Puerto Rico is a mecca for foodies. This is a testament to the island’s diverse history. Its eclectic mix of people and cultures has contributed to unique, tasty, and irresistible cuisine. There’s something for everyone. From casual to elegant dining, Puerto Rican food is front and center on the culinary stage.
Over the last ten years, Puerto Rico has moved up the gastronomic rankings by leaps and bounds. Some might say the best food in Puerto Rico is in San Juan, and others might say it’s on the west coast in Rincón. As the island evolves, new places are changing the island’s dining vibes.
While respecting Puerto Rico culinary heritage the island is pursuing a more forward-thinking and sustainable farm-to-table approach. Local ingredients are sourced and used when possible. Why are Puerto Rican dishes so delicious? There is an ongoing commitment to ensure fuller flavors with marinades that add extra depth and substance to traditional recipes.
The Best Food in Puerto Rico
San Juan has arguably some of the best places to tantalize your taste buds. I’ve been going to Puerto Rico for over 15 years, and I’ve seen some of the best places up close. I’ve also seen the best of the best weather the storm. That is, the best restaurants survived Hurricane Maria and the two earthquakes that preceded it. How? Old San Juan is a fortress. It was built to stand the test of time.
Traditional Food in Puerto Rico’s Capital
Spoon food and culture tour will give you a basic understanding of what Puerto Rico has to offer the hungry traveler, and it will introduce you to some local San Juan specialties. You’ll try Caribbean classics such as mofongo, Puerto Rican rice and beans, and the mallorca sandwich with a café con leche. The tours provide history lessons alongside tasting sessions. It’s a great introduction to the island’s traditional cuisine.
Café Manolín offers an authentic taste of cocina criolla as in Creole cooking. This is food with its origins in Europe rather than the crab shacks of Louisiana. Many recipes share a common base of a sofrito, pureed cilantro, garlic, onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
Taste Puerto Rico at El Convento
Santísimo, located in Hotel El Convento, is an authentic feel-at-home kind of experience. The open-air restaurant and bar gives it an intimate and comfortable feeling. The building dates from the age of the conquistadors and is one of the oldest properties in Old San Juan. It was previously a convent which is perhaps why many feel spellbound when passing through the high arched halls. The ocean breeze and delicious aroma from the front-of-house kitchen (open to guests as they walk in) are sure to make anyone feel at peace. The charm and easy-going nature of this hotel will transport you to olde-worlde Europe.
When I arrived at El Convento, I was only there for a night and wanted to experience something unique. The room was not ready (note to anyone who is checking in there, it takes a while, so use this opportunity to spend some time at Santísimo). I was hungry and wanted to eat. Therefore, I opted for the bar and met an unforgettable Rick.
Rick’s a bartender who was working there for the season. He was headed back to Philly in a few weeks. I knew he was from Philly when he asked, “How can I help ya?” It was not a Puerto Rican accent, and it was in no way a flat Floridian or Southern accent. It was a Philly-Jersey accent.
We started talking after I ordered my meal. I looked up, and the decorations on display behind the bar caught my eye. There was a stack of records on the top shelf above the liquor bottles. I asked Rick what kind of music was on the records. He said, “Heh, records?”
“Yes, the records on the top shelf. Are they for sale?” I asked.
“Funny you should ask. You are the second person this week. One of the owners of El Convento produced the record,” Rick explained.
The Unexpected Foodie Find
The food, the drink, and the happenstance made the time fly by as I waited for my room to be ready. It was a great welcome to Old San Juan. Later that evening, I went back for dinner and had the roasted chicken with potatoes and vegetables. Puerto Ricans know how to cook with intensity. It was delicious, and I bought one of the records as a souvenir. The visit was beyond cool.
Tip: When in Puerto Rico, order rum. The island is very much dedicated to its native spirit. Don Q is produced at Serrallés Distillery in Ponce, in the south of the island. It is aged in American white oak barrels for a woodsy finish. Puerto Ricans drink rum with many things, preferably straight up or with Coca-Cola.
Gourmet Food in Puerto Rico
Señor Paleta is a gourmet popsicle shop in Old San Juan, and there is a second location in Condado. After dinner and a nice walk around blue cobblestone streets, stop in to see how glam you can make your pop. The birthday cake popsicle had chunks of cake with sprinkles inside of it. The chocolate Oreo popsicle looked like a decadent pleasure if you’re into chocolate covered popsicles (yummy). Another Oreo pop was dipped in chocolate and topped with more Oreos upon Oreos. Pick up their famous t-shirt before you leave. Senor Paleta’s merch is hot, hot, hot. Just ask Bad Bunny.
Fine Dining in Puerto Rico’s Capital at 1919
1919 Restaurant in San Juan is elegant dining located in the Vanderbilt Condado Hotel. Fine dining paired with a view and excellent service is an understatement. Michelin-star winning Executive Chef Juan Jose Cuevas is a Puerto Rican native. There’s a KM0 approach to ensure 1919’s ingredients create a minimal impact on their carbon footprint. Chef Cuevas’ sustainable mindset reaches beyond the restaurant’s kitchen. He promotes agritourism on his native island for food and nature lovers alike.
