Puerto Rican food is not normally something I seek out. With a lot of fried food and meat, the staples are just not things I normally crave. But, as always, when in Rome…
I was still excited to try the local specialties like mofongo (mashed and fried plantains with seafood or meat in the middle), alcapurrias (fried stuffed fritter), and the local drink, a Mojito, which is made with rum, the island’s national drink. More than 70% of the rum in the U.S. comes from Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican food is its own unique blend of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American influences. Locals call it “cocina criolla”.
Other specialties are anything with plantains. Plantains are a variety of banana that cannot be eaten raw. And of course beans and rice. The dish most known here is arroz con gandules – yellow rice with pigeon peas.
I was given some great recommendations and was even fortunate enough to meet one of Puerto Rico’s most successful and best known chefs (and Top Chef Master participant), Wilo Benet, for coffee.
I have covered chefs in Chicago for nearly two decades and have been treated to great meals, but can’t remember the last time one has taken the time to just meet me for coffee to talk. Wilo was down-to-earth and easy to chat with. We talked about everything from the state of food in Puerto Rico, to the attitude of some millennials, to consumerism.
Here is a guy who has climbed the ladder to success, the ups and downs, from being a janitor when he was a teen, to owning his first restaurant at age 26, to being a Top Chef Master and judge, and the chef for the Governor of Puerto Rico.
And being a renaissance man, he is also a photographer, an artist, and has his own wood-working studio.
“I’ve been a person in my own search for my food identity,” he says. “I’ve been passionate and upset at the same time.”
Originally, at his renowned restaurant, Pikayo, he refused to work with rice and beans, Puerto Rico’s most ubiquitous dish. Now, he incorporates more local flavors, but still with his world view and approach.
His main goal is to offer consistency and premium-quality food. Therefore, he has to import most things. Unlike what you might expect, most seafood has to be imported to Puerto Rico.
Benet defines his culinary style as contemporary global cuisine, a concept that combines traditional Puerto Rican ingredients with Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Italian, Classical French influences. He keeps his food high quality and consistent and that’s what his regulars expect.
“You can’t be a Mercedes and not be a Mercedes,” he says.
Benet is not trying to reinvent the wheel. His customers expect their favorite dish on the menu. He says some regulars come in six days a week.
He also has a straightforward way of looking at food today and all the buzz surrounding it.
“You can’t say you’re a foodie just because you think you have a status of authority. If those people are foodies, then I’m a food astronaut.”
Look soon for a possible new concept by Wilo to hit California.
I loved this place. Because of the vibe and atmosphere, it was probably my favorite restaurant during our visit. Whereas Pikayo was all white tablecloths and a more formal affair, Cocina Abierta was wood tables, dim lighting, and cool Edison bulbs. The menu is broken into acts with small plates to choose from. I tried the scallops with pumpkin-smoked trout brandade and the duck tacos. Both were inventive and delicious!
If you love music and want to jump into local culture, head over to Santurce neighborhood of San Juan and “La Placita” on Thursday or Friday, It’s an outdoor plaza with a farmer’s market during the day. At night, it becomes one big street party.
Luquillo Beach Kiosks
Kiosks, are a much-frequented, time-honored, and integral part to a day at the beach here. In Luquillo Beach, a long row of rustic stalls display all kinds fritters and other fried concoctions under heat lamps or behind a glass pane. We spent one afternoon here and at the beach. There were so many stalls! Most seemed to have very similar food so it was hard to decide which one was the best! Don’t except fancy. Just real good, local food. And as always, a lot is fried. But it was super tasty. Like Puerto Rican comfort food.
American Cut Bar and Grill
American Cut Bar and Grill just opened from Chef Marc Forgione and the LDV Hospitality restaurant group. The original American Cut Steakhouse is in Tribeca in New York City. This 8000 square-foot space, may not be the first place I’d go in discovering local food (it’s in San Juan’s fanciest “mall”), but it was interesting to see where some more upscale locals and expats are dining. It did feel like we could’ve been in New York or Chicago with the vaulted warehouse-style ceiling, vintage lights, and extra large bar.
The food here was undeniably good. From a table-side prepped Caesar salad to steak tartare to a spicy and wonderful lobster with spicy romesco sauces and thick-cut toast.
For our mains we had a filet and the churrasco, which we know as skirt steak. It was topped with some zesty chimichurri sauce, but could’ve actually used more. And it was a bit closer to rare than the medium rare that I ordered—I’m not used to it being undercooked rather than overcooked. Dare I say that one of my favorite things was the housemade “everything” biscuit with a veggie cream cheese spread? Warm, light, and really tasty.
There are a few options for food tours in San Juan. Spoon Food Tours came highly recommended. We opted for their best tour, the San Juan Drive Around and Walking Food Tour, a combo of walking in Old San Juan, and getting out of town in a van, to experience some more off-the-beaten path spots.
That excited me the most. Overall, the tour was great—with lots of info sprinkled in about the food, the culture, and even the parking struggles in a big city like San Juan.
Our guide, Yailin, was an expat from Los Angeles, who moved here to follow her heart and is about to marry a local. I’ve been on more than a dozen food tours around the world and while I enjoyed it, I was a bit surprised (especially considering the cost of the tour at $119 per person) that we only made three stops. The majority of tours I’ve been on make more like 5-7 stops with a huge variety of food and drink. On the plus side, the portions we had were full-sized unlike some tours that offer just bite-size tastes at each stop, so we definitely didn’t leave hungry. But I had hoped for a larger variety of local foods.
Ruta de Lechon
We know about wine routes and beer crawls, but how about the route of pig?
Lechón asado, or barbecued pig, is traditional for picnics and al fresco parties and holiday feasts. Lechoneras can be found all over Puerto Rico, on roads dubbed “rutas de lechón” for their abundance these pig roast restaurants. The most famous is Route 184 in Guavate, about 30 miles south of San Juan in the Sierra de Cayey mountains. We rented a car just for this. We arrived fairly early to avoid weekend crowds we read about. In fact, it was a bit too early for me as it wasn’t as lively as I’d hoped…and eating all this meat so early (or at all) isn’t something else I’m used to!
This area especially has become internationally famous in the last few years thanks to visits by Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern.
Disclosure: During our food adventures we were guests of Pikayo, Spoon Food Tours and American Cut. As always all opinions are my own.