Posted 05 October 2006 - 08:04 PM
Well, here’s a summary of the places that my wife and I visited in San Juan this past weekend. I’ll try to keep it short. I'll fail.
Before I go too far, I'd like to thank the eGullet community for all the tips and reviews on restaurants in San Juan. I read them all and jammed them into one document before we left so that I would have something to go on. So thanks to everyone who contributed. Miguel Gierbolini and Damien’s recommendations from the Restaurant Recommendations in Puerto Rico? thread were particularly helpful and accurate. Also, much thanks to Oscar who was studying in the Convento hotel and recommended some places to visit.
We left on Thursday afternoon, arrived in San Juan, picked up a rental car, and drove to the Old San Juan area. Guidebooks be damned - we were going to drive down the cobbly narrow streets of OSJ and pray for parking. We found a parking space within three blocks of the hotel (El Convento). Since it was already 3 p.m., and my wife is pregnant, and I don't have a death wish, we grabbed a snack in the hotel.
El Picoteo is the tapas bar in El Convento. I had read good opinions of it on eGullet and elsewhere. So we decided to give it a shot (thus disobeying the first law of travel eating - never eat in the hotel). We ordered three dishes - the grilled calamari, the meatballs in almond sauce, and some empanada-style dish that was filled with lobster. And a mojito for me.
The only thing I would (and did) order again would be the mojito - It was excellent (but for $7.50, it damn well better be). As for the food - The lobster epanada was OK; But really, were talking about a HotPocket here. More precisely, four $2.50 HotPockets. The grilled calamari was also OK - it seemed fresh and included plenty of garlic and spices. Nothing special. The meatballs, however, were special because the sauce was rancid. Why is it that some people aren't able to taste rancid nuts? I mean, it is the most awful taste to exit a kitchen. It was pretty clear that some of whatever almonds were used to make the sauce were past their prime. The hotel was nice, but we would be eating elsewhere for the remainder of our vacation. No more unsatisfying $50 snacks.
That evening we found our way to Baru, which is about four blocks from the hotel, or a little longer if you follow our guidebook map (Note to LonelyPlanet: You’ve got Baru on the wrong block. By like 3 streets.) This is another tapas place that was mentioned highly by some other eGullet reviewers. We enjoyed the food here. We ordered some plantain chips that came with a bean salsa that was slightly sweet ($10). This was followed by a beef carpaccio that was excellent ($16). And to finish off we had shrimp skewers with a yucca mofongo ($23). Meanwhile I continued to drink mojitos ($7), which were about the same as at the hotel – Awesome.
The next morning we made our way to the local bakery/diner that seems to be universally recommended – La Bombonera (even though it was in the LonelyPlanet guidebook). I didn’t find the mallorca pastries to be too compelling (not that they were bad – just not Krispy Kreme good or anything) - but the coffee was excellent, the fruit salad fresh, and atmosphere was pleasant. I would definitely return - and we did. Three days in a row. So here’s my advice if you go:
Walk in the door, look to your right, and pick a pastry. They will all be somewhat smaller than what you would expect from a European bakery. My favorite was the sugar donut - chewy and delicious. Tell the nice woman who gets your pastries that you would like them for here. Try out your Spanish if you want (para aqui, I think). She'll put them on a plate and you can walk in and take a table. When the waiter comes, order coffee and expect that it will come with milk. Maybe order a mallorca if you’re into that kind of thing. When the coffee arrives, try to put some sugar in your coffee. Keep shaking. Keep shaking. No, no – bang the bottom. Hmmm… Give up and unscrew the lid and use your spoon.
We had several dishes during the three visits - our favorites were the fruit salad, the fresh squeezed orange juice, and the breakfast sandwiches. My bacon, egg and cheese on the last day was especially delicious. The best description I can give on the sandwiches is that they are like a crust-out Panini. The fries that came with the sandwich were the best I’d had in months. Maybe ever. Perfect diner fries. Heinz on the table to boot. Large breakfast for two cost about $15 and is worth every penny. This is superior roadfood – on a really narrow road.
Speaking of roadfood, the next day we drove over to Pinones. This is an area of beachside snack shacks and fritter huts just east of San Juan. We passed most of the shacks and eventually tried to turn around and go back. That's when I jammed the rental Suzuki into the beach sand and promptly got stuck. A big thank you to the six construction workers who stopped to help push us out. I was getting tired of digging and starting to really miss my Subaru Baja. Welcome to Puerto Rico indeed.
