Sunshine. Piña coladas. Ocean waves as warm as bath water. Throw in the adorable croaks from the coquí frog and you have a pretty conventional picture of Puerto Rico. But in recent years, a culinary renaissance has taken place in the capital of San Juan. Chefs and mixologists are reinventing dishes and cocktails while embracing their heritage and love of la isla del encanto.
It’s been over seven years since I made the move from San Juan to Los Angeles, so in order to familiarize myself with the current food scene, I enlisted the assistance of Spoon Food Tours founder Paulina Salach. Since 2011, her company has been providing culinary tours that exalt local food, culture, history, art, and architecture—a little bit of everything to help visitors become acquainted with San Juan. The three-hour morning and sunset walking tours include five to six stops, allowing guests to savor the flavors of the island while satisfying their appetites for historical knowledge. My guide for the Old San Juan tour, Pablo Garcia Smith, is a delightful history buff who feeds our group easily digestible bits of information. I learn more about Puerto Rican history in these three hours than I did in three years living on the island.
The misconception some folks have of Puerto Rican food is it’s all rice and beans, pork and plantains. Although those ingredients are staples of the local diet, exciting flavor profiles with global spins are permeating new dishes and drinks. Chefs are exploring ways to reinvent local cuisine, whether by reimagining traditional specialities or blending flavors in fusion menus. Another recent drive has been to utilize more locally grown ingredients, an attempt to redistribute the percentage of food—eighty-five to be exact—that is currently imported to Puerto Rico. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen a big movement to eat local, grow local, consume local,” says Salach. “I’ve been here ten years and I’ve seen that beautiful shift.”
Salach and her team are in the process of launching a new tour on Calle Loiza—another neighborhood culinary hot spot—further adding to the diverse San Juan food scene. “A lot of young people in their twenties and thirties are now restaurant and bar owners. Puerto Ricans are very passionate about their island; they feel it in their soul. They want to see it succeed and do well, and they want to contribute to the economy,” Salach says. “It’s exciting and refreshing. And it makes me so happy to be here and live here amongst these amazing people.”
To truly appreciate the new gastronomic scene in San Juan requires weeks, not hours. Even after spending five days here, I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. On the bright side, it gives me much to look forward to for my next visit.
Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar
317 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan, 00901
Ask anyone in San Juan about the restaurant Marmalade or Chef Peter Schintler; more than likely, their face will light up. For the past fourteen years, Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar has been the establishment to dine at in Old San Juan. The California French cuisine sourced from local farms—each dish paired with a remarkable wine, earning the restaurant repeated Wine Spectator awards—has left many dreaming of their next visit.
The flavors created by Schintler are meant to linger over. Silky white bean soup with black truffle oil and sprinkling of pancetta dust is decadence in a perfectly portioned cup. Pan-roasted branzino swims in flavors of fennel, figs and lemon verbena. And one of my personal favorites, homemade gnocchi—smothered in cabernet braised beef ribs, wilted peppery greens and topped with crispy beetroot, this dish is best enjoyed with eyes closed. An expansive vegetarian menu—a unique departure on the carne-focused island—offers both light and hearty options infused with global flavors. The menu at Marmalade is directly influenced by Schintler’s years cooking in top kitchens around the world, but also by his partner and wife, Henriett, and their daughter Siena, who are both vegetarians.
The genuine warmth one feels at Marmalade from Schintler and his team is the epitome of hospitality. And throughout dinner service, Schintler makes time to greet each patron, creating a memorable dining experience—which can last more than two hours—is the ultimate goal at Marmalade.
107 Calle de Tetuan Esq San Jose, San Juan, 00901
The food at Verde Mesa is much like its creator: restrained yet compelling. When compared with chefs of this caliber, Chef Gabriel Hernández is fairly new to the culinary scene. Yet within a decade, his work at Verde Mesa has earned him a coveted 2018 James Beard Award nomination for best chef of the South.
The restaurant’s “vegetable-forward” menu showcases the best of the island’s offerings. The union between Puerto Rico’s agriculture—produce and protein—is fresh and exciting, but the simplicity remains. “This is a dish of goat. That’s it. Just goat,” states Hernández, as a fragrant bowl is placed in front of me. Yet the flavors are exotic and complex. Goat stew with Moroccan spices and sesame seeds are transportive, taking me to faraway lands while keeping one foot firmly in the Caribbean.
