Puerto Rico Report -- San Juan, Guavate, Culebra, Luquillo, El Yunque
Hi. Here's a summary of what we ate on our trip to Puerto Rico. As I didn't take notes throughout my meal or during the trip, this is all from memory and a bit spotty in certain areas.
San Juan Area
La Casita Blanca (Santurce) -- definitely off-the-beaten-tourist path but with the best Criollo food. We were there for a late lunch (around 2P) and there was still about a 20-minute wait. When the guy at the hotel flagged a taxi for me, he asked me where I was going. When I replied La Casita Blanca, he gave me his nod of approval and said that it was really good. Unless you have a car, you'll need to take a taxi. If you have copious amounts of time, I believe a bus goes by there as well. Very popular with the locals and rightfully so. There was a bit of a language barrier, but we were able to manage OK. The waitstaff is incredibly nice and sweet. When we sat down, they gave us some garlic bread, asopao, and bacalaitos. The bacalaitos were really good -- well-fried, spiced and not greasy. Unfortunately by that time they were out of a lot of dishes. So we ordered some stewed chicken and a beef dish. Both were really well flavored and very tender. The chicken dish came with both white and dark meat. I was really surprised that the breast was not dried out at all. I'm thinking that they must have timed the cooking so that the dark meat went in first (which I find that most places do NOT do). Huge portions, and they were served with tostones and rice and beans. After lunch, they gave us a complimentary shot of anise liquer (which really isn't my thing). Prices were extremely moderate, especially for the quantity and quality of food we received. Entrees were around $10-$12. It was a great experience and should not be missed for authentic PR food. Just a warning for those people who are into ambiance -- it's in a converted house and is best described as "shabby chic." It's a bit dark and there's no air conditioning. Windows are just cut-outs in the walls and you'll be hearing roosters across the street throughout your entire meal.
Chayote (Mirimar) -- wonderful meal. We started off with some seared tuna on top of tostones and lamb fritters. Both very well cooked. I started off with a stuffed chayote in tempura which was good (I don't think I'm a huge chayote fan, though). We had a lamb confit risotto that was very rich. I also had a chorizo stuffed shrimp in a saffron broth (which was more like a sauce) that was very tasty as well. I don't remember the fourth dish. Everything was well prepared and very flavorful. For me, it was strange to see so many heavy "wintery" dishes on the menu when it's over 80 degrees outside. But I guess this is winter in San Juan. Service was top-notch (as were the prices). For dessert we shared a tamarind cheesecake that I found refreshing. Service was great and very professional.
Kassalta Bakery (Ocean Park) -- The bakery has definitely changed since I've been last there. A bit more sleek and definitely a greater Spanish influence. There was a huge selection of imported cheeses on the right and some serrano you could purchase as well. Very busy with locals. As it was Christmas Eve, they were also selling some lechon to go. We shared a pernil sandwich. Portions of the sandwiches are definitely enough to feed two people. They were huge. The sandwich was tasty with the exception of the damn pickles on it which I promptly removed from my half. On our way out, I got a mallorca, one codfish and one ham croquette. I've never had this mallorca I've been hearing so much about and was curious to try it. OK. I've tried it. They were light-textured and fine, but nothing to write home about. The croquettes were good, but not freshly-fried.
Pikayo (Santurce) -- So we've finally made it to Pikayo. Setting is beautiful in the art museum. Service was great. More tourists there than Chayote. We started off with some pork belly sliders. We received six very cute mini-sliders beautifully presented. They were delicious, but I wouldn't call the meat pork belly. It was more like pork butt. Like Chayote, I'm blanking out again about what we ate. But it was all good. Oh, I remember that I did order a side order of mofonguitos (little mofongos) which was the best mofongo I've ever eaten. They were shaped into croquettes and deep-fried so you had a lot of crunchy crust to eat. And they added something like bacon to it which really brought out the pork flavor and served in a saffron-based sauce. We both agreed that Pikayo had the edge in terms of food but both were delicious. I was a bit dismayed by the desserts. There was nothing wrong with them but they were things like chocolate souflee, key lime pie, chocolate cake. I finally got it in the Top Chef Season 3 finale when Hung made this great three course Asian-inspired modern meal and then tops it off with a classic chocolate molten cake. The desserts were tasty and presentation was a bit refined, but I felt that they were out of place with the rest of the menu. And the desserts were what I would call "chef's desserts." I'm wondering if they don't have a pastry chef there. Service was top-notch.
Marmalade (Old San Juan) -- I was originally going to try Tantra but decided to try Marmalade due to the rave reviews by one poster here. The reason why I was hesitating about Marmalade in the beginning was that the poster said there really wasn't any Carribbean influence. But I found out that there is. I think in guidebooks the restaurant is being labeled as Mediterranean-French. But I think that's wrong (unless the menu has changed recently to incorporate more Latin touches). There were definitely Latin-inspired items on the menu as well as Mediterranean and French. We had ceviche served on tostones and the gnocchi and braised beef. There were a couple of other dishes but just can't really remember right now what they were. Everything was very tasty. Warning to those who expect Puerto Rican sized portions -- these are a lot more sensible portions. It was fine for us but I can see some people being disappointed. We were there for lunch. Later that evening we came back for the coffee and doughnuts dessert which was very delicious (again, some people may consider the portions on the small size). Great service. Waitstaff very well trained.
