I was recently in Puerto Rico doing volunteer work. Most of the time, we ate home cooked food in the barrio we were staying at. But a handful of times, we did get to eat out. Each of these restaurants were highly recommended by locals.
El Jibarito (San Juan)
In the heart of old San Juan, on the mostly residential street of Calle del Sol, is a friend’s favorite restaurant in the area. Called El Jibarito (“Little Hillybilly”), it has been serving traditional Puerto Rican food for decades.
First up, we ordered a big pitcher of rum punch. My friend swears El Jibarito has the best rum punch in Puerto Rico. It certainly lives up to its reputation. Having a distinct fruity flavor while not being too sweet, it packed quite the punch. I was buzzing before the meal even started.
Along with out meal we had a couple of appetizers: alcapurrias and pastelillos. Both are small stuffed bites, somewhat similar to empanadas. The alcapurrias are made with a plaintain dough and are stuffed with beef. The pastelillos are made with a more standard wheat dough. I enjoyed both, but found the alcapurrias were more unique and have a slight preference for it. However, my friend was able to make a light meal out of the pastelillos.
For our entrées, we ran the gamut of the menu: chicken in garlic sauce, bistec encebollado (cubed steak), pork in plantain sauce, and grouper. Each dish was very good and had a distinct flavor. I cannot pick a favorite.
The meals came with a side. We all went with a Puerto Rican dish called Mofongo. This is a bread, similar in texture to a stuffing, shaped into a mound. El Jibarito has three kinds: plantain, yuka, and one that combines the two. We had all three. The plantain is more traditional, but on my friend’s recommendation, I tried the yuka. He was right ; it made for a great Mofongo. It went especially well with the house made garlic sauce, bottles of which are on each table. Every place we went in Puerto Rico had some sort of sauce served with the food. This garlic sauce was the best of them all.
After the meal, we enjoyed dessert. I had the tres leches cake, while my friend had the flan. The tres leches was small, but satisfying and the flan was delicious.
One of the great things about El Jibarito is its atmosphere. The inside decor conveys a relaxed, rustic atmosphere. The brightly painted walls with white framed windows match the look of the streets of San Juan, giving the feeling you are eating outside. It makes for quite a beautiful scene. The friendliness of the wait staff further establish this at home feeling.
Barrachina (San Juan)
While in San Juan, a famous location that many visitors see is La Barrachina. What makes La Barrachina famous is the invention of the Pina Colada, back in 1963 by Don Ramon Portas Mingot. Or so the story goes. There are others who claim to have invented the drink earlier. Nevertheless the tropical drink Pina Colada — a cocktail of rum, pineapple, and cream of coconut — is a Puerto Rican original and no trip to the island would be complete without one. The Pina Colada is so associated with the island that it became its national drink in 1978.
Barrachina has a full menu with all sorts of fish as well as Puerto Rican favorites such as Masitas dec Cerdo and Mofongo. But as were planning on eating at El Jibarito, we only had the Pina Colada. It was worth it.
Los Pinos (Guavate)
By far, the most unusual and interesting place we went to in Puerto Rico is Guavate. It is a small town (barrio) in the mountains of Cayey, south eastern Puerto Rico, and is filled with so many restaurants serving roast pork that my friends affectionately called it Pig City. But these restaurants are not just for eating. They are also for dancing. Each one has live music and a large open area forming a dance hall. And people are not shy about getting up from their tables and doing a dance. This is truly a unique cultural experience.
My friend’s favorite restaurant in Pig City is Los Pinos. The have great food and a nice, clean atmosphere.
We ordered a little bit of everything from the menu: ribs, roasted pork, chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, beans and rice, white yams called ñame, an octopus/ shrimp salad, and some plantains. All were quite delicious, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be the ñame. I’ve had potatoes before, but nothing quite like that.
In addition to restaurants and dance halls, the main street is lined with souvenir shops. People from all over Puerto Rico come there to dine and shop.
Kiosco la Frescura (Yabucoa)
Another favorite restaurant of my Puerto Rican friends is Kiosco la Frescura. Family owned and operated for 44 years and situated right off the shores of the Bay of Guayanes, Kiosco serves fish caught by local fishermen and fisherwomen. Devastated by Hurricane Maria, the restaurant is slowly rebuilding and recovering.
Kiosco la Frescura is a family affair. The husband overseas the fishermen, while his wife is the chef. He proudly states that his wife can cook any type of fish. There are all sorts on the menu, ranging from lobster to shrimp. We had the Red Snapper. The fish is served whole, bones and all. Everyone in our party enjoyed the meal. One of my companions fondly stated that it was “Best Red Snapper I have every had.”
For sides, we had tostones — no meal is Puerto Rico is complete without those — and arepas. There arepas were fried, which is quite different than the Columbian arepas that I have had elsewhere. With the dipping sauce they were served with, both the tostones and the arepas they made for nice accompaniments to the fish.
The most notable decoration in the restaurant is a large, colorful fresco. In Centered on a young girl, it depicts the bay and is imbued with imagery of the sea. There is a story behind this fresco. It is a tribute to a local fisher girl. She was reputed to have been the best. About 7 years ago, she and her brother went fishing. While they were out a storm came in and they were lost at sea. Her brother’s body was found, but she was never seen again. As the mural attests her memory is not forgotten, a testament to her importance to the village.
Costa Mia (Bay of Las Cabezas)
On a trip to Seven Seas beach in northeastern Puerto Rico, we visited another beach side restaurant. Costa Mia (My Coast), is located on the shores at the Bay of Las Cabezas in Fajarado, right where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. It made for a great place to stop for lunch.
Their sign touts grilled meats and shell fish, but we went with big plates of appetizers. We ordered the sampler platter — sorullos de maiz (corn sticks), mozzarella sticks, queso frito (fried cheese) with guava sauce,grouper bites, hot wings, and tostones — along with some carne frita (fried pork). All were very good (although, since I was not in Buffalo, I skipped the wings.) The real standout dish was the queso frito with the guava sauce. The mildly sweet sauce complimented the mild cheese perfectly.
A couple of us were interested in some more exoctic fare. We found it in the stuffed Mufaso. These were plantain based Mufaso, like what we had a El Jibarito, except that the insides were stuffed with meat. The one I ordered was stuffed with with fried pork, while one of my friends had Mufaso stuffed with conch. I loved the pork ; it went quite well with the plaintain Mufaso. The conch, on the other hand, was too rubbery. My advice, stick with the pork.
One in our group is allergic to fish, so ordered burger. It was enormous! So big that I was a bit envious. The report he gave was that it was quite tasty.
One other dish at Costa Mia I highly recommend is the flan. They have the widest selection of flans that I have ever seen. In addition to the traditional flan, they had pistachio, coconut, and almond. Among our group, we covered the spectrum. All were quite good, but the stand out one is the pistachio; it was amazing.
Meson (San Juan airport)
But you don’t have to leave the airport in order to get good food. On the second floor of San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport , at the end of the terminal where the check-in counters are, is a local restaurant called Meson Sandwiches. The name has significance. It implies a home town dining hall ; the kind of place working people would stop in for comfort food.
Primarily a sandwich shop, El Meson started in 1972 in the beach town of Aguadilla. Their philosophy is simple: use the freshest ingredients and treat customers like family. Their sandwiches combine a taste of the Caribbean with mainland American flavors. I had a tough time choosing which one to try. I ended up going with the Minnesota Feast, which was a combination roast beef with turkey, and swiss cheese, topped with heir special sauce. It was the perfect meal after a long flight. I’ll also make note of the Cuban, which received high praise from several of my travelling companions.