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Trip Report - San Juan, Puerto Rico

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I always plan to write up trip reports, and am terrible about actually doing it. We spent a few days in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the beginning of January and had several lovely meals and one horrible meal at Pikayo which gave me incentive to write up our experiences.

Kasalta in Ocean Park - we were lucky enough to be staying about a block away from Kasalta, so we ate breakfast there every day and also had dessert there one night! We enjoyed everything we had there, even just eggs or avena (hot cereal), but obviously the more local specialties stand out - quesito (cheese filled pastry) and mallorca with ham and cheese. The latter is HUGE so we split it for breakfast and still didn't want lunch!

The food court on Plaza Colon in Old San Juan, next to Cafe Berlin- following a tip from Chowhound, we made our way to the back of this (dingy) food court to a stand that sells mofongo. We split an order of mofongo with pernil which was delicious. The best mofongo we had on the trip - well worth the wait (the pernil was pre-cooked, but the mofongo was completely made from scratch while we waited). Garlicky, flavorful, perfectly fried.

We also stopped in at Caficultura. My husband said his coffee was excellent. I had a very nice pot of jasmine tea . . . except that when I ordered it, the waiter carefully explained to me that jasmine only came in a pot and that I could have refills, but he didn’t actually point out that the pot was $12 which wasn’t clear on the menu! Since I really only wanted one cup of tea, I wouldn’t have ordered the pot and was quite taken aback when we received the check which marred what otherwise would have been a nice break from walking around. Still, would go back there for coffee.

Bebo's Cafe in Ocean Park - we had dinner at this popular restaurant on a Sunday night, after a little bit of a wait. I'm not drinking these days, since I'm pregnant, so I really appreciated that they had fresh orange juice. Even though I had just had mofongo for lunch, I ordered some more - this time with stewed chicken. The chicken was surprisingly tasty (out of character for me to order chicken, to be honest), if a bit too salty, and the mofongo was fine but not nearly as good as what we had at the food court. A forgivable misunderstanding on our waiter's part meant my husband didn't get what he ordered and ended up with a carb-heavy meal of rice and beans, tostones, and a chicken stew with lots of rice in it. They were all good, particularly the tostones, but nothing fantastic. We could walk to Bebo's from our guest house, and they were open on a Sunday, so it was perfect for us, but I wouldn't go out of my way to go there. I would return, though, if I were back in San Juan and it was convenient again since my impression is that it's a reliable and cheap place to get competently done Puerto Rican favorites. Still, I suspect there are better versions of much of what’s on the menu out there.

Uvva at Hosteria del Mar on the beach in Ocean Park - we had lunch there one day, sitting inside since it was threatening to rain. Very charming spot, you definitely are paying for location!, with shutters open to the beach so we could watch the kitesurfers in the ocean, but also just pleasant decor. Good fruit juice shakes. I had a HUGE wrap with ground beef, plantains, cheese, and vegetables which was pretty good. My husband had the seafood-pumpkin soup which was also pretty good, with particularly lovely mussels amidst lots of other good seafood. I have to admit I assumed the food would be mediocre (something about the location and the menu) so I was very pleasantly surprised.

We spent that evening in Old San Juan. First, my husband had an interesting spicy cocktail at a bar whose name I can’t recall, but will add later if I can figure it out. Very enthusiastic young bartender too! I’m pretty certain it was on Clle Fortaleza around C. San Justo maybe? Small bar, but they had a cocktail list posted outside. We then moved to the bar at Dragonfly (the restaurant was packed, although they have lots of little spaces downstairs!). A decent cocktail for him – they called it a sake sangria, but it was more like a sake collins - and we shared an order of the bao slider sample. The bao were ok, but not great.

Finally, dinner at Marmalade in the lounge, since we hadn’t made a reservation, but the lounge was perfectly comfortable. The chef, who was making the rounds of the tables, sent out two amuses – one a shot of his signature white bean/truffle soup w/prosciutto dust which was quite nice and, having not taken notes, I can’t recall the second amuse. We split an order of the paella bites which we really enjoyed. I’m a little fuzzy on our entrees as well – I know I had a Maine lobster dish (I know – Maine lobster in Puerto Rico? But we saw almost no local seafood on menus when we were there) which was excellent. Anyway, overall, we thought Marmalade was very good and we quite enjoyed our meal there. I definitely would return.