Pamela's (Ocean Park) -- Because of the wicked weather, we weren't able to sit on the beach. I started off with a crab and avocado napoleon which really wasn't that great. The crab came out of a can and just tasted tinny. The avocado was also brownish. DH ordered the filet mignon which was really good. It came with some sweet sauce which we just pushed to the side. The meat was steakhouse quality. We also shared another appetizer and entree but just can't recall what it was right now. But we were pretty happy with our meal (with the exception of the crab/avocado thing). Service was good as well.
Casa Dante (Carolina) -- On our way to the ferry to Culebra, we went to Casa Dante for lunch. The lady there couldn't have been any nicer. I ordered the shrimp in garlic sauce which came with a side of mofongo. Both were very good. I think that DH ordered a stuffed mofongo which was good as well. We were both getting a bit tired of plantains by this point.
Aguaviva (Old San Juan) -- We stopped there for a late lunch on our way back to the airport. We were getting kind of tired of all the heavy food and was in the mood for something lighter. As we were there kind of late, they were out of a lot of the dishes we wanted. We started off with a trio of ceviches. My favorite was the one with the mango, the house ceviche as it was the most tart. They were all delicious. They gave us a side of tostones with the ceviche. We then shared a baked red snapper stuffed with lobster and mofongo and seared mahi-mahi served with rice and beans. The red snapper was delicious. I was so happy to eat something baked as opposed to fried. The mofongo stuffing was surprisingly light. The mahi-mahi wasn't really our thing. We left most of it behind. But the rice and beans were good. There was definitely a Chinese influence to the dish as it was cooked in a fried rice style. It was served with a side of pancetta bits which we found it was more delicious when mixed into the rice. And there was a small side of stir-fried vegetables! Oh, how delicious those crunchy greens were! The dessert menu didn't look that appealing so we went across the street to Parrot Club. Well-trained staff and our waitress was very nice.
Parrot Club (Old San Juan) -- The decor has changed a bit since I've last been there. Even at 4P on a Monday afternoon, it was really crowded with tourists and locals. We ordered the mocha pot de creme and a white chocolate brownie served with chocolate cream. The mocha pot de creme was really delicious, served with fresh whipped cream. There was a butterscotch undertone to the pot de creme that I found delicious. The white chocolate brownie dessert was just OK. Not worth getting. Service was good. You could tell that the guys there were overwhelmed as they brought in a chef from another of their restaurants in as they didn't expect this type of crowd at that time.
Juanita Bananas (on the road to Melones) -- Having been in Culebra before, I knew not to get my hopes too high in terms of cuisine. While I love the people, the beaches and slower pace of life, I'm not crazy about the culinary options. I was really curious to try Juanita Bananas as I've heard decent things about it. I need to preface my report by saying that the regular chef wasn't there and there was a visiting chef there. I'm wondering if that's why I was thoroughly unimpressed with my meal. I'm also wondering if that was the reason why it was almost empty when we got there (there was only one table eating) when I kept reading that reservations are essential. They must have had a surplus of carrots because every single dish was served with carrot ribbons (whether or not it went with the food). The food was probably better than most of the other places on the island, but still wasn't that great. The best thing about the meal was dessert which was a chocolate brownie served with Sealtest variety of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Service was good. The waitress there was very nice. Unfortunately, the food was just so-so.
Dinghy Dock -- We were there for lunch and I ordered a burger and DH ordered a turkey and swiss sandwich on a croissant. The turkey and swiss was OK -- kind of what you'd expect on Culebra. But the burger was terrible. The meat tasted like stuff I ate at my public school cafeteria -- no flavor, rubbery. When I ordered it, I was thinking, "How can you ruin a burger?" But I was dead wrong. Believe me, I would have rather eaten at McDonalds.
