Puerto Rico, with a population of about 4 million, has more than 7,000 restaurants, including many of the chains found on the U.S. mainland. The island has only recently emerged from a six-year recession that saw lots of eateries go under, including many in tourist zones such as Old San Juan, Condado and Isla Verde.
Tourism is important to the island economy, though it contributes much less to the gross domestic product than manufacturing, and local officials are trying to promote Puerto Rico as a foodie destination.
For the past five years, the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association has organized an annual food festival called Saborea at Escambron, a beach between Old San Juan and Condado. The dishes one finds in Saborea have evolved over time, along with the local restaurant scene, says Clarisa Jimenez, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association. Though there are still plenty of old standbys, including the fritters stuffed with ground meat known as alcapurrias, there are chefs displaying more sophisticated dishes. “Cuisine has more importance now, more relevance,” Jimenez said.
Few local restaurants, and perhaps none, have embraced the farm-to-table ethos to the extent of Verde Mesa, which overlooks San Juan Bay and the city’s cruise ship port.
Founder Loyda Rosa became a vegetarian 20 years ago and realized just how hard that was to maintain in Puerto Rico. She eventually developed enough expertise to open the restaurant 4 1/2 years ago.
At first, just getting good ingredients was a challenge. Puerto Rican agriculture has been in decline for years as workers have fled the countryside for manufacturing or service jobs, and as cheaper imports have flooded the island. Rosa says that those farmers who remained were far from San Juan and reluctant to deliver the eggplant and zucchini she needed. But that has changed, thanks to demand from people like her, as well as a couple of farmers markets and vendors such as Rodriguez.
Her restaurant’s philosophy is to offer interesting, organic and local vegetarian cuisine, but to do it in a subtle way. She describes it as being more like an invitation to try something rather than preaching to customers about what to eat. For those who want more than just vegetables, she prepares fish as well as creamy fruit shakes made with almond milk.
Experts in the island’s restaurant scene have a pretty short list of favorites, with many names appearing again and again. They include Abracadabra Counter Cafe, which opened in 2010 on the long and busy Ponce de Leon Avenue and features wraps and fresh juices, along with live music at night and events for kids.
Pure and Natural has been around for several years, offering healthy Caribbean food and fruit shakes. It’s on Ashford Avenue, in the heart of the touristy Condado, but it’s easy to miss the storefront amid the surrounding fast-food joints.
Also among the favorites is Bodega Chic, a blend of French-Algerian and Caribbean cuisine; its dimly lit spot is just up the cobblestone street from the cathedral in Old San Juan.
Outside the old city, there is La Jaquita Baya, serving tapas such as small fish tacos and bok choy as well as more traditional Creole dishes. There is also Pikayo, which for many years was inside the Puerto Rico Museum of Art but has moved to the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel. It’s considered another of the more ambitious restaurants; chef Wilo Benet has a book on Puerto Rican cuisine and a TV show.
Rodriguez got into the restaurant business as an afterthought. She returned to her native Puerto Rico from New York in 2008 to help her mother, who had left a San Juan retail career to become an organic farmer. Rodriguez started to help her mother promote and sell their fresh produce. At first, she was dismayed.
“How am I supposed to sell organic produce if Puerto Ricans don’t know what dill is, they don’t know what tarragon is,” the 29-year-old said.
Later, she started El Departamento de la Comida — an ironic name meant to highlight the fact that she feels the Puerto Rican government doesn’t do enough to promote healthy eating — which has no waitstaff and offers a select menu of tapas for lunch. Regulars track it on Facebook to find out what’s on the menu each day.
Rodriguez says that she has started to get a few tourists, and she plans to double the size of the kitchen with some grants she has received.
“We realized that there was a huge, huge world that could get opened by just cooking this food,” she said. “And the conversation is amazing, because you don’t serve rice and beans anymore.”