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San Juan, Puerto Rico report

Just got back from a trip to San Juan. We were not nearly as adventerous as we might have been food-wise, but did manage to get to a couple local places. For better or worse, here's the summary.

ON CALLE FORTALEZA ...

There's a block of restaurants near the taxi stand on Calle Fortaleza that cater primarily to yuppie tourists. Dragonfly is probably the best, based on the comments here and the line out the door every night. Unfortunately, we never did manage to eat here. Once the wait was looking to be well over an hour, another time they had stopped even adding names to the waitlist. The two places we did try were Parrot Club and Marmalade.

Parrot Club: Very crowded and very popular with tourists, but food just wasn't anything special. Not bad, but kind of bland. Service seemed to be spotty; while we got lucky and had no major problems, the table next to us had to wait over an hour between finishing appetizers and getting their entree.

Marmalade: Just as touristy as Parrot Club, and a little more pricey, but the difference is that the food was really enjoyable here. Great mixed drinks too. It's not local cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly a fun place with great food.

PUERTO RICAN PLACES ...

Casa Dante (39 Isla Verde Ave, about a mile or so west of the Isla Verde resorts): Probably the best food we had on the trip. The Mofongo, which is mashed plaintain with garlic and a little bit of pork, is absolutely outstanding. Basically, you get that with your choice of meat or fish; the entrees we tried were great as well. (You can substitute other sides, but Mofongo is their speciailty, so why bother?) Everything -- the Mofongo, the entrees, even the bread they bring out as a starter, is extremely garlicy, just so you know what you're signing up for. Only locals were there when we went, but we found the place in a guidebook and they have a review written in English on the wall, so I think they see plenty of tourists as well.

La Fonda El Jibarito (280 Calle Sol, in Old San Juan): Decent food here, not as good as Casa Dante, but the pork in plaintain sauce with a side of beans and rice still makes for a great hearty meal. Awful (slow, uninterested) service.

Ristorante El Popular (near Santurce marketplace): Saw a lot of locals here, and figured we ought to try it, but this was a miscalculation ... it was just mediocre bar food.

ISLA VERDE RESORTS ...

The Palm (El San Juan): Very good meal here. The steak may have been a little below average compared to the steaks I've had at other locations of this chain, but was still excellent. Lobster, salad, appetizers all outstanding.

BLT Steak (Ritz): Steak might have actually been a little better than the one at The Palm, but pretty much everything else was inferior, lobster over-cooked, salad no good, etc.

La Piccola Fontana (El San Juan): A pretty good Italian restaurant dressed up as if it were a great one ... and priced like it were a great one.

Mares (Ritz): The casual place at the Ritz. Uninteresting, but quality wasn't bad.

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  1. We loved the stuffed cornish hen @ Metropole in Isla Verde.
    JK

    1. I remember that Dragonfly was a scene when I went a couple of years ago, but the fusiony food was ok to so-so. It was on the pricey side for what it was. I don't think you missed much, frankly.

      1. Loved Dragonfly..amazing in all counts...heading to OSJ for the day Monday..will try La Fonda Jibarito for lunch I think..any other ideas?? Hate La Mallorquina.

        1. Had lunch in OSJ yesterday. The plan was local food. Walked into La Fonda Jibarito and walked out..no one in there and a very off vibe..the waitress seemed sedated. Why am I turned off by places that have photographs of their food on the wall?. We had limited time so headed to Parrot Club and had a really great lunch. We arrived at 11:30 when it opened but was told to come back in 10 min. We did and had the place to ourselves. Our waitress was fabulous. The ac was so cold I wore a sweater and still froze. The frozen orange passion fruit slushy was divine. I had shreedded beef with gaucamole, sour cream on top of a homemade Arapa. It has a lovely sauce..not overpowering..lots of hints of cilantro. My teen had the smoked chicken and goat cheese salad. She was not happy as it was littered with tomatoes (not listed on the menu)...so she picked and picked Back to the place, love the setting..fun..pricey and not what I had hoped for my search for local food but my teenager was not in the mood to try local..her choice was the funky Parrot Club..it was a good choice.

          1. I am a local. Where is my advice on local food. If you go to the tourist areas to get local food you will not get the best local food experience and it will also be overpriced. La Casita Blanca in Santurce is very good. A bit hard to find and the sorrounding areas are not touristy but the food is very good. A taxi should be able to find it. However, it is only for lunch, in fact the best local food places are only for lunch. Another good recomendation is El Isleno, o Tropical. These are open for dinner.

