Inspired by this month’s link-up theme Favorite Things I decided to make contribution by sharing a story of our recent food tour experience in San Juan which combined two of my favorite things – exploring new places and savoring local cuisine.
We were greeted with a big smile on Calle Recinto Sur early Thursday morning. Barriga llena, corazón content, or A full stomach makes for a happy heart – this was an intention set for us by the welcoming and friendly Carmen and Julio, local guides from Flavors of San Juan, before starting our tour promising 3 hours packed with gastronomic adventures.
As soon as all tour participants assembled (a group of 10 people who were conveniently from the same cruise ship as us), Carmen had us all introduce ourselves and briefly went over our itinerary.
We had a visit to 6 local cafes/restaurants as well as a few specialty stores planned for us where we’d get a chance to sample traditional delights of the Puerto Rican cuisine. When it comes to Caribbean food Puerto Rican cuisine, or cocina criolla, boasts with exceptionally rich flavors combining Spanish, African, Taíno and French culinary traditions. Thus the prospect of wandering around the main sights of the colonial city while also stopping at local eateries to savor one of the best local delicacies sounded nothing short of exciting. With so much to see and taste in San Juan it made perfect sense to combine the two into one fascinating experience.
As a couple who loves to travel, explore and indulge in good food, we were ecstatic about this unique culinary venture. Thanks to Flavors of San Juan we had a chance to indulge in local specialty foods and discover many off-beat gourmet hotspots I cannot wait to share, so let’s get started!
Mallorca and Puerto Rican Coffee | Aromas Coffee House
For our first culinary destination we proceeded to Aromas Coffee House where we started the day just like most Puerto Ricans do – with a cup of single-origin coffee and a slice of local sweetbread Mallorca. As a true breakfast enthusiast and a huge coffee lover, I was beyond excited for this part of the tour.
Aromas Coffee House is a small intimate café with a casual cozy ambiance. We learned that it is owned by the cousin of Ricky Martin!
As we were seated at small tables the friendly barista started brewing a cup of artisanal caffé latte and plating freshly baked Mallorca.
Often referred to as coffee of kings, Puerto Rican coffee was the favorite of 18th-century European courts, and even as modern brew trends come and go, the island’s Arabica beans still rank near the top of connoisseurs’ lists.
Now, I like my drinks to be sweet and I *never* drink my coffee without sugar. Thus, I admittedly was a bit skeptical when Carmen told us that real Puerto Rican coffee is strong yet has no hint of bitterness and we wouldn’t need to add sugar to it because of its intrinsic sweetness. When I took my first sip I was literally taken aback by the flavors of the Arabica beans, velvety taste and absence of bitterness. I sure did finish my coffee without adding any sugar to it!
The pastry on the side is a soft eggy and sweet bread (think Brioche) dusted with powdered sugar that was served as a ham and cheese sandwich. This combination of savory and sweet is characteristic of Puerto Rican cuisine. To be honest, I’d have enjoyed this super soft and supple pastry all by its own as a sweet compliment to my aromatic coffee.
Carmen also shared an interesting fact about Pan de Mallorca (mallorca bread). It originates from the Spanish island of Majorca where it is called “ensaïmada”. Instead of keeping the original name, however, Puerto Ricans decided to reflect the island roots of the pastry and name it Mallorca instead.
We had just finished our first meal and I was already pleasantly satisfied. The idea of more food projected nothing but food coma at the end of the day. However, Mr. B and I braced ourselves and preceded to our next stop… luckily it was a light and refreshing bite!
Aromas Coffee House | 201B Tetuan Street, Old San Juan | Phone: (787) 721-6470
Organic Ice pops | Señor Paleta
Señor Paleta is a “paletería” that specializes in creating artisan ice pops or “paletas” with fresh fruit and quality nuts. These popsicles are a real party for your mouth. They are made of fresh ingredients and there are tons of flavors to choose from.
Mr. B had a strawberry lemonade flavor…
I opted for strawberry-mango combination which was a delicious pallet cleanser and great refreshment in the sweltering heat of the city.
Señor Paleta | 153 Calle de Tetúan | Phone: (787) 328-5878
In between delicious bites of local specialties, we strolled through Old San Juan’s historic and architecturally rich streets.
Our guides went out and beyond to give us comprehensive tour around the major landmarks and colorful cobblestone alleys. They shared interesting facts and entertaining stories about the history of San Juan and Puerto Rican Cuisine.
We were also given some time to take in the beauty of the sights and take pictures, which was a blogger’s dream! You can read all about my my favorite sights in Old San Juan here.
Alcapurria, Pique and Ceviche | Café El Punto
For our next tasty treats we stopped at a funky place which was a combination of a quant café and a souvenir shop.
They had a number of artisanal works, artwork as well as locally brewed rum and sauces on sale. In addition, they have a comprehensive menu that includes classical Puerto Rican dishes cooked using fresh organic produce.
One of those traditional foods we got to sample was Alcapurria which is a fritter dish stuffed with ground beef.
