When our friends over at KitchenCaravan.com asked us to write a City Guide to Old San Juan gastronomy for their new sister site, Kitchen Caravan Travel, we told them, “It is not only a privilege but our duty to do so.” Well, we didn’t really say it out loud like that, but we sure felt it! Enjoy an excerpt of Kitchen Caravan Travel’s City Guide to Old San Juan below and continue reading at their site, where you’ll find other city guides, including Miami, Rome, and Mexico City. You are now ready to BE YOUR OWN GUIDE!
Walking the streets of Old San Juan, it’s easy to get lost in the history and culture of the surroundings as you make your way from museum to plaza, from fortress to fortress, from bar to beach and back again. Factor in some shopping and you see it’s not such a stretch to end up forgetting about food. However, the Caribbean sun is known to conspire with the city’s tapestry of streets and hilly climbs to work up an appetite in you. Thankfully, Old San Juan has developed into a Caribbean Mecca for food-lovers with a wide range of offerings that aim to accommodate all palates and preferences.hello kitty bouncy castle
Before delving into food, I’d like to (or rather, as your host, feel the obligation to) guide you through a couple of my favorite spots in Old San Juan. La Plazuela de la Rogativa in Las Monjas St. is one of the Puerto Rico’s best-kept secrets. The iconic statue standing in the middle of this plaza is a tribute to the women of the city, who are said to have saved the city from the British in the late 18th century by holding a religious procession with torches and bells (the British mistook them for reinforcements and opted to sail away). The plaza holds one of the best views to the bay and is an obligatory stop for photo enthusiasts. It also reminds me of my childhood. My parents used to take my brothers and I to El Morro (located nearby, to the north of the Plazuela) to fly our kites and we would always stop here to rest and enjoy a ‘limber’ (an iced, fruit-flavored treat; I mostly went with lemon). These are still sold by one of the neighbors living directly in front of the plaza to this day – just look for an open door in Las Monjas St. with decidedly homemade advertisements for bottled water and other refreshments and ask for today’s flavorsFeel free to explore the city by foot and visit its many historical sites, museums, parks, plazas, and shops – Old San Juan is small enough so that you are never more than a fifteen-minute walk away from the closest bar or restaurant for you to rest, recharge, have a meal or enjoy a couple of drinks. Many of the city’s streets include a restaurant or two; even in the most residential areas you’ll find a cafetín (cafeteria), bistro, or pizza place lurking right around the corner. However, there are some streets you might want to consider if you wish to explore your dining options quickly: Recinto Sur Street., Fortaleza St. (particularly its southern end, also known as SoFo), and Del Cristo Street. Each hosts a variety of restaurants and flavors.
There’s no doubt that El Morro (short for: Fuerte San Felipe del Morro) is Puerto Rico’s best-known tourist attraction. An impressive Spanish fortress from centuries back, it is undoubtedly a site to behold. Trust me, you really have to see it for yourself. However, I’d like to direct your attention to the large field in front of El Morro. This is were adults and kids come to fly their kites on Sundays, were young couples hold hands and share their first kiss, were students from the nearby art school find inspiration, and people of all ages hold picnics with their loved ones. The trade winds cast a spell (the ‘try having a cell phone conversation now’ spell) on those who wonder into this field, beckoning all to stay and stare at the fortress as it forever separates the emerald blades of grass from the deep blue waters of the Atlantic and the azure skies above. Staring out into the ocean, breeze blowing by – now this is how you experience history!
El Morro and La Rogativa are some of the places I hold close to my heart, serving as inspiration for EyeTour.com – Puerto Rico’s Premier Online Video Guide – a project born out of love for technology, design, and my beautiful country. I invite you to take a look at the site if you are interested in learning more about Old San Juan and the rest of Puerto Rico’s many wonders. Now, on to some gastronomical exploration!
I. Al Estilo Criollo
Visitors might want to try the local criollo flavors first. Puerto Rican cuisine, known locally as ‘cocina criolla’ is a unique blend of European, Amerindian Taínos, African, and North American influences that although similar to Latin American and Spanish cuisines, but has a flavor that is all its own. Here are some of the best places to try it out in Old San Juan.
Since its humble beginnings in the municipality of Caguas, closer to the island’s central mountain range, Raíces Restaurant quickly became synonymous with ‘mofongo’. A signature dish in Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine, it consists of fried green plantain (or yucca), which is then mashed, seasoned (with garlic, olive oil, and chicharrones or pork cracklings), and oftentimes stuffed with meat. The mofongo here is one of the best I’ve tried in my youngish life and their success in opening a second restaurant in Old San Juan’s Recinto Sur St. is ours to savor. You can’t go wrong with Raíces’s specialty, the Mofongo Relleno de Churrasco al Chimichurri (that’s a mouthful – basically a mofongo stuffed with skirt steak). Get the Festival Boricua, an appetizer platter, to sample several of the fried treats you’d buy off vendors in popular beach areas like Piñones and the Balneario de Luquillo. Also worth noting is the restaurant’s central motif, which embraces the Puerto Rican criollo experience, recreating a typical countryside homecirca 1940 with local crafts, authentically dressed servers, and even live Plena music. Some locals might find the décor a bit gimmicky, and I won’t argue with that statement, but ultimately it’s a good-natured effort to revel in our Puerto Rican roots and to let visitors join in on the fun.