Our last day, we went to both the art museum and the contemporary art museum (not earth-shattering, but both interesting/pleasant), and then walked over to Plaza del Mercado. The food hall itself isn’t particularly interesting, and I love food markets, but we really loved Tasca el Pescador. Unfortunately, we had had a big breakfast and were expecting to have a big dinner, so we could only manage to share two of the special appetizers of the day. One was a piquillo pepper stuffed with a seafood mixture in a very light tomato (and cheese?) sauce. Excellent. The other were croquettes of cod which were also just perfectly done. This is the restaurant I’d be most eager to return to, I think. Closes early (6:30? 7:30?) and there were waits even when we there mid-afternoon on a Tuesday.

Dinner that night was at Pikayo which was a serious disappointment. Not just bad for the price point, but simply bad. I have to believe it was good at some point but not the night we were there! The pros: comfortable room, with great floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the ocean; good bread (though the butter was sweetened which I wasn’t crazy about); nice bartender and some good wines by the glass. The cons: um, the food. The food came out incredibly quickly, and we strongly suspect much of our food was precooked and reheated based on what we received. We only had two courses, but still, we were done 45 minutes after we sat down . . . and we took quite some time to order so I believe we were about 35 minutes between ordering and finishing our two courses. Anyway, I started with the gandules con chicharron risotto. The chicharron was nice enough, but the dish was totally overwhelmed by parmesan and that’s all I could taste otherwise. I unfortunately can’t recall at all what my husband had for an appetizer, but I remember it was so bad that my totally mediocre risotto was much much better. For mains, I had a dish of shrimp and a version of mofongo. The shrimp were tasteless and overcooked. The mofongo had a reasonable taste, but the texture was unpleasant – rubbery – which was partially why we think it had been sitting for a while and then was reheated. My husband had a fish dish (maybe cod?) which was encased in phyllo dough. He liked the phyllo –what could be wrong with phyllo? – but the fish had the taste and texture of badly frozen/badly thawed fish. Just unappetizing. When our only-half-eaten plates were cleared and we were asked how things were and were fairly unenthusiastic, the response we got was a laugh and a “I guess you’ve had better.” I guess we have. No – we didn’t send any of the food back or complain vociferously, but not a single thing that came out of that kitchen suggested that we could get better food if we had, and so we didn’t feel like wasting our energy. I obviously wasn’t looking for more food from that kitchen, but it did occur to me afterwards that it was surprising for a restaurant of that variety that there were no amuse-bouches or the like. We didn’t order dessert, but still I’m used to receiving complimentary petits-fours or something similar at the end of a meal at a restaurant of that supposed ambition. And it wasn’t just us – no one in the dining room was getting any of those little extras from the kitchen. The funny thing is that if I had been happy with our meal, I would probably have never thought about it. Isn’t it sad that the mofongo was one of the tastier parts of the meal, and it was still the third best mofongo we had in San Juan?

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  1. Oh, Kasalta. Is it still, like, a bakery? I remember the name. One trip we ate Caldo Gallego there every day. Next visit try the Metropole---in Isla Verde across the parking lot from the cock fight stadium. Plain wonderful PR cooking---big slabs of meat or fish with a mountain of beans and rice. Always crowded. Also, on my short list of favorite places in the entire world, La Bombonera in Old San Juan for coffee and mallorcas---like a sweet English muffin that they split, butter, grill in a grill that squishes them, and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Querencia

      agreed on Metropole and La Bombanera (on San Fransisco)

      1. re: phelana

        La Bombonera closed in spring 2012. Anywhere else with notable breakfasts?

        1. re: amfulay

          We liked La Mallorca. My husband approached a police officer during our early morning OSJ walk to inquire about breakfast. He asked "tourist or local?" We picked local and had a great meal.

          1. re: cleobeach

            Our concierge recommended La Mallorca, but it was packed with tourists! We also asked an obliging police officer in the square across the street and she recommended La Manolin - it was like a diner and had basic yet satisfying fare.

            1. re: amfulay

              Isn't that interesting! We were there rather early in the morning so maybe we arrived ahead of the cruise ship traffic?

    2. I posted on another thread about recommendations for NYE dinner in Old San Juan and I suggested Marmalade. In fact, the thought of the meal alone sent me searching for travel deals for January.

      1 Reply
      1. re: GreekChorus

        A colleague had dinner at Marmalde on Wednesday (11/7/12) and wasn't that impressed. I'm not sure if he was just spoiled by being from NYC, but he indicated it was good, but over priced for what you got. Not sure if things have changed there lately or not, but just a heads up.