San Juan’s rich culture is a unique synthesis of historical preservation and modern innovation, elements also at play in the unique and varied cuisines found throughout the city.
Puerto Rican food is influenced by Spanish and other Caribbean cuisines and based around products grown or found on the island, such as plantains, yucca, pork, beans and seafood. Appetizer specialties include canoas (fried plantains covered in ground beef, sour cream and red sauce), surullitos (sweet cornmeal fingers), frijoles negros (black bean soup), and sopón de pescado (fish head soup). Soups are flavored with sofrito, a mixture of onions, garlic, coriander, and peppers browned in olive oil. Many meats are prepared using an adobo rub, made by crushing together peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, and lime juice or vinegar. Mofongo, the national dish of Puerto Rico, is a starchy side typically made from fried green plantains, or sometimes with fried yucca and breadfruit, mixed with garlic, olive oil, pork cracklings or bits of bacon. It is served with various proteins including pork, shrimp, chicken and beef.
San Juan Restaurants
Dining out is an important part of Puerto Rican culture. “If it came down to it, we’d dine out rather than pay our rent,” said a saleswoman in a small Condado boutique. Here are some of our top choices.
The Parrot Club (363 Forteleza Street, SOFO, Old San Juan, website) in the “SOFO” area of Old San Juan (Forteleza Street) is bursting with a lively energy. The restaurant is one of a group designed and owned by Emilio and Gigi Figueroa, who also invented the concept of “Nuevo Latino” cuisine, a blend of Spanish, classic Latino and Puerto Rican culinary influences. Located in a former Spanish colonial building, The Parrot Club’s colorful ambiance and large bar with creative cocktails are conducive to mingling and conversation. The calmer dining room area is perfect for enjoying the many meat dishes and salads on their diverse menu. Dinner for two $50 – $70.
For traditional Puerto Rican cuisine at a reasonable price, head to Café del Angel (Ashford Avenue 1106, Condado). Most nights, the two-room restaurant is packed with locals and “in the know” tourists. The patient and outgoing servers are happy to describe in detail any dish on the comprehensive bilingual menu. Dinner for two $40 – $60.
For moderately priced, innovative pan-Caribbean cuisine, Yerba Buena Café (1350 Ashford Avenue) more than fits the bill. The casual bar and restaurant with a large outdoor eating area is home to some of the best mojitos and appetizers in the neighborhood, making it a popular happy hour hangout. Slip into one of their “swinging tables” near the sidewalk and enjoy a Medalla (the “official” beer of Puerto Rico) with an order of white yam fritters and signature dipping sauces. Not only is their mofongo moist and delicious, it’s also served with an artistic flair. Dinner for two $50 – $70.
One of San Juan’s most celebrated restaurants is José José (1106 Magdalena Avenue, Condado, 787-725-8546, website). Chef José Abreu has been serving international cuisine with a Latin twist in this establishment for more than fourteen years. The menu is ambitious, with ingredients like sweetbreads, snails and veal brains used to create artful appetizers. Entrées run from fresh seafood to meaty options such as lamb potage with mashed white plantains. The winelist is heavily Spanish and has a large section of champagnes, befitting a special occasion spot. The warm ambiance, impeccable service, crisp, white linen tablecloths and fresh flowers make for a memorable evening out in San Juan’s upscale Condado neighborhood. Dinner for two $100 and up.
Also located on Magdalena Avenue is the popular Il Postino (1106 Magdelena Avenue, Condado, 787-729-7799), which opened in August 2009. Il Postino’s cutting-edge interior and small outside eating area are filled most nights thanks to a well-executed, moderately-priced menu featuring a variety of Italian dishes, most served with fresh seafood. The extensive and well priced wine list features mostly Italian bottles. Decadent chocolate desserts or light sorbets paired with rich espresso serve as the perfect cap to a delicious meal. Dinner for two $60-$80.
El Hamburger (402 Munoz Rivera Avenue, La Ocho) serves up juicy, affordable burgers to locals and ravenous La Ocho (a large surf break near Old San Juan) surfers. In addition to classic cheeseburgers and bacon cheeseburgers, El Hamburger also offers a phenomenal Roquefort burger and tasty fries. Wash down these satisfying eats with a Medalla or a Corona and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the bill when you step up to the counter to pay. Dinner for two $12 – $20.
Another Old San Juan establishment that takes full advantage of pre-existing colonial architecture is El Asador (350 San Francisco Street, Old San Juan, 787-289-9966, website). Tucked away on one of Old San Juan’s quintessential blue cobblestoned side streets, El Asador is a spare, modern oasis with a large courtyard eating area. Their strong classic cocktails are the perfect start to a satisfying meal. For entrées, the meat and seafood dishes are expertly prepared and moderately priced. Dinner for two $60 – $80.