New Kids on the Block: keeping San Juan’s culinary scene fresh

​Puerto Rico’s capital has a vibrant culinary scene; it’s small in size but spans a whole world of ethnic and international flavors.

By Peter Martin
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When it comes to food, San Juan has nothing to envy London, New York, Paris, or international cities teeming with restaurants for every budget. Puerto Rico’s capital has a vibrant culinary scene; it’s small in size but spans a whole world of ethnic and international flavors.

The good news is that more venues are opening all the time, widening the choice for dining options and giving locals and visitors more opportunities to refine their taste buds. It’s what makes San Juan the Caribbean’s culinary capital, an ever evolving and innovative dining scene, even for repeat visitors or long-time residents.

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The newcomers also are raising the bar on the art of fine dining, making sure it’s not just about food, but that the plating, ambiance, décor, music, and spectacular service merge and infuse the experience to ensure clients leave heady with deep feelings of well-being and satisfaction.

These new kids on the block include some of the world’s most renowned gourmet boutique chain restaurants, including American Cut Bar & Grill, Rosa Mexicano, Serafina, Fogo de Chao, and Kona Grill. But you have to be not just good but extraordinary if you want to make a mark on the local culinary scene, which these restaurants have done since their inception.

Puerto Rico is quite simply the best place to eat in the Caribbean, and has been for decades.

It has renowned culinary festivals, with the world famous annual Saborea Puerto Rico: A Culinary Extravaganza the headline event, but with several vibrant but more low key food fests in San Juan’s many neighborhoods and across Puerto Rico in beach towns and mountain hamlets. More importantly, any festival or fiesta taking place in Puerto Rico is heavy on the savor, with a trusty, tasty food component playing a huge role, whether it’s a patron saints festival or a celebration of a coffee harvest.

There are the requisite culinary stars – from Mario Pagan to Wilo Benet to Roberto Trevino, among many others – many with their own restaurants on the island. But equally exciting is the wave of new kitchen artists developing in their wake, who are behind much of the development in the ever refining collection of gourmet dining options, inspired by Puerto Rico flavor and the finest cuisines in the world, that are spread out across San Juan, and beach towns from Rincon to Ocean Park to Esperanza on the south coast of Vieques.

The joys of indulging in meals in Puerto Rico goes way beyond the cutting-edge restaurant category. Many of the maestros de cocina are anonymous angels whipping up flavorful delights on a daily basis. Impressive bistros and cafes are spread across the island, and there are world-class restaurants specializing in an impressive array of world cuisines: Spanish, French, Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Peruvian, German, British, Mexican and many more. It’s not the mere availability, but that local restaurants have perfected aspects of these cuisines and created local gastronomic success around them.

You’ll find the world’s best steakhouses, either New York or Argentine style, Chinatown, NY-worthy Asian emporiums, top rate Lebanese with exotic décor and belly dancing, incredible sushi and European cuisine to die for, as well as great traditional restaurants specializing in Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine. Of course, some of the best eating to be had is at authentic comida criolla fondas, modest restaurants serving tasty local cuisine at bargain prices. The joys of eating in Puerto Rico also extends to roadside stands and beachfront shacks, which serve barbecued chicken kebabs, fried fish turnovers, local ceviches, often involving conch or Caribbean lobster, and delicacies from stuffed fried potato balls to cod fish fritters.

There are so many eat-worthy moments to treasure in Puerto Rico, it’s impossible to recount them all in a single serving. The new kids on the block offer some of the freshest of the culinary high notes that sound on the island, making every day is a symphony of flavor.

Marc Forgione’s American Cut Bar & Grill was made for Puerto Rico. Owned by LDV Hospitality, whose acronym stands for La Dolce Vita or ’the good life.’ American Cut Bar & Grill is an outpost of the American Cut, which has been called America’s No. 1 steakhouse.

Company values and Puerto Rican culture have a lot in common – the company like the island is all about enjoyment and celebrating and sharing with friends and family. For this reason, Puerto Rico is the perfect spot to launch the company’s latest concept’s flagship, said John Meadow, founder LDV Hospitality.

The American Cut Bar & Grill concept, instead of a “good old boy” steakhouse, will offer from its flagship Puerto Rico location a softer, better-rounded restaurant experience, while maintaining the service experience at par with American Cut’s fine dining experience. A regular traveler to San Juan and avid fan of Puerto Rican cuisine, Chef Forgione will use the new concept to expand his flavor profile by bringing together the island’s cultural charm and his signature creations.

