La Factoria's expert cocktails landed them a place on the World's 50 Best Bars list. Bloomberg photo by Kate Krader
La Factoria's expert cocktails landed them a place on the World's 50 Best Bars list. Bloomberg photo by Kate Krader

Explore the best of Puerto Rico's foodie scene

By Kate Krader Time of article published Feb 4, 2020

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I landed in San Juan on Jan 8, just 36 hours after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico. It was followed by a series of smaller earthquakes and aftershocks that killed at least one person and rocked the south side of the island.

In San Juan, restaurants were affected to varying degrees. Some lost power for several days, with others up and running within 24 hours. "We've learned to come together after natural disasters," Jose Enrique, the island's most celebrated chef, tells me. 

During the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Enrique was tapped by José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen organization to help feed what eventually became millions of locals and rescue workers.

Following Maria and Hurricane Irma, which preceded it, the local tourism market - which accounts for 6.5 percent of the island's gross domestic product - took a nosedive. Hotels closed for long-term repairs, and airlines cut service.

Now there are an average of 200 arrivals on any given day at San Juan's airport, up from a low of 20, and the inventory of hotel rooms has increased 3.4 percent since 2017. The year 2019 also saw the highest lodging revenues year-to-date for Puerto Rico tourism, more than $953-million-due, in part, to the gleaming renovations.

Enrique says the food scene in San Juan has evolved to become more dynamic and locally focused since the hurricanes. "Before the storm, there was a lot of Italian cooking, a lot of French cooking here. 

You couldn't find Puerto Rican food in high-end restaurants." Now the island is showcasing a singular kind of cooking that you can't find anywhere else, as cooks-and bartenders-take a fresh look at such classics as mofongo (mashed plantains), empanadas, pernil, roasted pork, and pina coladas.

Even for dishes that aren't typically Puerto Rican (a tomato and mozzarella salad, say), chefs are sourcing more and more ingredients from the island. They've gotten an assist from the government: Since Maria, the Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture has worked with farmers to reduce food imports from 85 percent to as little as 65 percent.

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"After every earthquake, every storm, we say: We're going to do this bigger and better," says Enrique. Here's a guide to supporting the local economy with the best places I found for terrific food and cocktails, along with hotel rooms, for the ultimate, long-weekend trip.

Where to Eat

Jose Enrique

Puerto Rico's most celebrated chef has taken his exuberant crillo cooking to a buzzy, brasserie style dining room in Condado, a 15-minute ride from Old San Juan. In the softly lit space, Enrique serves perennial favorites such as crispy fried yellowtail with sweet yam mash and paper-thin swordfish schnitzel.

1021 Ashford Ave.

Cocina al Fonda

Set behind a gallery in the lively arts district of Santurce, Cocina al Fonda feels like a gallery, too, with high ceilings, widely spaced tables and minimal decor.

1057 Ponce de Leon Ave.

Verde Mesa

This Old San Juan dining room has a romantic, antique store vibe and a menu from chef Gabriel Hernandez with more vegetables than a lot of local dining rooms. 

Calle Tetuan 107

Prole Cocina & Barra

Highlights at this bright, new dining room include pollo frito-sous vide fried chicken with crispy brussels sprouts and truffle mash-a 22-oz cowboy rib-eye with grilled asparagus, and burrata salad made with heirloom cherry tomatoes and sourdough from a local bakery. 

619 Calle Cerra

Vianda

Francis Guzman, who cooked at New York's Blue Hill and the Modern, is a cheerleader for local products. 

1413 Avenida de la Constitución

La Casita Blanca

As the name suggests, this is a white house fronted with an arboretum's worth of plants and has been welcoming locals for decades. 

351 Calle Tapia, Santurce

Kasalta

This old-school bakery and deli is renowned for its Cubano sandwiches and hot, fortifying café con leche. 

1966 Calle McLeary

Bloomberg

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