San Juan's Food Scene is Hotter Than Ever

Support Puerto Rico's recovery by experiencing San Juan's trendy food trucks, local celebrity chefs and new restaurants.

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Santaella

Photo By: Adriel Jimenez

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Jose Enrique

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Serafina Beach Hotel

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: La Factoria

Recovery Status

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria unleashed her Category 4 fury across Puerto Rico. The resulting devastation has been well covered in the media, although it’s been so well covered that many would-be tourists believe that either the entire island has been destroyed (it hasn’t) or that visiting would be a major drain on resources (it wouldn’t). Yes, there are parts of Puerto Rico that are still recovering due to their location and limited resources. There are other parts, including San Juan, that have rebounded and are simply waiting for visitors to return since tourism plays a key role in boosting the local economy. Not only has San Juan recovered, but the city is already welcoming new hotels and restaurants, joining the ranks of San Juan’s must-visit dining experiences.

La Bombonera

La Bombonera is a San Juan institution that locals have been patronizing since 1902. Its claim to fame are oversized, sugar-dusted buns known as mallorcas, which are traditionally enjoyed with butter or split in half and layered with ham, egg and cheese and served panini style. The undecided can try it both ways, and either way, accompanied by a traditional café con leche, is a perfectly acceptable way to start the day. When the business closed in 2012 for renovations, the news hit both locals and tourists particularly hard. It took four years, but La Bombonera reopened in 2016 to reveal a fresh vintage aesthetic, from the red leather banquette seating to the stained glass windows. Luckily, much of the original menu remains intact.

Santaella

Though Santaella opened in 2011, it remains one of San Juan’s buzziest restaurants. It’s the kind of place that’s still overflowing at 10 p.m. on a Friday and where you might spot a celebrity. Owner Chef Jose Santaella is a local celebrity himself, having worked with top-tier chefs such as Eric Ripert; Ripert even wrote the prologue for Santaella’s book, "Cocina Tropical: The Classic and Contemporary Flavors of Puerto Rico." The recipes are reflective of some of the dishes served — morcilla (blood sausage) bites, empanadillas (fried dough containing meat or cheese) and alcapurrias (meat-filled fritters). But don’t ignore Santaella’s less traditional offerings, encompassing ahi tuna pintxos (tapas), honey-touched goat cheese quesadillas and shrimp-stuffed steamed buns. For dessert, it’s an unenviable task choosing between the Nutella sandwich or Baked Alaska — the latter will even be set ablaze at your table. Afterward, stroll across the street to join the crowds at La Placita, a public plaza where (seemingly) all of San Juan hangs out while grabbing drinks from bars and hole-in-the-wall stands.

Paulina Escanes Gourmandize

If the name Paulina Escanes Gourmandize sounds familiar, it’s because Chef Escanes used to own a breakfast and lunch spot on trendy Calle Loiza in the equally trendy Santurce section. That is, until Hurricane Maria destroyed her namesake restaurant. But she’s back with a new eponymous restaurant that just opened in Condado in early August 2018, with locals and tourists alike quickly catching on. The airy, modern space now focuses on lunch and dinner and incorporates Escanes’ Mexican heritage into the global, farm-to-table dishes. (Yes, farm-to-table is trending in Puerto Rico too, although it’s no easy feat considering that up to 80 percent of the island's food is imported.) The menu is also a reflection of her favorite dishes, like cornbread, found in the torta de elote, a rich corncake accompanied by a healthy pile of carnitas. Plates are meant to be shared family style, allowing everyone to try additional highlights, like the tacos de amigos, organic corn tortillas filled with grilled shrimp, or the croquetas with grass-fed brisket. Since Chef Escanes is also an accomplished pastry chef, save room for homemade key lime pie, chocolate chip banana cake or hot bread pudding in a pool of salted caramel sauce.

Mario Pagan

No discussion of Puerto Rican chefs is complete without mentioning Mario Pagan, a local celebrity who has appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef. He’s also the chef and owner of Sage Steak Loft in Condado and Melao in Dorado. But his namesake restaurant, which opened in 2016, attracts diners for the artfully plated, creative takes on dishes. Among the highlights you might find on the menu are lamb alcapurrias, gouda croquettes, lobster spring rolls, Chilean sea bass and scallops resting on a bed of risotto-like couscous with bits of bacon. Desserts are another highlight, with shoutouts to the molten lava cake accompanied by little dishes of sea salt, caramel sauce and ice cream, and the coquito ice cream, which tastes like eggnog but features a coconut cream base. The craft cocktails are taken to another level here: the whiskey drink On the Boulevard arrives in a wood box, while an herb is set on fire before being added to an Old Fashioned.

Chocobar Cortes

Sure, Chocobar Cortes might attract plenty of tourists, but that doesn’t mean this café devoted to the chocolate spectrum isn’t worth visiting. Chef Ricardo de Obaldia trained in Europe and is a master chocolatier and patissier. Start with the choco frio (pictured), which is essentially a frozen hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, while considering chocolate pancakes, chocolate grilled cheese or a turkey club on chocolate brioche. There are some non-chocolate savory items on the menu as well, so you could simply save room for chocolate churros, gourmet chocolates, chocolate quesitos (cheese pastry) and more. Insider Tip: Though unexpected, there’s an art gallery upstairs housing the Cortes family’s impressive Caribbean art collection.

