San Juan Puerto Rico Report (Long)
Just back from a whirlwind four-day trip to Puerto Rico, armed with lots of recommendations from fellow Chowhounds (and a few guidebooks). Happy to report that we didn't have a single bad meal, and we had several that were outstanding. From the best to the not-as-good:
LA CASITA BLANCA
We were tempted to try the Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet at the Hilton (right next to the Normandie Hotel where we were staying), but we decided to go for the more authentic (and lots cheaper) all-you-can-eat buffet at La Casita Blanca in the edge of the Santurce neighborhood. The area is fine during the day, but it's a bit out of the way, so you'll probably need to take a cab. The place opens at noon, and it's really charming inside. The buffet is great, over a dozen options, and all seemed like typical Puerto Rican fare that a grandmother might prepare. Great appetizer plantain chips. We had the aecerola fruit juice, which is a tasty red cherry-like fruit that's loaded with Vitamin C (had it in Brazil before). The back room has a tree growing in the middle of the dining room. The service and atmosphere couldn't be nicer. And the price was certainly right: $12.95 per person. We walked off our lunch by walking toward the El Condado section and then taking a nice long walk along the beach.
We fell in love with this place in Old San Juan on Calle San Francisco. It's a breakfast/lunch joint, and we sat at the long counter every morning to have their great coffee and mallorcas, which are puffy sweet rolls that are pressed (like a Cuban sandwich), filled with eggs, ham and cheese (or any variation) and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. Very filling and very tasty. The coffee machine is this huge Rube Goldberg-like contraption that is the size of two men. The place filled up on weekends with tourists from cruise ships, but we never had any trouble getting a seat. They have great pastries in the window, too. There's a similar place across the street, Cafeteria Mallorca, but we liked the atmosphere in La Bombanero better.
PUERTO RICO CAFE
A lovely restaurant overlooking the plaza in Old San Juan. The prices are very reasonable (especially for Old San Juan), and it was probably the best Mofongo we had (we were on a bit of a mofongo craze on this trip). If the second floor is open, there's a great view of the plaza.
Not a lot of personality (sort of like a giant Denny's) but great food, inexpensively priced. It's a short walk from the Condado section, on the edge of the Santurce neighborhood. I alerted the manager to a Chowhound report on the place, and she was thrilled. The Mofongo was superb.
We hit the Santurce Market (a giant building filled with vendors selling fruits, vegetables and meats) on Friday afternoon. We were in search of a hot sauce that a Chowhounder had written about, and we found it with no problem. It's in a booth run by a little old lady, and it's a wonderful vinegary, VERY hot, peppery sauce that she sells in old rum bottles. I'm sure she would have been astounded if I told her that I had read about her sauce on Chowhound. Unfortunately, her English was not any better than my Spanish, so I couldn't tell her about Chowhound. There's another booth around the corner from her that sells batidos (fruit shakes). Be careful if you get the large, because it's a giant shake that fills a blender carafe. We had two (you could easily split one) and then weren't as hungry for dinner as we might have been. We had read about the party atmosphere around the market on Thursday and Friday nights after everyone arrives after work. Sure enough, at around 5:00 the area filled with people standing around socializing and drinking beers while music played. It wasn't exactly a wild party scene, but it was pleasant. There are dozens of restaurants surrounding the market, and we chose Don Tello, where we had great Mofongo dishes; Bill had chicken and I had shrimp.
We had read in all the guidebooks that the fancy Dragonfly in Old San Juan was closed on Sunday evenings, but when we got into town we discovered that it was actually open. Unfortunately, we were wearing shorts, which is a no-no at Dragonfly. The folks at the door who were trying to drum up business urged us to come in anyway by telling us that we could wear sarongs and that we would be put in an out-of-the way location in the rear. Neither of those options appealed to us, so we decided to try the tapas restaurant El Picoteo in the gorgeous El Convento Hotel. The atmosphere on their plaza was probably the nicest on our trip. It was a bit pricier than the other restaurants, but the white sangria was great, as were the albondigas. The chorizo was a bit of a disappointment, not at all like Spanish cured chorizo, but more like cocktail wieners. We even tried the "diablo" ones at the suggestion of our waitress, who said they were more flavorful. I can only imagine how bland the regular chorizo must be! We split three tapas plates and sangria, which was not a lot of food, but just enough for us.
AREPAS Y MUCHO MAS
We love arepas in New York City, so we decided to give this place a try on San Francisco in Old San Juan. The prices were certainly right ($10 for two giant arepas), but they were not quite as good as some of the ones we've found in NYC. We got the ones with chicken and avacado. They certainly were filling, though.
