How to explore the best of Puerto Rico

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 6, 2020.

El Morro in San Juan. Since Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture has worked with farmers to reduce food imports from 85% to as little as 65%.

San Juan’s Santurce Arts District has become a base for buzzy restaurants.

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I landed in San Juan on Jan 8, just 36 hours after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico. It was followed by a series of smaller earthquakes and aftershocks that killed at least one person and rocked the south side of the island.

In San Juan, restaurants were affected to varying degrees. Some lost power for several days, with others up and running within 24 hours. “We’ve learned to come together after natural disasters,” Jose Enrique, the island’s most celebrated chef, told me. During the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Enrique was tapped by Jose Andres and his World Central Kitchen organisation to help feed what eventually became millions of locals and rescue workers.

Following Maria and Hurricane Irma, which preceded it, the local tourism market — which accounts for 6.5% of the island’s gross domestic product — took a nosedive. Hotels closed for long-term repairs, and airlines cut service.

Now there are an average of 200 arrivals on any given day at San Juan’s airport, up from a low of 20, and the inventory of hotel rooms has increased 3.4% since 2017. The year 2019 also saw the highest lodging revenues year to date for Puerto Rico tourism, more than US$953 million (RM3.94 billion) — due, in part, to the gleaming renovations.

Enrique said the food scene in San Juan has evolved to become more dynamic and locally focused since the hurricanes. “Before the storm, there was a lot of Italian cooking, a lot of French cooking here. You couldn’t find Puerto Rican food in high-end restaurants.” Now the island is showcasing a singular kind of cooking that you cannot find anywhere else, as cooks — and bartenders — take a fresh look at such classics as mofongo (mashed plantains), empanadas, pernil, roasted pork, and pina coladas.

Even for dishes that are not typically Puerto Rican (a tomato and mozzarella salad, say), chefs are sourcing more and more ingredients from the island. They have gotten an assist from the government: Since Maria, the Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture has worked with farmers to reduce food imports from 85% to as little as 65%.

“After every earthquake, every storm, we say: We’re going to do this bigger and better,” said Enrique. Here is a guide to supporting the local economy with the best places I found for terrific food and cocktails, along with hotel rooms, for the ultimate, long-weekend trip. — Bloomberg

 

Where to eat

Jose Enrique

Puerto Rico’s most celebrated chef has taken his exuberant crillo cooking to a buzzy, brasserie-style dining room in Condado, a 15-minute ride from Old San Juan. In the softly lit space, Enrique serves perennial favourites such as crispy fried yellowtail with sweet yam mash and paper-thin swordfish schnitzel. New — and mandatory — are plate-sized fried salt cod bacalitos, which are excellent with a coconut-water highball. In the spring, Enrique will transform the second floor of the building into an additional restaurant with a selection of ceviches and carpaccios and toasts with toppings like uni and herb butter, as well as assorted sparkling wines and sake, all with a view of the ocean.

 

Cocina al Fonda

Set behind a gallery in the lively arts district of Santurce, Cocina al Fonda feels like a gallery, too, with high ceilings, widely spaced tables and minimal decor. Chef Natalia Vallejo features local ingredients animated with influences from around the world, such as caramelised goat fricassee presented in cabbage leaves; the catch of the day, served whole, in a sweetly spicy Caribbean curry sauce with hefty tostones; and as a starter, corn arepas with a bright tomato salad, garnished with a flurry of grated cured cheese.  

 

Verde Mesa   

This Old San Juan dining room has a romantic, antique store vibe and a menu from chef Gabriel Hernandez with more vegetables than a lot of local dining rooms. There are options like pumpkin barley porridge stocked with roast eggplant, kale, and mushrooms, pigeon pea hummus, and swordfish ceviche, sometimes accompanied by crisp chips made from malanga, a tropical root vegetable. The hands-down favourite dessert is the purple dream, a combination of berries and whipped cream, with crispy meringue and a floral hit of lavender.

