular beach resort famous for its pristine sand and clear waters only seven miles from the mainland. If I were to head inland instead, I would explore 28,000 acres of lush forest or experience the refreshing waters of La Mina waterfall. Clearly, a return visit is in order. But then I’ll have to decide where I will eat, and with so many options, Puerto Rico presents the visitor with a delicious dilemma.
San Juan Resource Guide
San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
1309 Ashford Avenue
Castillo San Cristóbal
Calle Sol 280
1056 Ashford Avenue
106 County Avenue
From San Juan, take Route 26 or 37 East to Route 187. Cross Boca de Cangrejos. Rent bikes at COPI, the Cultural and Ecotourism Center, at the end of the bridge.