You’ll know you are in Puerto Rico because there are local flavors and dishes woven into the American Cut Bar & Grill menu, including items exclusive to the San Juan location like dry-aged yucca, served in a garlic mojo or sauce. Other island flavors include mofongo, codfish, and deep fried chicarrones, as well as a local lime and coconut ceviche and artisanal hot sauce.

The restaurant and LDV culture that spawned it is all about community and celebrating life, much like Puerto Rico’s culture, which Chef Forgione and his partners say they aim both to pay tribute to and to become a part of through the American Cut Bar & Grill. It is ideal place for friends and families to meet, celebrate life, and enjoy top quality meals at approachable prices.

American Cut Bar & Grill maintains the rock & roll Art deco interior of American Cut, but is a bit more approachable and casual with a bigger bar seating area with high top tables. It’s also more sensual than your old man’s steakhouse, with raw brick walls and distressed black leather.

The bar & grill is open daily for lunch and dinner and sprawls across an 8,000 sq. ft., 200-seat dining room with an outdoor terrace along with two private dining rooms that will accommodate up to 60 guests.

It’s located in the heart of San Juan, at The Mall of San Juan, a world-class shopping, dining and entertainment destination featuring many distinct, unique to market retailers, including the first Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom in the Caribbean, for which American Cut Bar & Grill seemed a natural fit.

Rosa Mexicano offers authentic Mexican food from its gorgeous 10,000 square foot space within Paseo Caribe, a glorious seaside world of luxury condos and upscale restaurants and shops that overlooks a precious corner of San Juan’s impressive coastline.

Diners are offered striking views of the sea, Condado Lagoon, the Miramar skyline, and the entrance to Condado via Dos Hermanos bridge that surround the restaurant. The vibrant, colorful interior, with elegant woodwork and select artwork, also commands attention.

You enter the restaurant through a 10-foot-tall wood door with glass grids and find yourself floating along peripatetic sweep of the large space, which evokes some magical Mexican hacienda, awash in bright orange, yellow, halo blue and fuchsia pink, with big rustic wood tables, woven chairs and a handsome wooden bar.

An entire wall showcases a dazzling fountain in which 60 white figurines dive twisting through the void against a background of blazed blue tile subtly reflecting various pastel hues. In the front of the restaurant, two sculptures in the shape of branching tree trunks rise from floor to ceiling in an abstract pattern.

Great care went into the ambiance of this restaurant which beautifully reflects the spirit of Mexico in its foods, vibrant colors, woodwork, and select artwork on the walls, said General Manager Jennifer Caballero, adding that in addition to the 155 seats in the dining room there is an outdoor terrace and bar area.

The food is as vibrant and stimulating as the setting. This is authentic Mexican cuisine that goes way beyond the burrito or taco. Your waiter will prepare your guacamole tableside from fresh avocado, cilantro, jalapeño peppers, tomato, and onions.

Whether you order a Mexican favorite, like fajitas or enchiladas, or aim for something else like the delicious halibut, wonderful steaks or mole dishes, you will be pleasantly surprised by the richness and flavor of the food served here. Just as impressive is the artful plating of the food. Regardless of how hungry you are, you will undoubtedly spend some precious seconds admiring the arresting way in which the courses are represented.

The Puerto Rico location is No. 18 in the boutique restaurant chain, which was born in New York in 1984. The fabulous island location took a $2.2 million splurge to bring to life. Chef Roberto Trevino, one of Puerto Rico’s biggest talents in the kitchen, is co-owner. It’s a popular spot, and the venue is normally abuzz, especially on weekend nights, when some of Puerto Rico’s best margaritas seem to flow endlessly. Rosa Mexicano has a flamboyant array of different versions.

Casually chic and strikingly beautiful, Serafina has been the center of attention since it first opened at the heart of the Condado, right beside its famed seaside park, where Puerto Rico’s answer to south beach splits into two boulevards, the seaside Ashford Avenue and Magdalena Street, which lies down behind it in the shade.

The restaurant spills out of the La Concha hotel, a striking example of the Modern Tropicalism movement born on the island in the post war years, a modernism attuned to the tropics that was an expression of Puerto Rico’s shift from a rural to urban society, and from an agricultural economy to a modern one based on manufacturing and tourism.

The outdoor bar and dining area out front is perhaps the island’s best spot to people watch, but it’s so inviting you will see the people walking by staring right back. Sit in the comfortable burnt red-orange striped sofas beneath the nattily fabric topped wooden trellis. You might daydream you are looking out on the Via Veneto in Rome or Piazza San Marco in Venice, other places where the thing to do is to people watch.