The dough surrounding the meat, the masa, is made primarily of green bananas and eddoe. It was served with a *spicy* Pique which basically is a Puerto Rican style hot sauce and added a good amount of heat to the fritter.
Honestly, I was not particularly fond of the dish as it was a little too starchy and greasy to my liking.
Next, we had a bite of ceviche, which was packed with flavor and left a pleasant tangy aftertaste.
Café El Punto | Calle Fortaleza 105 | Phone: (787) 646-4943
Mofongo, Pollo Salsa Criolla and Rice & Beans | Rosa de Triana
Back on the streets there was more history to learn. Carmen and Julio guided us to the old church of San Juan and gave us a few minutes to explore this 16th century cathedral.
Thankfully, this also gave us opportunity to walk off the food we had previously consumed, because what awaited us in Rosa de Triana was a full-blown hearty ‘Rican lunch!
Besides mouthwatering food, this place boasts with interesting history. With its prime location across from the luxurious El Convento Hotel the restaurant is nestled in a building dating from 1523. It is a former jail cell which now is totally open and is like a bunker.
With charming Spanish-inspired décor and romantic flair this place could be a wonderful dinner date spot!
This part of the tour was particularly entertaining. Not only did we get a chance to try Puerto Rico’s signature dish Mofongo, but we also got a hands on experience making it! Essentially, Mofongo is a mashed mound of plantains into which a combination of seafood, meat, or vegetables is added. It can be served as a side dish or a main course accompanied typically by beans and rice. It is a must-try for first-time visitors who want to claim to have sampled the local fare.
The servers brought freshly cooked pile of plantains in a wooden mortar and pestle. We added butter and fresh cloves of garlic and then mashed all this together. A captivating garlicy aroma filled the room as we all got to mash our own mofongos. Once a mound was formed we added pollo en salsa criolla (chicken stew) into the mortar and enjoyed our hearty starch-and-stew combo.
Afterwards, we were served another classic local combination – rice and beans which Mr. B quickly elevated to one of the best he has ever tasted. The beans were indeed creamy, smooth and flavorful.
And of course we couldn’t leave San Juan without trying local Sangria which is house-made every day. Not the best I have ever had (#1 is still the one tasted at The Liberty Hotel in Boston for me!), but it provided a good refreshing accompaniment to our heavy afternoon meal.
Rosa de Triana | Tasca Espaniola | Phone: (787) 722-1144
Pina Colada | Patio De Ana
At this point all we dreamed of was a lengthy siesta. Alas, this was not part of the tour. Instead, Carmen whisked us away to our next destination where we sipped an authentic Puerto Rican cocktail in a cool shade of an open-air patio.
Did you know that Puerto Rico is the birthplace of the Pina Colada?
We toasted in the best of Puerto Rican traditions “Salud, amor y pesetas!”, which translates as “Health, love and money to all.” Amen!
Truly, this Pina Colada was unanimously proclaimed as the best anyone has ever tasted, so if you happen to be in San Juan I urge you to stop by this charming place and order a glass of this traditional creamy cocktail, you won’t be disappointed!
Patio De Ana | Caleta de San Juan 72
By the way, right before the entrance to the restaurant, there is a very interesting spice shop which sells 100% Puerto Rican coffee as well as exotic bottled condiments like banana ketchup, for example. Definitely worth checking out!
Flan de Queso/Cheese Flan | Vaca Brava
Last but not least, we capped our foodie extravaganza off with a luscious cheese flan at a place that was packed with locals.
A slice of heaven….
So did we leave San Juan with full stomach and happy heart? Absolutely! The truth is our expectations were not only met, but greatly exceeded! We got an authentic culinary experience as we followed cobblestone streets and ate our way through Old San Juan. I absolutely loved how well thought through the sequencing of the food courses were. We had small bites in-between bigger meals which was nothing short of pleasantly satisfying. I also greatly appreciated the fact that we did not feel rushed at any point during the tour. It truly was a great way to navigate through the unique cuisine and culture of Old San Juan and Puerto Rico. We got a great introduction to Old San Juan’s varied architectural gems and unique restaurants, cultural attractions and “must do” activities. History, culture and food in one bite – what could be better?! ;)
Have you traveled to Puerto Rico? Do you have any favorite Puerto Rican dishes? Do share!
Read about part one of our Caribbean cruise adventures featuring Old San Juan’s gorgeous must-see historic landmarks and cultural sights here.
Disclaimer: this post is not sponsored or solicited by any of the companies mentioned above. We independently found the tour based on numerous raving reviews and fully paid for the services provided by Flavors of San Juan. Thus, all the opinions expressed are my own and represent true impressions of our experience.
The topic this month is simple; what are your favorite things? Are they raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? Or brown paper packages tied up with string…It can be absolutely anything! All you have to do is add your post to the link up widget on Kelly, Rebecca, Emma or Frankie’s blogs in the first week of November and share the blogging joy!