Vacations, as I know them, are an extended period of time marked by a debilitating mélange of UV-ray overexposure, beach-side inactivity, and indiscriminant consumption of food and drink. Fortunately, my recent week in San Juan was no different.
The city of San Juan is rather expansive, covering an area that reaches well beyond the constellation of lights and sounds that insulate its hotel-saturated coastline. Notwithstanding having to play host to an incessant influx of pre-diabetic, pot-bellied, American tourists bent on exposing their atrophied bodies while gorging themselves with French fries pool-side, San Juan remains home to a remarkably resilient people that is as protective of its cultural heritage as it is proud of it.
Preserving culture means good food, and San Juan has plenty of it. Here are some of the highlights of my travels throughout the week:
Parrot Club: Though its large faux-palm trees and bright yellow walls were a tad much for my gringo sensibilities, I got over it fast once I remembered I come from the birthplace of another bird-themed eating establishment known as Hooters. Serving fairly traditional (but quite tasty) Puerto Rican fare, this colorful cantina in Old San Juan is a go-to spot for locals and tourists alike, especially on weekend nights. The Churrasco (classic Argentine marinated skirt steak with Chimichurri - and loved by all Puerto Ricans) was rare, juicy, and as tender as could be. An artful combination of Cuban-style shredded beef (Ropa Vieja), yucca chips, and local soft cheese (a creation listed as ‘Nachos’), is one of many playful offerings that balance out the menu and make this spot worth trying.
Overall Experience: A, Probably my favorite place to go in San Juan, Best Pancakes Meghan has ever had
Ajili Mojili: Situated amidst the bevy of hotels, condos, and restaurants that give tourist-centric Condado its South Beach feel, this is probably the most noted and recommended restaurant in all of San Juan proper. A travel-book favorite, here the name of the game is Puerto Rico’s national dish, Mofongo. This hearty mixture of garlic mashed green plantains stuffed with meat (traditionally pork), is as flavorful as it sounds creating a textured tango of fried, starchy goodness and melt-in-your-mouth strands of slow cooked pork. That said, despite the charming service and quaint décor (think 18th century plantation), this San Juan staple can’t help but forego a bit of its authenticity at the expense of its lofty prices ($39 for Seafood Mofongo!). At the same time, this is to be expected in a town that makes its living pleasing picky Yankees like me looking to spend their money so they can complain about it later. Overpriced or not, it would be incredibly unfair of me to ever deem Ajili Mojili a tourist trap when it sits adjacent to another Condado gold mine…Chili’s.
Overall Experience: A-, Worth checking out for the Mofongo and cool space, forget the prices, it’s vacation!
Dragonfly: This soigné restaurant and lounge is the exemplar of Old San Juan’s thriving nightlife which comprises Manhattan-esque dance clubs, lavish lounges, and trendy eats. Dim, compartmentalized, and a touch cramped, New Yorkers will feel right at home in these dark, dungeon-like digs. Billing its cuisine as “Latinasian”, the menu features a plentiful array of creations that combine traditional Latino ingredients with Asian cooking styles, and vice versa. Right or wrong, I usually avoid places like this like an episode of Oprah’s Big Give, but numerous word of mouth recommendations compelled me to do otherwise. My reservations were quickly obliterated by our quartet of exquisite taste and texture. The Saffron Basmati Fried Rice spiked with zesty chunks of Spanish chorizo gave life to an everyday dish. Rock Shrimp Tempura Tacos with Sweet Mayo and Lemongrass Salsa not only let me eat with my hands, but helped further my growing relationship with all things “mayo”. The stars of the night were the Asian marinated Churrasco and Mongolian Beef Ropa Vieja, both bursting with flavor, and in surprisingly generous portions. This was undoubtedly our most enjoyable meal of the week. Enough said. Overall Experience: A, Freakishly Flavorful food and handsome portions break the traditional rules of “fusion” cuisine, a MUST GO.
Kioskos/Roca Taina (Kiosk#60): On our daytrip out to the rainforest ("El Yunque"), we stopped at the well known Kioskos or "Kiosks" on Luquillo Beach, which are said to be one of the best ways to experience what real Puerto Ricans eat. A few hundred feet from the beach lies a strip of 60 food stands each offering its own version of the island's traditional rustic eats, known as Comida Criolla. For a Jersey boy like me, this row of ramshackle, pizzeria-booth clad open air dining arrangements seemed like a sort of Puerto Rican boardwalk, vaguely reminiscent of the Seaside Heights boards, save for the mob of mullets and homemade jean shorts of course. Yearning to connect with the "real" Puerto Rico, we tackled a giant plate of rice and beans, some sort of beef and onion concoction, and a yucca and onion platter. Everything was incredibly flavorful, and not surprisingly, amazingly cheap. Between fending off the neverending onslaught of flies, and working to get the food into your mouth before the beach breeze blew it off your fork, this was a truly unforgettable experience, not just in terms of eating, but overall culture as well. Kind people, great food, and a truly no frills environment...can you ask for more?
Overall Experience: A, The most authentic eating exercise of the week