I’ve hit the bars too early.
Like, way too early. It’s a hot Thursday evening in San Juan, approaching midnight, and popular LGBTQnightclub Circo is barely getting started. A millennial lesbian in clingy, velvety bellbottoms belts out a karaoke version of Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” on a small stage while a handful of friends look on, supportively, nursing cocktails. Hoping for a glimpse of San Juan’s outrageously talented drag queens in action – two standouts, Rochelle Mon Cheri and Queen Bee Ho’, appeared in the excellent 2014 documentary, Mala Mala — I saunter across the street to Scandalo. A slick space where RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants April Carrión, Kandy Ho, and Nina Flowers have ruled, I find myself the sole patron. “Come back around two… or three,” a local advises. Wow. Boricuas party and perform late! Alas, I have morning commitments, so a more extensive San Juan club crawl will need to wait for the official weekend. Most of these LGBTQ bars are within San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, a vibrant, edgy, walkable district that’s home to a creative, entrepreneurial hipster population. Their boutiques, restaurants and bars, along with street art that rivals and sometimes bests what you find in Wynwood, make for a dynamic setting. The Puerto Rico Queer Filmfest takes place right here in November; openly gay Puerto Rican pop star, Fofe Abreau, calls Santurce home; and Fall 2016 saw the opening of über-hipster food park Lote 23, with vendors including El Baoricua — transgender chef Paxx Moll’s inventive, Asian-Rican fusion bao spot. I’m staying about a 15-minute walk from Circo in Santurce’s beachfront sub-district, Condado. This tourist-friendly enclave of boutique hotels, sprawling resorts, hip restaurants and upscale shops is where San Juan Gay Pride 2017 — Puerto Rico’s 27th annual LGBTTIQ Pride march — will kick off. While gay tourists and locals congregate and sun all year on Condado Beach, the district’s Parque del Indo will set the scene for the annual festival. I’m happy to discover that gay bar Oasis is just around the corner from my hotel, the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. The adjoining ice cream shop, Gelato & Co., is a bonus treat.
The Morning After
The next morning, from my balcony, I take in an astonishing view of ocean-blue sky and, well, ocean. The white sand beach and crystalline waters are already peppered with swimmers and sunbathers. I make my way toward Calle Loíza, a strip that’s incredibly popular with local foodies. Old San Juan may be a charming sightseeing destination, but the chefs and staff who work restaurants there beeline for Santurce when they want to be fed right. One of Calle Loíza’s anchors, Chef Mario Ormaza’s Café Tresbé is a converted, yellow shipping container that’s been decked out with outdoor patio seating. It specializes in deliciously made, locally sourced seafood staples like ceviche, squid empanadillas and the especially popular fish tacos. Spoon Food Tours, founded by Brooklyn expat Paulina Salach, offers a Santurce and Miramar route that includes stops on Calle Loíza. Opened in summer 2016, the sister venue next door, Café con Cé, is a small craft coffee and design item shop that’s hard to miss, thanks to its mural of a levitating woman. The coffee is lovely, with beans and bottled Campeón cold brew sourced from the excellent local roasters at Hacienda San Pedro, which has its own cafe that is also worth a visit. Located a few doors over from that eatery, designer Anthony Quintana’s shop houses his sexy line of men’s hybrid swimwear-underwear — which boasts UVA protection to boot — and the Museo de Arte De Puerto Rico, home a comprehensive survey of the commonwealth’s artists and output. If you have a sweet tooth, Double Cake, a block down, makes some of the city’s best artisanal pastries, from Puerto Rican specialty quesitos (cheese twists) and traditional cupcakes to their original fusion creation: the iced, donut-like ponas. These are only available on Wednesdays, and flavors change weekly.