            10 Replies
            1. re: emana93

              We found Metropole through a cabdriver who took us to Casita Blanca but it had just closed!! We didn't realize it was only open for lunch.
              Any places like that in Old San Juan?
              Buenos Tardes,
              Juan

              1. re: emana93

                I might be visiting in April, are Pantera Rosada and Kasalta Bakery still in business?

                1. re: stuartlafonda

                  I am likely going as well this spring. I have a couple of Puerto Rican friends that told me exactly what emana93-said: Get out of San Juan. The cabs seem very expensive. I am for riding a bus or renting a car to get to some of the outlying areas including to that island off the east coast (name slipping mind)-you take a ferry. My friend said there are little grill stands along the way that have some of the best food on the islands. Does anyone know how user friendly the bus system is? My Spanish is incredibly rusty -at one time I could get by in Mexico with it, but man do Puerto RIcans speak quickly! I am all about monfongo/fried plantians, pork in all incarnations and fish. I travel a lot am not at all interested in anything but Puerto Rican or Caribbean food, or maybe Spanish if it is good there. I also like cheap eats if they are ethnic-any bus friendly destinations?

                  1. re: stuartlafonda

                    I hope you got to PR last April. Just discovered this post. Kasalta is better than ever, enjoyed a roast suckling pig there that was one of the best ever. Its a San Juan institution, and the Ocean Park neighborhood would be lost without it. I lived there in the early 80's and have been going back ever since. Still the same excellent quality, although they've renovated for a much nicer look and experience.

                  2. re: emana93

                    La Casita Blanca in Santurce is opened for dinner also. My husband and I had dinner there last year and the year before. Can't wait for the end of August to go again.

                    1. re: emana93

                      We are going to Isla Verde soon. Any suggestions?

                      1. re: financialdistrictresident

                        Metropole and based on the review above Casa Dante.

                        1. re: phelana

                          Thanks. Went to Metropol (a walk from the ESJ) and loved it.

                        2. re: financialdistrictresident

                          Just got back from San Juan. Took hound suggestions along. A summary of our lunches and dinners:

                          Metropol was a short walk from ESJ. We had a delicious inexpensive lunch. Mofongo stuffed with seafood, cornish hen stuffed with rice and beans, portions were huge. Our server was very good and we had everything he suggested. I could have eaten lunch here every day!

                          Mi Casita was also a short walk from ESJ. A good lunch place. We had mofongo, black bean soup, etc.

                          Rains from Hurricane Dean caused a brief power outage at our hotel so we headed to Condado for lunch at the Waikiki Caribbean Food & Oyster Bar. We went because this is a great empanada place. Well it had changed, no more empanadas. Great view of the ocean, delicious mofongo stuffed with shrimp. We also had a green salad with apples and walnuts with bleu cheese. The orange vinaigrette went surprisingly and unexpectedly well with the salad.

                          Headed to Old San Juan for tapas and mojitos in the El Convento restaurant overlooking the open air courtyard. The patio was lovely. We had tapas including ceviche, cod fritters (melt in your mouth perfection), a little pizza (would not order this again), etc. It doesn't get much better than this.

                          For dinners: Carli's Cafe and Baru in Old San Juan, La Picola Fontana in ESJ/Isla Verde and Pikayo.

                          La Picola Fontana - pasta was the way to go. bf had veal scallopine, another good choice. Arugula salad was fresh and good. Escargot app was nice. Salmon was okay.

                          Carli's was quiet for a Friday night probably because of hurricane Dean. We had mojitos, a lovely rioja, wild mushroom risotto, plaintain encrusted calamari with Carli's dark secret sesame dressing (really liked this tapa), cod fritters (did not compare to El Convento), manchego cheese plate and coconut creme brulee for dessert. We also had the pleasure of Carli and his fellow musicians playing during our dinner.

                          Baru was lovely. We had dinner in the garden patio. Plaintain chips and goat cheese, grilled vegetables, grilled scallops with a ? sauce (these were delicious) and tres leches for dessert.

                          Dinner at Pikayo was oustanding. Food and service were flawless. Service was intuitive. We mentioned we would be sharing everything when we ordered and every course was split for us except for one (it had an odd # of duck slices). A most memorable meal. We had foie gras with ripe plaintain & black truffle honey, tuna & chipotle chile sauce pegao, beet & goat cheese salad/hazelnut vinaigrette, escargot with wild mushrooms and balsamic vinegar, seared duck breast with star anise and rum sauce and chocolate souflles for dessert.