Since Hurricane Maria, Verde Mesa has only been open for lunch, but that doesn’t stop diners from enjoying exquisite dishes a short walk from Old San Juan’s Ferry Terminal. A dish reminiscent of beef tartare, with beets and sunflower seeds, is almost too stunning to eat. Chayote, cured in lime juice similar to ceviche, with mango and black sesame seeds is light and refreshing. “Right now, it’s about my travels and experiences and inspirations,” says Hernández. “Moving forward, it’s going to be about expressing the region in a true form,” Hernández says of his menu. “It will be my reflection of the Caribbean.”
148 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan, 00901
With its hidden bars and speakeasy-style, La Factoría has rightfully earned its place at the top of the San Juan cocktail scene. Its claim to recent fame comes as music video location for the mega-hit, Despacito, but its coolness goes way back. “It’s rundown chic, which is Old San Juan,” says Leslie Cofresi, co-owner of the popular bar structure. The original plaster, distressed and faded, transports patrons to the bar’s iconic past as a former poet and musician hangout called Hijos de Borinquen, or “Sons of Puerto Rico.” What has changed from those days are the drinks. “Our idea was to create craft cocktails that nobody in Puerto Rico was doing,” says Cofresi. “At a price young people can afford.” With favorites such as Lavender Mule and Spiced Old Fashion, the mixologists at La Factoría are discerning and inventive, helping the establishment earn a spot in The World’s 50 Best Bars in 2017.
La Factoría is as much about discovery as it is about cocktails. There are six bars, each with its own music and ambience. Guests first set foot inside Factoría, which opens at two p.m. during high-season (six p.m. during low-season). Next to open is Vino, a relaxed and intimate wine bar with food service and wine-centric cocktails, accessed only through a small doorway adjacent to Factoría’s bar. At ten p.m., interior doors open allowing patrons to mingle and dance in the tropical vibe of the Ching-a-Ling room, where DJs spin old-school salsa vinyl and live bands play every Sunday. El Final, also dubbed “the red room,” offers a moodier scene with deep house music. La Cubanita, a former bodega, provides a chill, low-key atmosphere, serving canned beer, shots, and light salsa music. And finally there is El Desvio, a tiny secluded champagne bar for a bit of bubbly into the wee hours of the morning.
Café Trèsbé & Dos Palillos
1765 Calle Loíza, San Juan, 00911
What would you do with a shipping container? If you’re anything like Chef/Owner Mario Ormaza, you’d paint it chartreuse and turn it into a hip food joint. Located on Calle Loiza, Café Trèsbé was among the first restaurants to help revitalize the neighborhood’s dining scene. The barrio, complete with vibrant street art and a balancing dose of grittiness, has become a sought-after spot for travelers looking for something more urban.
Ormaza, who trained under acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opened Trèsbé with this neighborhood-vibe in mind, using fresh local ingredients for his dishes. The large wooden deck is inviting, the ambiance relaxed, and the wi-fi free. Here, strollers and pets mix with weekend cyclists and happy hour patrons. The outdoor, vegetarian and vegan-friendly dining spot offers a variety of dishes from morning to night—smoothies, pancakes, empanadas, salads and sliders are just a few popular items to enjoy while lounging under the umbrella covered tables.
Sharing the patio space is Dos Palillos—meaning “two chopsticks”—the second food establishment by Ormaza. The adjacent raw bar serves local catches for its sushi, ceviche and poke dishes. Guests can order off one menu for both restaurants—including drinks from the outdoor bar—an added convenience to satisfy cravings before heading back to the beach two blocks away.
Café con Cé
96, 90 Avenida Las Palmas, San Juan, 00911
Tucked behind Café Trèsbé and Dos Palillos, you might actually miss this coffee joint if it wasn’t for the words TOMA CAFE—meaning “drink coffee”—lettered on the side of the building. From the street, the mural of the woman in the green dress is what you’re looking for; underneath, you’ll find the doors to Café con Cé, a cozy caffeine gem and local favorite on Calle Loiza.
Serving Puerto Rican beans from Hacienda San Pedro, this velvety, complex coffee is one of my favorites from the island. The hipster baristas are friendly, the music is chill, and there’s a choice of seating both indoors and out. Café con Cé proudly supports local artists, even providing a dedicated space for curated works and goods. The pet-friendly café is open daily, has free wi-fi, and is just minutes by foot from the beach.
