Moving Up the Food Chain
Suddenly Puerto Rico has grabbed the attention of the most prominent culinary organization in the United States. Here's why you should put it to the taste test, too.
What makes a Puerto Rican a puertorriqueño? Look inside the Art Museum of Puerto Rico for a few clues, including ennobling woodcuts of coffee farmers, paintings espousing independence, and an entire room devoted to the plantain.
In this U.S. territory in the Caribbean, the staple starch comes mashed and fried, sweet and savory. It's a doorway into an island cuisine - a unique combination of native Taíno Indian root vegetables, African plantains, Spanish oil and cilantro, and American canned goods - once dismissed as bland, heavy, and oily.
Not anymore, as a new generation of chefs and hearty diners converges to create one delicious island. At the newest buzzed-about restaurants, chefs have opened doors within walking distance of green markets; married island spices to lighter, more sophisticated cooking styles; and, in some cases, planted their own gardens to ensure the freshest ingredients. Even the James Beard Foundation has put Puerto Rico on its radar; for the first time last year, the U.S. foundation considered nominees from the island in its prestigious annual awards competition honoring top American chefs and restaurants. "There's a foodie consciousness now that's spreading on the island. People are excited about going back to the roots, using ingredients grown here," says Paulina Salach, who co-founded Puerto Rico Restaurant Week in 2012, which 38 restaurants supported this past year.
Nuevo Puerto Rican food combines bright, zesty flavors with an emphasis on texture, color, and celebration, a recipe well received among islanders who appreciate a good party. "In Puerto Rico, people like to eat a lot," says chef Mario Pagan of Laurel Nuevo Caribe: Kitchen/Art Bar, noting locals dine late and long into the evening. "Every time a Puerto Rican comes to a restaurant, it's like an event."
Plan your time on the island around these six must-book restaurants that best represent the Puerto Rican foodie vanguard. Three of the hot spots reside in new luxury hotels also helping give this isle a status boost.
For Veggie Sophisticates
Executive chef Juan José Cuevas champions vegetables at his year-old restaurant in the Condado Vanderbilt, a restored art deco hotel with yet-to-open rooms in the tony oceanfront Condado district, a short drive from nearby Old San Juan. The chef, who previously worked at New York's farm-to-table landmark Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has imported the provenance approach, commissioning local farmers to grow everything from arugula to exotic fruits such as pitaya. The seasonal menu might offer punchy yellowtail crudo with pineapple and avocado, silken pumpkin salad with pickled mustard seeds, and salmon in a rich pistou sauce of bok choy, broccoli, peas, and fava beans. "Everything has a component from the island, but it's not what grandma does with it," Cuevas says.
Do try: The warm heirloom tomato soup - tomato broth infused with chilies, mushrooms, kelp, and vanilla oil
Essentials: 1055 Ashford Ave., San Juan; 787-724-1919; 1919restaurant.com. Entrees $33-$49.
For Market-Derived Specials
Lodged in a stucco house with no signage a block from the popular La Placita market, chef Jose Enrique's eponymous restaurant plays it cool in otherwise showy San Juan. Enrique, a 2013 James Beard semifinalist for best chef of the South region, lets his food do the talking, giving Puerto Rican staples market-focused preparations to produce deftly balanced dishes such as grilled swordfish piled with mustard greens, crab-stuffed alcapurria cups, and whole fish topped with fresh mango and lime. Servers in black T-shirts tote whiteboard menus that change daily, based on what the chef finds in the market that day. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, but is worth the inevitable wait.
Do try: The signature deboned, whole-fried snapper dressed up with avocado and papaya, as delicious as it is photogenic
Essentials: 176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan; 787-725-3518; joseenriquepr.com. Entrees $12-$58.
For Upscale Puerto Rican
Fresh from a remodel, and with new menus, the 2-year-old Laurel Nuevo Caribe: Kitchen/Art Bar draws loyal locals to the Art Museum of Puerto Rico in San Juan's culturally rich Santurce district for chef Mario Pagan's effusive dishes that blend global and island styles. Expansive windows overlook the botanical gardens, creating an unrushed setting for updated classics such as fried plantain-wrapped-rabbit pionono, swordfish over breadfruit mousse, and pasta with veal cheeks and roasted yam. "We try to take stuff from childhood to another level," says Pagan, a Puerto Rico native.
Do try: Oysters with lemon panko breadcrumbs and pumpkin-seed aioli dipping sauce
Essentials: 299 Avenida de Diego, San Juan; 787-522-6444; laurelkitchenartbar.com. Entrees $25-$35.
For Tapas With a Showy Side
Building on successful Spanish restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, chef José Andrés headlines at this new dining entry at Ritz-Carlton's Dorado Beach hotel, about 20 miles west of San Juan. While extending his exuberant Spanish cooking to an island that appreciates his playfulness and love of pork, he earned a "best new restaurant" semifinalist nomination for the 2013 James Beard Awards. In a beachfront room filled with quirky modern art, the chef serves classic tapas such as chicken croquettes and modern inventions including pearl-like dumplings floating in coconut water that explode to reveal a liquid rum center. Island influences accent the mains in roast pork, gnocchi made with yucca, and rice stew with lobster.
Do try: The deconstructed Caesar salad featuring four lettuce rolls resembling sushi rolls, a good example of the chef's playfulness
Essentials: 100 Dorado Beach Drive, Dorado; 787-278-7217; doradobeachreserve.com. Entrees $28-$43.
THE RESTAURANT AT LA CASA
For Farm-to-Mesa Fare
A 1-acre, on-site garden supplies most of the produce used at this Spanish-Colonial-style restaurant at the Royal Isabela resort on the northwest coast. The Italian-accented menu features wood-fired pizzas, roast chicken, and homemade pasta. José Carles, the talented 26-year-old chef heading up the kitchen, trained with the restaurant's consulting chef, David Pasternack of Esca in New York, to hone his market approach. Carles makes almost everything in-house, but when needed he turns to local sources for products such as artisan bread from neighboring Aguadilla and small-batch cheese from nearby Camuy.
Do try: Island-style ceviche of local snapper and shrimp with estate-grown tomatoes heaped atop fried plantain tostones
Essentials: 396 Avenida Noel Estrada, Isabela; 787-609-5888; royalisabela.com. Entrees $22-$42.
For Global Done Local
In Santurce, the 2-year-old Santaella from chef Jose Santaella takes its inspiration from the local La Placita market, this time in a more polished setting than at nearby Jose Enrique. Artfully strung lightbulbs dangle from the ceiling, panoramic windows frame a garden, and well-dressed diners bide their inevitable wait over watermelon mojitos (reservations a must). Small plates include shareable bites such as fried croquettes and empanadillas, turnovers usually stuffed with meat, as well as more elaborate dishes, including baby octopus with garbanzos and chorizo.
Do try: Organic beef sliders with fried plantain and sauteed onions with cilantro mayonnais
Essentials: 219 Canal St., San Juan; 787-725-1611; santaellapr.com. Entrees $23-$38.