My wife and I once spent the better part of a day trying to find a restaurant in New Jersey that served authentic Puerto Rican food. It didn’t turn out to be the easiest thing. I could think of one place in Elizabeth called La Lechonera, but I refused to go back to Elizabeth on general principle, and she remembered a little spot in Lakewood called Yolanda’s Coqui, which was a disappointment. So we were back to square one. Even though New Jersey doesn’t lack for other kinds of Caribbean, central- and south-American, it’s nigh-impossible to find an explicitly Boricua restaurant.
What’s ironic, though, is that Puerto Rico–at least outside of Viejo San Juan–wasn’t exactly an embarrasment of riches when it came to Puerto Rican food either. Luckily, however, it’s not all Chinese, McDonald’s and Pollo Tropical. Read on for a bit of what we found.
Conventional wisdom has it that if you want the good stuff, you ask the locals. As you’ve seen if you caught the previous entry, the locals were in the habit of suggesting McDonalds and Pollo Tropical. My attitude (starting out, at least, before we’d seemingly exhausted our local options) was that I didn’t come all this way for a freakin’ Big Mac, but we lucked out when one old-timer turned us on to Cafe Manolin (San Justo street, Old San Juan), a smallish cafe that looks to have been in San Juan since about the 1940’s (going by the decor and layout, which don’t appear to have changed since the place opened). We had Mofongo Relleno con Camarones (Mashed Green Plantain Stuffed with Shrimps) and Empanada de Lomillo (Breaded Beef Steak), both of which were inexpensive and flavorful, served up by an attentive staff.
El Patio de Sam (102 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan, PR) You can get burgers here, one bit of evidence that they cater to a fair amount of tourist traffic (I don’t know, any time I see burgers on the menu of an otherwise nice restaurant, I just assume they cater to Americans who are scared of arroz con gandules or something). But luckily, you can also get an appetizer plate that consists of various empanadillas, containing minced meats, fish, and veggies that’s a perfectly light way to whet your appetite while waiting for your main course. These include items like shrimp in garlic sauce with a pretty good side of rice and beans, several criollo (creole) dishes, steak, chicken, and seafood in any number of guises. The flan is tasty, the key lime tart refreshing… and the beer and sangria even moreso, especially when you’ve been sweating out a few quarts hiking to and around El Morro, located nearby.
Sabana Grande, a town about thirty miles east of Ponce, isn’t the first place that leaps to mind (or from the pages of the Frommer’s guide) when one thinks of Puerto Rico, but if you find yourself in the island’s southwest, there are two places here worth stopping for a bite to eat. For a quick, informal dinner (or lunch), check out Sandwich El Buren (11 Rafael D Milan, Sabana Grande), Puerto Rico , which offers a variety of tasty sandwiches and desserts. We shared “El Cacique,” a Katz’s/Carnegie Deli-sized sandwich featuring seven kinds of meats, plus onion, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayo, on bread that’d been baked on the premises. We were only able to identify a handful of the meats (pastrami, chicken, ham, roasted pork, turkey, and a cured something else that may or may not have been salami) but the whole of it was delicious. For your own sake, share the sandwich, because it’s the only way you’ll be able to walk afterward, much less to stop off at Rex Cream for dessert.
Rex Cream isn’t Baskin Robbins, it’s not Cold Stone, and it’s not Haagen-Dasz. It’s a little neighborhood spot (or series thereof; it’s actually a smallish chain based in Mayaguez), a gelateria basically, that features flavors you’d expect (vanilla, chocolate, cookie dough, cake batter and the like) alongside some that aren’t too surprising given the setting (pineapple, orange, and passionfruit) and some that would be surprising — though pleasantly so — anywhere you came across them. I saw a pumpkin ice cream, which was intriguing, but sold out. So I glanced over the flavors on offer, and saw it. Maiz. Yep. Corn. There’s a slight “WTF?” factor when you see corn ice cream on the menu, so of course I had to try it, while my wife had the Pineapple. We liked them, and decided to go back the next night. Quality control, mind you. Still no pumpkin, so it was one more Corn and one more Pineapple. Third time was a charm; they had the pumpkin, which turned out to be worth the wait (and repeated trips), which tasted like pumpkin and not like the byproduct of an unknown industrial process.
So: it’s not impossible to find Puerto Rican food in Puerto Rico. Difficult, perhaps, even time consuming. But worth the legwork when you finally find the pot of mofongo at the end of the rainbow.