Meet The Muse
Besides the aforementioned Museo de Arte De Puerto Rico, there’s a wealth of multimedia contemporary work and provocative exhibitions, including queer-themed. MAC — aka Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico — is a former school that hosts several floors’ worth of exhibition space. Some of the work is disturbing. A whole room is devoted to dangling hangman nooses; there’s an oversized portrait of a legless baby with cut-outs where the arms go, a macabre tourist attraction. Taking pictures is forbidden, and staff members will stalk you — with irksome intensity — to ensure you don’t violate the policy. Fortunately, there’s no such restriction on Santurce’s plentiful, eye-popping street art, which is especially plentiful along Calle Cerra, between Avenida Juan Ponce de Leon and Calle Las Palmas. During October’s annual Santurce International Urban Arts Festival entire buildings and lots are transformed into stunning installations, many of which remain long after the festivities end. Several restaurants and bars — like the steampunk-ish, hipster watering hole, Psycho Deli — and small but excellent weekend crafts market, Mercadillo de la Cerra, also make this street a requisite stroll. Santurce’s creativity has certainly influenced its culinary scene, which is downright exciting at the moment. Many of its movers and shakers are gay, although I’m asked not to name names in print unless I get each chef’s individual permission first. A stubbornly pervasive culture of machismo means that many prefer to keep their sexuality private. Architect turned farmer-restaurateur Tara Rodríguez Besosa is an exception. The proudly out, charismatic lesbian espouses an organic, farm-to-table ethos and runs the vegetarian café-grocery El Departamento de la Comida, which moved from Santurce to nearby Santa Teresita to be closer to its producers. El Baoricua’s Moll once worked for Besosa, as well as with Puerto Rican culinary innovators like Jose Enrique (at his buzzing namesake venue), Iron Chef’s Roberto Treviño and, the father of modern Puerto Rican cuisine, Alfredo Ayala. Tasty and soulful — though still under the radar — Puerto Rican cuisine, or cocina criolla, is the result of a melting pot of influences, including African, Spanish, Japanese and the native Taíno. I’m soon addicted to mofongo, a garlicky mashed plantain dish that’s typically served with chicken or shrimp. I also love the arroz con gandules, a flavorful rice mixed with pigeon peas. I learn to prepare the latter at Atelier, a cooking school within Condado’s amazing Cocina Abierta restaurant. That restaurant, along with the Michelin star-worthy 1919 at the five-star grand dame hotel, Condado Vanderbilt, are utterly fabulous and well worth a visit. Chef Raúl Correa pushes the envelope with inventive cocina criolla creations like yuca-ricotta gnocchi in calabaza cream sauce and poached halibut with a waffle fashioned from root vegetable flour at Zest and MIST Rooftop Bar & Kitchen. His goat cheese and pumpkin cream Neapolitan pizzas can be found at his Lote 23 stall, Dorotea’s. Jose Santaella’s namesake restaurant, housed in a historic colonial building, serves flawlessly upscale cocina criolla.
Queen Of The Ball
Conveniently across the street from Jose Santaella’s is La Placita, a plaza-cum-nightlife zone packed with insanely busy bars — some little more than a stall in a wall — and clubs, including the kitschy, unpretentious El Patio de Lila. Fortunately, this place is jumping as early as 8 p.m. on weekends, serving as the ideal kickoff spot for a Saturday night bar crawl. After taking in a few karaoke performances, I head to the misleadingly named Tia Maria’s Liquor Store, which is actually just a bar. “You can buy liquor anywhere anytime anyway,” a local quips. It’s true, just like in Las Vegas. Entering the narrow space, one can expect plenty of head turning from the very local male crowd. Across the street, marked by rainbow flags hanging from a balcony, is the “open mind” lesbian club, Palace. Blink and you’ll miss the entrance to accurately named Zal Si Puedes Mini Bar (which translates to leave if you can). It caters to a 40-plus male crowd and its young admirers. I’m surprised to find drag queens performing here, too, given both the tight space. Try to catch Warhola Pop, who pays colorful tribute to the likes of Tim Burton and Keith Haring. One of Santurce’s newest dance clubs, Temptation, requires a security pat down to enter, but boasts a large dance floor and a sizeable, dimly lit backroom area for patrons to step away from the action for some private time with partners, friends or the alternately hunky/twinkish go-go boy dancers. These dark rooms are common in Santurce’s bars and clubs, and nowhere is this more so than SX. There are several areas within the club, one of them a completely dark space for when faces and names are the least of your concerns. The place has a palpable, sexed-up vibe, with themed and fetish events. Several posters indicate that I’ve arrived on a bear party night titled Woof Nights, but it seems like the cubs and otters are first to arrive (it is only 1 a.m. after all). As I enter a hallway to another section of the club, an otter who resembles hipster rocker Darwin Deez, wearing Puerto Rican flag athletic shorts, swings in front of me with a flirtatious “hola.” Come late morning I arrive at rustic Gallo Negro for brunch. Well regarded as much for its always changing Asian-Rican fusion menu as for its mixologist creations, I sample chef María Mercedes Grubb’s delicious langostino mac n’ cheese, smoked salmon and Johnnycakes and an eggs Benedict made with sofrito hollandaise sauce and smoked ham. En route to the beach for a final bit of sun, my Uber stops at a light. Out from the sidewalk pops a woman in striped leggings. “What is she selling?” I wonder. Instead, she starts to juggle. “Very Santurce, no?” says the driver.