LA FONDA EL JIBARITO
This place in Old San Juan is in all the guidebooks. It has nice, quaint atmosphere (a guitar player was there the night we went), but the food was not spectacular. Most of the dishes seem to come from steam tables at the back of the restaurant. Bill's mofongo was very good, but my tamales were a bit boring.
manhattan diner: GREAT posting! I live here in San Juan (moved here from NYC last year) and I think you gave a really accurate and thorough description of all those places. I've never been to La Casita Blanca, but I've been meaning to get there - so many people have raved about it. Thanks for spending the time!
Manhattan Diner--we brought your review with us.....only realizing AFTER we were wandering OSJ that we didn't have street names with us!!
So, we ended up with the following meals. I should preface this by saying that I am a pescetarian when i eat out, so that I do vegetarian/fish, while my fiance eats it all!
Night 1: We ate at the hotel (Caribe Hilton). It was fine, though nothing special, and less expensive than I had feared.
Night 2: This was the night we were lost (and I was cranky) in OSJ, and we ended up at El Picotea. I think you were being generous with your review. I ordered the white sangria, and thought it basically tasted like grapefruit juice with a shot of Mauna Loa. Then, we ordered the bacalaitos, patatas bravas, the fish ceviche, and the albondigas. I thought the patatas bravas tasted like roasted potatoes with canned enchilada sauce dumped on them (disappointing because I LOVE patatas bravas). The ceviche was fine--nothing special. He said that the albondigas were fine, but the sauce was missing a certain something. And, only after we asked where the order was did they inform us they were out of bacalaitos. So, we ended up spending $60, and I left STARVING.
Night #3: We had gone to El Yunque during the day and eaten all sorts of fried yumminess, so I did not think we would be hungry....but we were. We went to Puerto Rico Cafe, and were sitting outside until it started raining, when we moved into the very pleasant inside. Again, I didn't think the sangria was amazing, though it was better than the night before. They forgot to bring our queso frito (probably okay, given the number of surillos I had eaten earlier in the day!). I had the mofongo pescado, with grouper. It was my first mofongo experience, and I will definitely be seeking it out here in NYC. Yum. And my fiance had yellow rice with shrimp, which he said was a more Cuban version of paella. We both commented on how not-spicy the cuisine seemed to be, though admitting it was probably toned down for us!
Night #4: We gave in and went to the Parrot Club. Looked at the menus for Aquaviva and for Dragonfly, and decided that it really was nothing we couldn't get any night in NYC. So, we went for Parrot Club. Eh. I got the Caesar, which was good, not great. I liked the "mofongo" croutons. Then I had the tuna, which was pretty disappointing. The sauce was a bit thick, but there wasn't enough to actually flavor the tuna; the tuna itself was excellent, fresh and nicely seared. The mashed yuca was cold AND flavorless, and I did not have the patience to send it back. Fiance got the ceviche, which was quite good, and then the pernil, which I did not taste, but he seemed happy with. The mojito was nice and refreshing, and the chocolate-Kahlua pot de creme was tasty indeed. All in all, I just found it overpriced, which is not surprising.
I think I had fantasies of more "authentic" food, but we weren't all that adventurous on this first trip to PR. Maybe next time......
Thanks for the nice comments on my post, gang. The hot sauce is indeed a pique sauce. I also prefer the Louisiana style hot sauce, but this one is pretty tasty...and very hot. The Santruce area is inland from the Condado section, which is on the beach. Condado is filled with high-rise chain hotels and casinos and chain restaurants. Santurce is on the other side of a major highway that cuts through the area. We walked there every night, but if you're feeling uncertain there are lots of cabs around. We also took the bus a lot, which is only 50 cents, although the buses certainly don't show up as often as in Buenos Aires or Rio. There is a bus depot near the main plaza in Old San Juan, so if you want to save a bit of money going back and forth from Old San Juan, you might want to wander over to the depot, where there's always a bus departing soon.
Great report! I'm a big fan of Bebo's, I'll be heading there for lunch straight from the airport in a few weeks. That sauce, is it "pique" style? I'm really not that fond of it, prefer "louisiana hot sauce" style (ie Crystal). How is it special? I've gotten Bohio's brand here in the states and Goya, as well, ended up not using them much...
I'll probably stay at El Prado Inn, a few blocks from the market, though I might go with Chimes this time and stay on the beach.
Thanks again for the detailed comments, they're right in line with what I have heard and/or experienced. Love the food, hard to go wrong just about anywhere in PR.