In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the fried alcapurrias and banana leaf-wrapped pasteles of comida criolla, the local blend of Indigenous Taíno, African, and Spanish ingredients and flavors, are everywhere. They are at the kiosks of Piñones and in the glossy restaurants of the city’s best chefs. But to come to Puerto Rico for only Puerto Rican food would be a disservice to the imagination. Chefs like Paxx Caraballo Moll at JungleBird, Mario Juan Pagan at Pernileria Los Proceres, and Francis Guzmán at Vianda — and many more — have made San Juan a food destination for their expansive takes on traditional cuisine. The bar scene has begun to catch up, with agave bar La Grieta and Prohibition-era Antiguo 26 providing new venues for cocktails that rival the stalwart La Factoria. And when it comes to coffee, the city’s cafés are both familiar and invigorated by the archipelago’s past and present as a growing nation.
This ever-growing dining and bar scene has thrived despite ongoing crises both natural and political. The archipelago has been under the control of the United States since 1898, and that colonial control has had long impacts on agriculture and culinary culture. Serving local produce requires commitment and the development of relationships with farmers, and the same goes for seafood and fishermen. Part of the Jones Act of 1920 requires all trade to be done on U.S.-owned boats staffed by U.S. workers, which makes many imports quite expensive. Taking care with cuisine under these conditions requires persistence and knowledge. Luckily, many chefs are willing to put in that work.
Update June, 2021: It’s not all good news, because the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down many favorites without a real timeline for when they will be resurrected. San Juan weathered Hurricane Maria in 2017, protested for two weeks to force the resignation of a corrupt governor in 2019, and was shaken by earthquakes in early 2020, only to see a pandemic shut everything down in March. There is only so much any city can handle, but San Juan survives, and in its restaurants and bars, finds a way to thrive.
Note: The inclusion of restaurants offering dine-in service should not be taken as an endorsement for dining inside. Studies indicate a lower exposure risk to COVID-19 outdoors, but the level of risk is contingent on social distancing and other safety guidelines. Check with each restaurant for up-to-date information on dining offerings. For updated information on coronavirus cases while traveling in Puerto Rico, please visit the CDC.
Alicia Kennedy is a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based writer. She is at work on a book about eating ethically for Beacon Press.Read More