San Juan has earned a reputation as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, and I for one love the dining scene here. But just because you're in San Juan doesn't mean you're going to eat Puerto Rican food. In fact, many of its best eateries don't classify as pure comida criolla. Fusion cuisine is very popular, as is modern or "nouveau" Puerto Rican fare.
La Casita Blanca
I have to start with the humble, casual, and revered Casita Blanca. I don't think I'm alone when I say it's the heart and soul of Puerto Rican food, served in a rustic setting that's low on frills and high on personality. The menu is written on a chalk board, the Sunday brunch is a must-try for anyone who wants to gorge on island home cooking, and cab ride here is more than worth it. If you want to eat like a 'Rican, you have to start here.
Platos doesn't get a lot of hype; it's tucked away in the small Coral by the Sea Hotel and off most tourists' beaten path. But the food is true Puerto Rican, from the tried and true mofongos (served with your choice of creole or garlic sauce) to the local seafood (try the chillo entero, or fried whole red snapper) to the ubiquitous roast pork, it will give you the island's staples with minimal fanfare and plenty of taste.
From the colorful decor to the soulful cooking to live music from the island interior, Raíces is a full immersion into Puerto Rican culture. Even the name, which means "Roots," defines it. You'll find all the usual suspects (mofongos, asopao, frituras and other goodies), plenty of rum-based cocktails, and a strong cup of freshly ground coffee to finish off your meal.
The colorful rustic ambience, blue-collar comida criolla staples and cheap prices combine to make La Fonda El Jibarito a popular spot on Sol Street in Old San Juan. But it's not a slam dunk. Some of my friends simply don't like the food, and I've had some hits and misses here. The menu doesn't get creative, and the service can be slow, but in the old city, it's a longstanding homage to the Jíbaro, the country folk from the mountainous interior.
One of the best Puerto Rican restaurants to be found in a San Juan hotel, Coladas at Verdanza has won its share of accolades for its authentic, flavorful cuisine. Mofongo is a signature dish, but if you want to try a new twist on the old classic, go for the trifongo (while mofongo is made with mashed green plantain, trifongo is a mix of green plantain, sweet plantain and yuca, or cassava). Their skirt steaks, served with your choice of sauce, are also solid options.
The Plaza del Mercado, or La Placita, is a large plaza in the Santurce neighborhood. A food market by day and popular hangout by night on the weekends, it's a big draw for locals and tourists in the know. This ultra-casual spot has a cluster of local eateries serving simple Puerto Rican fare. It's a great place to sample the wide world of finger foods and snacks that make up such a big part of the island's cuisine. La Placita is located at Dos Hermanos and Capitol Streets. Your best bet is to take a taxi here, as parking on weekend nights is a nightmare.
How can the self-proclaimed birthplace of the piña colada not be on this list. I've dined a few times at Barrachina, enjoying both its central location on Fortaleza Street, its pleasant courtyard, and its tasty fare. All that comes at higher prices than other restaurants on this list (although the prices are reflective of what you'll find on Fortaleza), but the overall experience is a good one.
An added benefit of Barrachina for travelers on their last day in town with a late night flight out of Puerto Rico: the free luggage storage service it provides.
Escambrón has two things going for it. For one, it's got a full menu of Puerto Rican classics. For another, it's one of the few Puerto Rican restaurants in San Juan that's right on the beach. Come here for the bacalaítos (cod fritters), carrucho (conch) cocktail, asopao and chuletas can can; stay for the beach and the azure waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Located in Puerta de Tierra, it's a hike from Old San Juan, but an easy cab ride from the tourist zones.