Part one* of my “summer vacation” was a five-day trip to San Juan. I didn’t know much about Puerto Rico, and therefore had pretty low expectations for the trip, but wowza did Puerto Rico over-deliver. From awesome rainforests to eye-poppingly beautiful beaches (and my first snorkeling adventure!) to the gorgeous European-style and rainbow-colored buildings of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico was amazing.
The food, needless to say, was 🔥 🔥 🔥. There were plantains in every form: tostones, maduros, mofongo. We had so much mofongo that our five-day trip basically ended up as an extended mofongo taste test. (Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish made of plantains, which are mashed and then fried and topped with braised meat or seafood. One should find and eat it in every form, as it is BOMB.)
We found a number of great spots in various parts of San Juan — here were my favorites:
La Jaquita Baya (Miramar)
This is a farm-to-table restaurant that serves up traditional Puerto Rican food, and came highly recommended to us by a friend who visits Puerto Rico on the reg. Homegirl did not disappoint, as pretty much everything here was delicious. Their signature rice dish was comfort food personified, though perhaps a bit heavy for how hot it was. The mofongo with pork belly, on the other hand? Surprisingly not that heavy at all, with a nice bite to cut the richness of the pork. The whole fried red snapper was almost as amazing as my snapper in Tulum, and the alcapurrias with beef were also delicious. The fresh passionfruit juice was also great, especially in my (very good) mojito.
José Enrique (Santurce)
Perhaps my favorite meal in Puerto Rico, José Enrique is one of those unassuming places that secretly serves up incredible meals. The menu was written on white boards, and changes daily based on what’s available at the market. Their appetizers, while tending towards the fried (like much of Puerto Rican food), still felt relatively light: their cheese fritters were spicy and cheesy without feeling greasy, and their pork belly came with a citrusy salad that really cut some of the fattiness of the meat.
But the real star was the skirt steak (churrasco). Guys, this was one of the best steaks I think I’ve ever had. It was perfectly grilled, and the chimichurri was bright and tangy and garlicky without being overwhelming. I honestly don’t remember how the accompanying beans, rice or tostones were because I was so fixated on the steak. SO GOOD.
This little spot was a short walk from our hotel, and serves up huge plates of authentic Puerto Rican food. The tostones are crisp and the pigeon peas and rice are well-seasoned, but they really shine with their mofongo. We got both the regular (green plantain) mofongo with pernil and a trifongo (green plantain, sweet plantain and yuca mashed together) with skirt steak, and they were both delicious. Orozco’s mofongo come with more gravy than any of the other places we tried, and the mashed plantain was a delicious vehicle for all that savory sauce.
Raíces (Old San Juan)
Raíces is basically in the Times Square of Old San Juan, an area near where all the cruise ships dock. But the crowd in front of the restaurant wasn’t only tourists, and when you try the mofongo with skirt steak, it’s easy to forget the “Applebee’s” vibe of the place. The meat was perfectly grilled, the accompanying churrasco sauce verdant and vinegary, the plantains seasoned perfectly … It was so good we ordered it twice. The mojitos are also HUGE (and strong) and pretty good, so I’d def recommend you stop here for a drink and a snack while exploring Old San Juan.
Caficultura (Old San Juan)
And when you’re tired of walking, get a cafe con leche and sit on the sidewalk at Caficultura, which serves up a decent breakfast and excellent coffee, with a side of people-watching on a cute little plaza in Old San Juan. The interior, with its wood-beamed ceiling and antique chandelier, is gorg, but the outside seats offer up an even better view: of the gorgeous European-style architecture and wonderful people of Old San Juan.
And two other tips:
Explore Old San Juan at sunset: while Old San Juan is beautiful during the day, watching the sun set while strolling though the Paseo La Princesa or while wandering the cobblestone streets of the old city gives new meaning to the phrase “magic hour.”
Escambrón Beach Club is a gorgeous, clean public beach with gentle crystal-clear waters, a few fish swimming around and a bar that serves Cuba Libres to cool you down when even the ocean isn’t enough. You can also do some “sight-seeing” — El Morro, La Fortaleza and the San Cristobal church are all visible from the water.
*Part two was Greece, but I got horrible food poisoning within hours of landing there and therefore subsisted almost entirely on crackers and bread. Go to Mani Mani in Athens though!