Luquillo/Rain Forest Area
La Parilla (Luquillo) -- Also known as Kiosk #2, I've read some positive reports about the place. We started off by ordering plantain cups filled with lobster. Way too much plantain to lobster ratio. And the lobster was really mealy -- not like it was rotten mealy but like it stewed in the tomato sauce all day. So probably not our favorite dish. We then had the pineapple shrimp with curried rice special and the filet mignon with guayaba special. The pineapple shrimp was pretty good and tasty. I looked over at the table next to me and was shocked that the lady finished her entire dish as it was humongous. The beef was good but it was drowned in that syrupy sweet sauce. I don't mind a sauce enhancing a protein, but I don't like it to overwhelm it. We just pushed the sauce to the side. The beef came with a side of rice and beans. I have to say that this is the best rice and beans I've ever had. Totally full of lard and really tasty. Seriously, you shouldn't miss it. We shared a quatros leches for dessert (the fourth milk being coconut) but it took quite some time for it come. Our waitress was nice but a bit flakey. After I ordered our dessert, she stopped to take an order for a five top. She literally spent 15 minutes at that table (it wasn't the family's fault) and I just had a feeling that she probably forgot to put in our dessert order. Well, after half an hour later, another waiter saw us and asked if we wanted the check. We said that we were waiting for our dessert. He looked shocked (probably because he saw us doing for quite some long time) and asked us what we ordered. Ten minutes later, the owner dropped by asking if we needed our check. When we told him we were waiting for our dessert, he also looked alarmed and said that he'll take care of it right away. Our waitress then came over and said that she was giving us time to digest. Right. Then somebody brought our dessert which was pretty good. The coconut milk added a nice dimension. As we were eating the dessert, our waitress brought over a dessert and was surprised that we were already eating dessert. And while all this was happening, the family of five never got any food. I felt so bad for them. As we were on vacation, we didn't really have anything better to do so we didn't mind this so much. The horse trotting races which took place in the parking lot behind the restaurant amused us. But if we received this type of service in NYC (where we usually are very busy), I would have probably been pissed. Overall, I found the food very good but not Pikayo, Marmalade or Chayote quality. If you're in the area, not a bad place to drop by. Make sure to order the rice and beans as it's super delicious.
Las Vegas (El Yunque) -- We ordered the alcapurria and bacalao croquettes. The alcapurria was very tasty but the bacalao was way too salty. We then ordered the goat stew which was delicious. We decided to get an order of boiled root vegetables as we were so tired of fried food by this time. The pieces of vegetables were delicious dipped into the sauce. I was craving something bright and tart so I ordered the skirt steak with chimichurri. OMG! The worst piece of beef I've had in a long time. I totally know that skirt steak is not tender, but this piece was really difficult to eat and cut and had no flavor whatsoever. I really don't think they tenderized the meat at all. All the chimichurris I've had in the past had a base of cilantro or parsley. But this was just chopped tomatoes, onions and vinegar. I was really looking forward to something green, but ate every scrap of tomato and onion off of my dish. But I left most of my beef behind. At the end they gave us a shot of a coconut rum drink. Really tasty and better than the coconut rum drink we received at Chayote.
Los Pinos -- We did the drive to Guavate from the Rio Mar Resort on Sunday to experience the leconera thing. It did take some time (about 1.5 hour). We got there around 1P so there definitely was some traffic congestion. I was looking for this lechonera that Alfredo Ayala recommended as they used a local pig (apparently most places import their pig as it's cheaper) but couldn't find it. So we went to Los Pinos and waited on line. Los Pinos is the one where Bourdain went to in No Reservations. Lines were pretty long by that time. I think we waited around 40 minutes until we got our food. But it gave us a chance to check out the action behind the counter. We ordered some lechon, arroz con gandules and a pastele. The pastele was totally forgettable. Had much better versions before. The arroz con gandules weren't bad. I hope I don't get flamed for saying this, but we were kind of disappointed with the lechon. The skin was delicious. But the meat we received was so damn dry. I've had dry chicken breast that was moister than the pig. I had no choice but to eat pieces of the meat with the pastele for moisture. I'm wondering if it's the luck of the draw and we just received the most dry part of the pig. Overall, I'm glad we experienced the whole shebang -- the crowds, the drive, the food, the music. But we're really not in a hurry to go back, especially with the dry pig.
Thanks for the report Miss Needle. I just got back from San Juan and made it my mission to have the most delicious meals. I have to say that I most enjoyed the criolla comida along the waterfront stands and cafes - incredibly tasty and inexpensive. Next to that, I loved JAM rum bar and bistro moderne. The ambiance was upscale yet playful and the food was to die for. Service was amazing. I had a long conversation with the owner, to whom I confessed I would gladly eat at JAM every week.
p.s. Kassalta Bakery and Bebos are also wonderful mainstays.
Thank you for such a wonderful report. I have sailed (charter) in both the BVI's and the USVI's and want to make the next sail in the waters of the Spanish virgin islands and PR. Some of these places aren't close tp the water, but we may end up doing a bit of land travel as well.
Thank you again
For lechon , pasteles, arroz con gandules and morcilla I recommend El Mojito in Cayey or El Cunao in Cayey Too. El Mojito is the first restaurant at your right when you get out of the highway 52 south to Guavate. Ate the Stop sign turn left, then the fisrt one at your right. El Cunao is in Carr #1 route to Aibonito or Salinas, the old road. Both business are running by nice families.Enjoy!
Thank you, I am going in 2 weeks! I wish Pamela's was better, we are staying very close to it. I am looking forward to eating at Pikayo. Last time I was in San Juan I had a pretty good meal at Baru, great orange liquor sauteed shrimp, really bad oysters though. Bebos has really great food as well