We finally got back to the shacks and just walked around, pointed at stuff, and ate it. I think we had a crab epanada (which at $1.50, was 2x the size and taste of the lobster ones from the hotel). We also had a bacalaito (bah-kah-la-E-to? I think), which looks like a potato chip on steroids but is really a codfish fritter. It is not at all similar to a clam fritter like you would get in Rhode Island – It is big and flat. But it was delicious. We also got some virgin Pina Colada drinks that were great. It seemed like we were eating Puerto Rican county fair food; It was delicious, perfect to hold us over until dinner, and cost about $12 total – And that’s with $5 of cold virgin Pina Colada goodness.
For dinner, I wanted to try traditional Puerto Rican food. My first choice was La Casita Blanca, but we were advised that we could get similar quality at half the price at El Jibarito in Old San Juan. I have mixed feelings about El Jibarito. On the one hand, I got an entire fried red snapper for $16. It was fresh and delicious. My wife and I cleaned those bones bare. On the other hand, this was partly because my wife grouper was not so fresh and delicious. The opposite occurred with respect to our side dishes – her rice was delicious, while my mofongo was dry and inedible. I should have ordered the tostones (sp?). I must say that this was not a good introduction to mofongo. To top it off, as I was finishing my meal, the waiter was offering some kind of special house hot sauce to the other tables of tourists (cruisers, no less!) before their entrées even arrived. I sure could have used that with my fish… It’s not that I wouldn’t go back to El Jibarito, but I'd try to hit La Casita Blanca first. And I’ve never even been there.
One of the things that I most wanted to experience in Puerto Rico was to visit a lechonera. This is a restaurant where they serve roast pork off of a spit. Living in North Carolina (and knowing my way around a pork shoulder or two), I was naturally curious. I can't say exactly what the usual preparation is - Although I've heard things like 'marinated in sour orange juice and garlic'. We had heard that the Guyavate region was well known for its many lechoneras. We were also advised to drive a little past the ones that you see right when you get off the highway.
So we got off the highway (52?) and headed east. There were some lechoneras immediately on the right, and they sure looked good enough to me - But we kept driving, staying on the most windy-hilly-roller-coaster of a road I think I've ever been on. There were times that I thought the cheap Suziki rental car would not be equal to the task. I highly recommend this road if you have some kids along for the ride. They'll love it.
Once we got to mile (km?) marker 29 (about 5 minutes off the highway), there on the right was Mueller's Lechonera. No, not kidding. A German name for pork in the lush Puerto Rican hills. Open-air place with tables outside and the guest of honor visibly roasting out front. The pig was smaller than what we in NC are used to (I'm guessing - There was pretty much only a head and some shoulder left on the spit). For $13.25, my wife and I got rice, 2 fried plantain things, a pound of pork and a nice view.
The pork came with skin that was actually thin enough to eat - And fabulous. Some of the pieces of pork had more zing (salt and pepper, seemed like), while others had a great charcoal flavor from the spit. The serving of rice was as large as a paper plate can handle - It was very good, as was the plantain type food item. There was what I believe was some pique near the counter which went well with the pork. It's a little windy of you sit outside, so take care that your plate doesn't blow into your lap - I speak from experience. The only thing I regret is not tipping the kid who brought our food (Do you tip if you order at the counter? I don't in the US, but maybe I should have given him a buck...).
There are those of us whose most vivid memory of high school Spanish was the 'D+' we got in it. Luckily for us, here (and on the rest of the island, with the exception of Pinones), this was not an issue - English was understood and spoken. We were there around 3 on a Saturday, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. If HollyEats ever makes it to Puerto Rico, no doubt La Bombonera, Muellers and Pinones would be required stops.
The last place we tried was The Parrot Club in OSJ - We needed just a snack to sleep on after the porkfest of that afternoon. We had heard some yea's and nay's from fellow tourists, but the crabcake was recommended. So of course we ordered it. And didn't really care for it. I'll admit that it had plenty of crab in it, but there was really nothing compelling about the texture or flavor. The bacalaitos (sp? - with cool crab salad) were a much more refined version than the ones we had in Pinones. Smaller flat fritters that matched well with the crab salad - They were spectacular and disappeared quickly. Drinks were good, although the mojito was probably the least spectacular I had during our visit. We overtipped after being undercharged by 1 drink.
And that’s about it. Our rental was banged by someone overnight (via fist, not vehicle – Unless someone made it onto the sidewalk). Maybe we took someone’s spot? We figured sure we were going to regret not taking the insurance. When my wife showed the small dent to the guy at Budget, he looked at it and sort of shrugged. The words he used were ‘Here’s your receipt’ – But his expression was just the same as the guys who pushed us out of the sand – Welcome to Puerto Rico. We’ll be back.