The restaurant offers a seasonal menu with four courses. The menu is not traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, but it’s inspired by flavor-forward creations. Each dish brings a different mood to the meal as your Captain arrives to explain the course. The wine list is extensive, and the cellar is quite remarkable. Yuyi, my sommelier, suggested a glass of Charles Heidsieck Rosé réserve to start.
My Experience at 1919
The truffle-ricotta gnocchi walks a fine line yet has the right ratio of ingredients. The black truffle does not overpower this dish. An intricate part of the unforgettable meal was the interactions with the staff. Augustin, Yuyi, and Jorge made me want to return. And, so I did. A month later.
Why is 1919 not yet Michelin starred? It surely is a case of sooner rather than later. The purposeful creativity of Chef Jose Cuevas’ dishes combined with the atmosphere and professionalism of the 1919 staff deserves recognition.
Tip: This restaurant has a business casual dress code and requires reservations in advance.
Is North America’s Best Restaurant in Puerto Rico?
My curiosity peaked when I read an article about Juncos, an area of southeast Puerto Rico I had never visited. Acclaimed food writer Richard Morgan did a write-up for BBC about a Puerto Rican cocinao (casual cookout restaurant). What surprised me was that he referenced a chef who took a $100 taxi ride to get there. Was this restaurant really that good?
BACOA is located 40 minutes to an hour (depending on traffic and the driver) from San Juan. It’s situated in an area less populated and visited than other areas on the island. After a fairly long drive on rough roads, there is valet parking. It’s full service and located at the front of the restaurant. BACOA is situated near a body of water that’s prime for photo taking. Pull out your camera and snap away.
What to Order at BACOA
At the front of the restaurant, the host will ask for the reservation. Be sure you have it on hand. On Easter there was no wait, and the table was ready immediately. I got the sense that the restaurant allows guests to bring their own alcohol. The couple next to me had a healthy supply of liquor on their table, and it was not from the bar. However, I didn’t want rum with my meal. My server arrived, and I got the chance to order a beverage.
“Do you have merlot?” I asked.
“Ah, do you want to come to the wine cellar to look at what we have?” he asked.
“How about a wine from Spain?” I said.
We selected wine, and then he took the order.
The best thing about the meal was a gandule (pigeon pea) dip. Quality went downhill from such a delectable starter with underwhelming chicken, rice, and beans. As the server cleared my unfinished main course, he asked me if I wanted dessert. I wanted flan, but he came back to let me know they had run out. I wondered how you run out at 7:00 p.m. on Easter, but the tembleque was a nice alternative. It’s a coconut-heavy silky textured Puerto Rican dessert my mom makes. However, this tembleque tasted a bit thicker, like it had cream or ricotta cheese in it. It didn’t taste as light as the silky smooth pudding my mom makes.
Tip: The valet parking is in gravel and dirt. Sandals are okay and probably the safest option.
Sustainable Farm to Table Food in Aguadilla at Flora Restaurant
Flora’s menu changes every week based on the ingredients that they have at their disposal. Their vegan and vegetarian options were plentiful, which is not yet typical of the rest of the island’s restaurants. I ordered the roasted eggplant served on top of pureed tofu. The tofu was creamy, and the eggplant’s mesquite flavor paired well with it.
Aguadilla is a surfers’ paradise in Puerto Rico’s northwest, and Flora has a laid-back vibe to match its location. The table across from me (a group of three out-of-town businessmen from San Juan) kept laughing and apologizing for being loud. I didn’t mind. It turns out that Puerto Ricans enjoy a good meal and socializing just as much as the next person.
Meeting People Makes the Meal Better
They kept laughing and wanted to share their story with me. The funny part about this exchange is that they were worried about my perception of them, and I was just enjoying my eggplant. They didn’t know that I’m used to Puerto Ricans’ loud festivities, and I was not bothered at all. It was actually kind of nice to hear the laughter while sipping on my drink and enjoying really great plant-based cuisine.
They kept going on, and as I took my last bite of eggplant, I looked up as the loudest one laughed and said their colleague lost his “soul.”
“Oh yeah, how?” I asked.
They laughed even harder. Apparently, the “soulless” colleague had bought a pair of shoes earlier that week. They were walking around all day, and right before they arrived at the restaurant, the sole of his shoe fell off. They kept going on about it because their boss was having dinner at a table nearby. The 5’6’’ soleless man needed to use the restroom and was going to hobble by his boss and his boss’ wife.
After hearing this story and all of the laughter surrounding it, I was now a part of it. The man without a sole was going to have to spend the rest of his workday (one hobble in front of his boss and a full day of sales) on uneven ground. However, he did eat a memorable meal, which added to the joy of mine, and Flora became an instantaneous unforgettable culinary and social memory.
Tip: Flora opens at 5 p.m. Make reservations ahead of time.
Puerto Rico has something for everyone. Whether it’s a taste of classic island fare with a Spoon tour or a fine dining experience at 1919. Why try the different varieties of food from north to east to south to west? Puerto Rico’s landscape is different in each location, and so is the food. In order to have the best experience, try the different food in Puerto Rico to determine if it is the best in the US. The experiences will be unforgettable, and you might meet a Rick or find a sole and some laughs along the way.