                          Possibilities on our list we did not get a chance to try included more small local places, Casa Dante, Amadeus Cafe, El Zipperle, Tamarind.

                          1. re: financialdistrictresident

                            We had a great dinner @ Baru also.
                            Headed back this December. Thanks for your update!
                            Regards,
                            JK

                      2. I'm headed to San Juan during the weekend of March 2nd. Does anyone have any recommendations for good, authentic lunch spots? I plan on hitting up Vieques as well so any tips for there would be most appreciated also! I've been to Puerto Rico once before and tried a few places including Dragonfly (which I liked) and La Bombonera.

                        I also am looking for some spots to get great cocktails at...mojitos or whatever...being from New York I'm a bit spoiled, but hey I'm sure a great cocktail isn't too hard to find in San Juan or the surrounding areas...any tips? =)

                        Many thanks!

                        *syphrite

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Syphrite

                          For my money the best restaurant on Vieques is El Quenepo , on the eastern end of the Malecon in Esperanza. You'll need to make reservations but it's worth it. I especially love their version of churrasco - grilled skirt steak on a bed of cheesy black beans, topped with pico de gallo, lime cream, and a mound of crispy ultra-thin fried onion strings.

                        2. Peolpe rave about Casita Blanca which is only open for lunch (till about 2-3PM).
                          I ended up @ Metropole which is top notch local fare after arriving @ Casita Blanca as they were locking the doors.
                          Regards,
                          JK

                          1. Tasca el Pescador next to the Plaza del Mercado, a traditional farmers’ market. Looks touristy because of the tacky Henekin logos plastered outside, but restaurant was packed with locals. This is the best food i had in San Juan. Fresh fish entrees, delicious sides like the yucca frita. Highly recommended.

                            As for the Worst restauruant-- i also HATED La Mallorquina. Just aweful in every way possible. ?No idea why it was even mentioned in an NYtimes article.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: blantant

                              Casita Blanca is dirty and depressing. like something else is goin' on there. Just sayin'.
                              The food was just ok. I really wanted to like it. The best thing there was the chef/owner's young daughter, I gave her a quarter for every song she'd sing me in Spanish. She was the sweetest thing.

                              1. re: chocolatebirthdaycake

                                Casita Blanca was delicious when I went for lunch earlier this year. Locals and home cooked food. It's in a PR neighborhood, a bit off the beaten path. I just walked in and said feed me :)

                                PS CASH ONLY

                              2. re: blantant

                                Sadly, La Mallorquina has been bloody awful for years. It's a place of legend in Old San Juan (purported to have been a hangout of the likes of Orson Wells and I believe even Alfred Hitchcock)...but you're better off with the "no frills"
                                La Bombonera.

                              3. I liked(edit metropol) a lot http://www.metropolpr.com/ We went twice. Of course had the monfongo...but also had fried calf brains app (I am gonna get mad cow in 20 years right?) and whole fried snapper. This is a nice, affordable and authentic place. I took the menu into work to show my friends from PR and they were drooling....

                                1. Just returned from another trip to San Juan, and somehow have previously missed a fantastic restaurant, that evidently moved from a more obscure location to Ashford Ave. in Condado - directly across the street from the Marriott. It is a do not miss place - called Restaurant Miro (after the artist Jean Miro).

                                  Specializing in Catalan preparations of fresh seafood, this place does not dissappoint - in fact we returned a second time after having reservations at Pikayo for two nights during our stay - and having a dissapointing experience there, we cancelled the second reservation and returned to Miro. Miro has a very lively bar crowd, a great mix of locals and tourists, and the chaotic feel of a great Spanish restaurant. Both nights we dined there we asked the waiter for specific recomendations, and the only time we varied from what they recommended was the only mediocre dish we had. Go!

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: bbalmer

                                    I agree. I went once at the old location, but the new one is more convenient to the hotels and the food is fabulous. I'm going back next week and I might have to catch another meal there.

                                  2. Hello, I'm what could be called a local "foodie"(although I dont really like that term). My recs for local places are:
                                    1. Jose Enrique: funky scene, tremendous food, great fish dishes, very local scene...
                                    2. Laurel: at the Museum of Art of PR, from ex-Chayote chef Mario Pagan, very good.
                                    3. Jose Garden: excellent PR/Dominican food
                                    4. Compostela: great spanish food, upscale tapas, great rice dishes(black calamari-awesome, the rabbit/chorizo rice also great!!), expensive but worth it.

                                    Out of all of these must go recs: Jose Enrique and Compostela.
                                    Enjoy!!