The heart of Serafina is a handsome wooden bar and adjacent dining area that still affords a good view of the action on the street outside. Hand painted pictures and the restaurant’s motto of Live, Love, Laugh, Eat or Vive, Ama, Ridi, Mangia dot the walls, and help set the vibe along with a smashing sound system.

General Manager Ricky Diaz describes the food as “north of Italy with a New York touch” and said its quality and freshness are keys to Serafina’s success. “Everything is fresh and homemade,” he said.

The place has charm as well as looks, with a friendly staff and terrific Northern Italian menu with a marked New York accent. The result are delicious antipasti, pasta dishes and pizza baked in a custom-made Marra Forni brick oven that heats up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, scorching the pizza to perfection in a record four minutes, A favorite is Pizza Alla Norcina which is topped with mushrooms, sausages, hot peppers and mozzarella.

The emphasis is on quality and freshness, and everything used is the best: superior San Marzano peeled tomatoes, Sicilian sea salt, and handmade mozzarella. Local farms produce the herbs and vegetables used here while Italian cheeses and meats are flown in from the motherland via New York.This $3 million restaurant is one of the currently 35 outlets in the Serafina chain, but the spot feels right at home here.
At Fogo de Chão Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria, you get dramatic oceanfront views, and splendid service along with fire-roasted premium meats and an insanely sumptuous salad bar.

This place is a meat lover’s paradise, an all you can eat affair, but the endless exotic salad bar is just as memorable as the dizzying variety of grilled juicy steak cuts – including filet mignon, churrasco, rib eye – as well as lamb, pork ribs, chicken and sausage. Two of the favorites are Picanha, a traditional cut of top sirloin, and Fraldinha, a flank steak like cut from the bottom sirloin.

This is “a distinctive and authentic Brazilian dining experience” where diners are in control of how quickly or slowly they want to be served. Each diner has a Fogo medallion; flip it to green if you want the servers with the meat skewers to come to your table, and flip it to red when you want them to stop for a break. It’s a little like a theater experience in which you and your guests are the main characters and the gaucho chefs act as the director, in charge of the entire meat preparation process from butchering to roasting and final serving.

General Manager Daniel Bertolete says the restaurant’s menu is a great fit for the local palette as well for the vacationers who flock to its beaches throughout the year. He called the restaurant “good deal” where “everything is fresh.”

While the fabulous steak is Fogo de Chão’s calling card, vegetarians should not bashful about coming here. The fabulous Market Place is a sprawling salad bar in the center of the dining room with more than 40 hot and cold items to choose from, including fresh salads and other vegetarian choices, in addition to charcuterie choices and smoked salmon.

The restaurant fills an 8,000-square-foot space on the top floor of a stand-alone, two story building at Paseo Caribe with the views of the Atlantic and Condado coastline particularly striking from its perch. If you look close enough, you can see manatees swimming close to shore, along with the paddle boarders and swimmers, where the ocean meets the protected lagoon.

The brainchild of two Brazilian brothers, Fogo de Chão was born in 1979, and has grown to 37 locations, with the San Juan restaurant, its first foray into the Caribbean. A meal here is an indulgent pleasure, working on all your senses at once, and an experience you will not likely forget.

Kona Grill, which has come to define the “polished casual” experience, celebrates American cooking, but prepared with flavors from around the world, and also features a renowned sushi bar. Its home is the The Mall of San Juan, a 650,000 square foot luxury shopping experience that has brought island shopping to a new level.

For all its casualness, Kona has a touch of Las Vegas, with lots of lighting, image screens, TV screens, and polished metal. The restaurant is laid out to hold different dining areas, including a patio, each with special touches. Among the most eye catching features in the restaurant are its impressive 150 gallon fish tank, a striking bubble tank, and 14 television screens. An unusually long bar seems to fit in with Kona’s policy of two happy hours, instead of one as is traditional. The happy hours are from 3 pm to 6 pm and from 9 pm to 11 pm and are coupled with several dish specials, said Executive Chef Jose Soto.

Kona’s inventive signature entrees are prepared from scratch and feature more than 40 distinctive sauces and dressings. Favorites include the macadamia nut chicken with pineapple-papaya sauce, Panco breaded chicken breast, and a 14-ounce Kahuna burger. Other menu selections include steaks, sandwiches, pizzas, and salads.

The sushi menu incorporates traditional favorites and specialty items. Tuna served at the restaurant is flown in by air from Hawaii while fresh sea bass and salmon comes from California. The company also serves local fish, including Wahoo, swordfish, Mahi Mahi, and snapper. Based in Arizona, there are 31 Kona Grills around the world.

If you are a foodie fashionista or just someone who loves a good meal, you’ll find what you are looking for on the island.






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