1a, 1801 Calle Loíza, San Juan, 00911
If you’re looking for some tropical flair with delightfully crafted local food, head to Sabrina on Calle Loiza. This trendy spot serves up casual food using a variety Puerto Rican ingredients in a Caribbean bistro-style setting. From seafood asopao to pulpo to pork belly, Sabrina offers an elevated dining experience, but keeping the neighborhood atmosphere in mind. The venue is cozy yet bright, cool but approachable. Creative cocktails and infusions make Sabrina a great choice for drinks and appetizers in lieu of a full dinner, if your appetite is feeling light. Live Puerto Rican music adds to the flirty, island feel.
The restaurant’s friendly staff is happy to provide a hand when selecting from the menu. Brunch is popular at Sabrina, but don’t expect pancakes and waffles. Here, flavorful concepts focus on local seafood that residents and tourists have come to love.
101 Calle del Cristo, San Juan, 00901
At first glance, El Batey looks like a place your mama would disapprove of: worn furniture, dark corners, rock-and-roll, and Sharpie-scribbled walls. Well, your mother was right. Welcome to the ultimate dive bar.
Set midway on Calle del Cristo in Old San Juan, El Batey is not looking to be noticed. There are no bright lights or neon screaming its location; a simple sign lets you know you’re in the right place. A popular venue for a last hurrah before calling it a night, El Batey has been the unofficial OSJ joint for the unruly since the 1960s. The drinks are cheap and strong. The decades-old graffitied walls sweat in the heat. The jukebox runs on a quarter and will spit out everything from Led Zeppelin to Sinatra. It’s a taste of old-Puerto Rico, the one from Hunter Thompson’s The Rum Diary and where The Rolling Stones used to hang out. If you’re looking to let your hair down, you’ve come to the right spot.
La Alcapurria Quemá
251 Calle Duffaut, San Juan, 00907
To get a true sense of a city’s food, go where the locals go. La Placita, in the barrio of Santurce, is chock-full of the colors, sights and smells of San Juan. This is the real deal, where the young and old mix and mingle in the streets. It’s where locals buy island produce during the day, and where residents and tourists down cheap beers throughout the night. It’s raw and visceral and so damn fun.
And within this hood is La Alcapurria Quemá. This typical corner shop—or fonda—serves up cheap, quick bites exploding with flavor. An alcapurria is a fritter, a mixture of plantains stuffed with different meats or fish, and always fried. It is the quintessential Puerto Rican street food. Throw in some empanadas de chorizo y queso and ensalada de bacalao, and you’re ready for a good time.
153 Calle de Tetuan, San Juan, 00901
Popsicles are fun. And there’s no shortage of happiness at Señor Paleta. The playful paletería follows a simple philosophy: provide joy, flavor and love in popsicle form to Puerto Ricans and visitors of the island.
Señor Paleta takes pride in using fresh ingredients in all their handmade frozen treats. Gelato and sorbet flavors range from pistachio, choco brownie, and dulce de leche to limonada de fresa, guanábana and fresa mojito, to name a few. Now boasting four locations, the original Señor Paleta is located near the pier in Old San Juan, a convenient spot to take in the view of the bay while enjoying a yummy frozen treat quickly, before it melts in the Caribbean heat.
Café Don Ruiz
Cuartel de Ballajá, Calle Norzagaray, 00901
Tucked in the corner of the vast historic courtyard of the former military Ballajá Barracks—now home to several educational and cultural organizations, including The Museum of the Americas—is the tiny but equally impressive Café Don Ruiz. Like most of the high-caliber coffee grown in Puerto Rico, these beans hail from the mountain region on the island’s interior, specifically the Ruiz family farm in Yauco. The rich and robust flavors of the one hundred percent Arabica beans pair perfectly with the Mallorca—a savory Puerto Rican ham and cheese sandwich showered with powdered sugar—which conveniently are sold in the café, along with other delightful treats. Café Don Ruiz is perfectly situated en route to and from El Morro, the sixteenth century Spanish fort and must-see tourist stop, offering visitors a quiet nook to rest their feet and enjoy a cup Puerto Rican coffee.