Jose Enrique

Continuing the theme of namesake chef restaurants is renowned chef Jose Enrique, who is credited with reviving the local food scene. The venerated restaurant is located in a hot pink house up the street from La Placita (there’s no sign). There’s no fixed menu either, but whiteboards sparingly list the day’s offerings. As an idea, you might find crab bacalaito, picadillo, fresh grouper, beef stew with plantains, cheese fritters and coffee flan. Joining the list of no’s? No reservations, but at least La Placita is the perfect spot to people watch and drink while you wait for a table.

Lote 23

Food truck paradise Lote 23 opened in 2016 in the Santurce neighborhood, a rapidly developing section with a heavy creative presence. As such, Lote 23 is a much nicer version of the typical food truck lot scene. Here, you’ll find different levels containing an Airstream food truck, Jenga blocks atop umbrella-covered picnic tables, strings of lights, fans blowing mist, roosters roaming free and proper bathrooms. All of this provides an ideal backdrop to make numerous trips to Lote’s 16 vendors offering local and global eats. If going with a group, divide and conquer in order to try the impossibly tender fried chicken sandwich from Hen House, the octopus salad with a side of tostones (pictured) from La Alcapurria Quemá and croquetas from La Croqueteria. To drink, Café Regina serves a cashew milk iced latte with homemade cashew milk, as well as a cold brew coffee with ginger beer, lime, coconut and cardamom. And popsicle stand Señor Paleta is the perfect conclusion, with Nutella-filled strawberry, coconut and passionfruit among fan favorites. Leave room for Nutella churro waffles from La Postreria. Lote 23 has also become a community space for local concerts, weekly Sunday yoga classes and a family-style dinner series.

Kasalta

Don’t let Kasalta's lackluster interior deter you, since you’re here for the pastries and sandwiches. Long display cases feature every manner of traditional baked good and pastry, not limited to flan, quesitos and every manner of guava, whether in a turnover, cake or layered pastry. But if you’re feeling more ravenous, you can’t go wrong with the array of sandwiches, from Cubano to medianoche. Round out breakfast or lunch with a hearty Spanish tortilla and a café con leche. Once your order is ready, ask where former President Barack Obama sat when he visited in 2011.

aMare

Serafina Beach Hotel is San Juan’s first new hotel since Hurricane Maria hit, and the boutique property (from the team behind the Serafina restaurant chain, although Puerto Rico’s Serafina is located at nearby La Concha Hotel) is a sleekly designed space that wouldn’t feel out of place in Miami. Walk through the lobby, a dramatic stunner done up in a blue, grey and yellow scheme with low-hanging lamps, an open staircase and oversize flower mural, to reach aMare. An open-air venue overlooking the ocean, the seafood-centric restaurant has quickly become part of the Condado dinner scene. The fusion menu ranges from octopus salad to cacio e pepe to mahi mahi with bok choy. If you’re staying there, breakfast brings the opportunity to enjoy a café con leche with your avocado toast.

Chinchorreo Route

Chinchorreo isn’t a restaurant but a local weekend activity that’s gained in popularity within the past five years or so. For locals, it essentially involves a day trip hopping from one chinchorro (inexpensive, casual stands serving traditional food) to the next with friends. There are undoubtedly countless places across the island that could count as chinchorros, so narrow it down by choosing ones that are within driving distance of San Juan. Just a half hour west in Dorado, you’ll find Sol y Mar, which nicely fits the bill. It offers outdoor seating right across from Cerro Gordo beach, along with some of the island’s best mofongo relleno de churrasco (mashed plantain filled with beef) and seafood-stuffed tostones rellenos (plantain cups). Tack on fried cornmeal sorullitos (a type of oblong corn fritter) for good measure, too. Leave the piña coladas for the tourists and order a Medalla Light, a popular local beer. The beach town area of Piñones is another chinchorreo contender, with no shortage of food stands selling deep-fried street food. Stop at different ones to sample bacalaitos (codfish fritters), alcapurrias, mofongo, empanadillas de pulpo (octopus turnovers) and more.

La Factoria

Admittedly La Factoria is where you go after dinner, but the bar scene is bar none. More on that in a minute: La Factoria has received mass media attention lately after appearing in monster hit "Despacito", but the nightlife venue is worth the hype. This bonafide speakasy consists of a warren of different rooms, each with a different bent, and after passing through an unmarked, nondescript entrance off a side street, you enter a lounge with a checkerboard floor and red sofas. From there, it leads into a quieter wine bar, the highly popular salsa dancing room (where "Despacito" might be playing), before concluding in a room thumping out typical techno club music. Not in the mood to dance? Park yourself at one of the bars and work your way through the craft cocktail menu — after all, La Factoria ranks on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. The joint technically closes at 4 a.m., but the staff won’t kick you out right away if you (and other revelers) are still winding down when the sun rises. But you heard that elsewhere.

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