 

Prole Cocina & Barra

Highlights at this bright, new dining room include pollo frito — sous vide fried chicken with crispy brussels sprouts and truffle mash — a 22-oz (623.69g) cowboy rib-eye with grilled asparagus, and burrata salad made with heirloom cherry tomatoes and sourdough from a local bakery. Do not sleep on the cocktails: At the buzzy bar, customers can get the gin-and-cucumber Lobo Demesticado and house favourite Tito Placita, which combines vodka, aperol, ginger, and lime with Puerto Rico’s Ocean Lab Mambo beer.

 

Vianda

Francis Guzman, who cooked at New York’s Blue Hill and the Modern, is a cheerleader for local products. At his window lined restaurant, he will serve Puerto Rico’s game fish, snook, with roasted shrimp and fermented aji peppers, add morcilla (house blood sausage) to risotto and accent tostadas with short rib marmalade and caramelised onions. Along with inspired cocktails like the Rye-Cao Old Fashioned (infused whiskey and orange bitters) Vianda serves mocktails like Limoncillo, made with lemongrass tea and fermented lemon syrup.

 

La Casita Blanca

As the name suggests, this is a white house fronted with an arboretum’s worth of plants and has been welcoming locals for decades. Inside, on plastic-cloth-topped tables, servers offer up comfort food from a chalk board menu that includes tostones rellenos (stuffed plantains) and fried pork with rice and peas. To drink, there is a selection of beers and house sangria.

 

Kasalta

This old-school bakery and deli is renowned for its Cubano sandwiches and hot, fortifying cafe con leche. Try anything in mallorca (sweet bread) and the sandwich de bistec, or a medianoche, a local favourite that is similar to a Cuban sandwich but in a softer bread. Former US president Barack Obama had breakfast at Kasalta when he came through Puerto Rico; a plaque marks the spot.

 

El Churry

For more than 20 years, El Churry has been providing Puerto Rico with messy, meat-filled churrasco sandwiches via a fleet of food trucks, as well as a couple of storefronts. The Mixto combines griddled skirt steak and chicken with lettuce, tomato, ketchup-infused mayo, and potato sticks, all packed into a roll. It is the perfect late night-drunk sandwich.

 

Where to drink

JungleBird

Neon signs and palm trees animate this tropical lounge-gone-wild, with a DJ stationed near the bar. Drinks include Tepeache Colada, a smart riff on the pina colada made with the fermented pineapple beverage tepache, and Adios Panalones, which combines vodka, pisco, pineapple, and spices. The changing snacks roster might include dan dan dumplings and snapper ceviche with kimchi.

 

La Factoria

A bar that evokes a spacious house, with a front room devoted to superior warm weather cocktails such as Mercado Roma, which combines mezcal and honey with a tart punch of ancho chile shrub and grapefruit. An interior room is devoted to wine drinks. The place is good enough to have scored a spot on the 2018 World’s 50 Best Bars list.

 

Where to stay

Condado Vanderbilt  

Built in 1919 by Frederick William Vanderbilt, the imposing beachside hotel has 108 suites, including a pair of tower suites, all with butler service and the island’s first Hammam spa. It is also home to one of Puerto Rico’s most sophisticated restaurants, 1919, from chef Juan Jose Cuevas, whose prix fixe menu might start with caviar and include black tagliatelle with lobster and shrimp.  

 

El San Juan Hotel

Designer Jeffrey Beers led a US$65 million restoration of this iconic resort, which claims a whopping two miles (3.2km) of pristine coastline. Pay close attention to the 4,000-pound (1,814.37kg) crystal fixture that gives the Chandelier Bar its name; it is one of the largest in the world.

 

Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve

The island’s standard-bearer for luxury was originally developed by Laurance Rockefeller. It reopened in October 2018 with a brighter colour palette in its 114 beachfront rooms, a new five-bedroom villa for families, and redone restaurants. Already beloved for its lush and expansive grounds, Dorado Beach got 300,000 new plants after the hurricanes — though none are as iconic as the ancient-looking ficus in front of the spa.