Ponce is the culinary pearl of the south

By Peter Martin 13004 0

Ponce, the “pearl” of a city on Puerto Rico’s south coast, entices visitors with a dazzling array of charms: its picturesque Caribbean coast, cultural treasures, hilltop castle and its unique Creole architecture with its turn of the century blending of Spanish, French and Caribbean traditions.

So, it’s a bit disarming when you discover that on top of everything else it offers, Ponce is an amazing place to enjoy a meal, with culinary options as delightful and diverse as its cultural attributes.

Whether it’s fresh fish at a modest seaside restaurant, a traditional Spanish feast in a formal dining room, or a snack at La Guancha, Ponce flavors will satiate your craving with taste. From typical criollo fare to international fusion, Ponce restaurants will satisfy the most refined palate with culinary creations that hold their own against the best restaurants in the world. However, you’ll also discover unique tasty delights at city food stands, small eateries and food truck parks.

El Negocio de Panchi, housed in a modest wooden house on the outskirts of town, could be the best place to eat on the entire south coast. Scrumptious fresh gourmet food is served in a relaxed, affable ambiance, and the service staff is super friendly and knowledgeable. Owner and Chef Francisco “Panchi” Zayas reinvents international dishes by infusing them with local creole flavor from an evolving weekly menu.

The exquisite results include appetizers like escargot in puffed pastry and mushrooms stuffed with prosciutto and manchego cheese, and main attractions like plantain crusted halibut in pepper sauce, duck breast in strawberry marmalade and chicken stuffed with Canadian bacon and cheddar cheese. The small spot, which opens Tuesday to Saturday at 4 p.m., is always crowded so reservations are recommended. Chef Panchi often ventures out to the dining room to schmooze with guests, and the kitchen is delighted to tailor make items to guest tastes or dietary restrictions, whether it’s the need to be gluten free or to avoid seafood.

Ponce’s two largest hotel resorts –Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort and the Holiday Inn Ponce and Tropical Casino – also house top shelf restaurants. Sancho’s Chinese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, located at the resort’s golf clubhouse, has been treating guests like family and serving high-quality Chinese and Japanese cuisine, as well as super fresh sushi and sashimi dishes, for years. This is a restaurant that is deservedly a favored choice of Ponce’s dining scene. Diners at the Holiday Inn’s Tanama Restaurant will find continental specialties and local delights like mofongo stuffed with seafood. Enjoy a grilled steak or mahi mahi while enjoying a breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea.

Lola Eclectic Cuisine, which flows across the lobby of the Ponce Plaza Hotel and Casino, has been one of Ponce’s best restaurants since opening a decade ago. The place lives up to its name and everything from its striking interior to its fusion cuisine is eclectic. The interior space counts with tiled floors from 1882, arched doorways and wooden beams across high ceilings. The menu, like the restaurant’s style, is a fusion of Puerto Rico, Caribbean and Old-World traditions, reworked to appeal to contemporary palettes. There is an ample wine list and delectable entrees that include the freshest seafood and finest steaks.

Ponce is famous for its strip of restaurants fronting the Caribbean coastline at Las Cucharas (just down the hill from the Holiday Inn Ponce), which range from family-run charmers serving classic Puerto Rican and island seafood to sleeker, more modern establishments serving more contemporary propositions.

Everybody has delicious fresh catch from the surrounding Caribbean waters and seafront dining.

Santorini Ocean Lounge Restaurant blends Greek cuisine and Mediterranean style into the experience, making it as refreshing and energizing a respite as jumping from a sun-bleached beach into an emerald blue sea. Nearby is the rustic La Montserrate Sea Port Restaurant, with a to-die-for view of the sea and a menu of fresh fish and Puerto Rican food. Nice spot for a drink and a quick seafood turnover or to enjoy a complete meal.

Several fine restaurants are located near Plaza Las Delicias, the heart of Ponce’s renovated historic downtown, with its striking Victorian firehouse and Lions Fountain that serves as the city’s calling card to the world.

Chef’s Creations, also in the historic zone, requires reservations for lunch service Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is open for small or large groups and its menu blends hypnotic Mediterranean, southwest and criolla fusion cuisine with a spectacular ambience in the patio of a gorgeous building. The creative menu changes weekly and it also offers classes on how to make mofongo, live paella cooking as well as culinary festivals on certain dates hosted by Chef Jorge Rivera. Campioni Pizza Birra & Tapas, housed in a restored historic downtown spot, is also worth a stop. The things to do here is gorge on tapas, brick oven pizza and Italian classics and wash it back with a craft beer or homemade sangria.

La Casa del Chef, centrally located outside the historic district, is one of Ponce’s best places to eat. Housed in a small shopping plaza, the semi-formal dining room is resplendent with local art, while flamenco and bolero music caress diners, creating an appropriate atmosphere to enjoy the masterful renditions of Puerto Rican, Spanish and continental classics served here. The restaurant shines in its delivery of old favorites like Steak Diane and will thrill your taste buds with dishes like beef tenderloin stuffed with lobster and shrimp. There is a wide variety of seafood entrees and super fine renditions of classic island platters like asopao, mofongo and fried red snapper. You can’t leave without trying the flan.

Puerto Rico may be known for rice, plantains and pork but its cuisine is far more diverse and much of it is vegan-friendly. At the Plaza del Mercado Isabel Segunda in Ponce kiosk #152 is a favorite spot for vegan lovers called Carmen’s Special Hummus. This restaurant serves a variety of delicious hummus, bean salads, lentil and plantain soups as well as an array of daily vegetarian and criollo cuisine.

Situated in the town of Ponce inside one of its centennial homes is Nispero, Asador, Vinos y Cocteleria, whose name originates from a medlar (Nispero) tree set in the terrace. The restaurant specializes in the best cuts of meat, seafood as well as its exquisite and extensive wine list. El Nispero also has banquet space and a terrace to host private activities. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner, Friday and Saturday until midnight and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m. There is live music on weekends.

Not far away is the Ponce Food Truck Spot, with a variety of flavorful affordable dining options in an al informal al fresco atmosphere that is both pet and children friendly. The offerings include Etcetera Vagon Gastronomico, which delivers gourmet food from a frequently changing menu that has recently included a beautiful rib-eye in rosemary, garlic butter sauce, risotto with chorizo and plantain and grilled salmon. Another standout gastro mobile, La Mexicana, is the real deal with delectable and authentic mole enchiladas and red pozole soup. The Ponce Food Truck Spot also features the Mojito Bar, with a rainbow of varieties, friendly mixologists and live music; Maki Sushi Bar that serves up all types of tasty sushi delights such as tempura, sashimi, and vegan as well as dumplings, eggrolls and mouthwatering orange chicken; and the Meatball Route 787 specializing in Italian with a spectacular twist of criollo cuisine. Its assorted menu offers pasta, lasagna, piñon (cheesy layered casserole made with sweet ripe plantains comparable to lasagna), pastelon (made with layers of thinly-sliced ripe plantains, ground beef and cheese), vegan selections and of course different varieties of meatballs and delicious meatball sliders.

If really hungry visit Ensaltao to enjoy an assortment of delectable traditional Puerto Rican dishes such as slow roasted pig or slow roasted whole chicken accompanied by heaping portions of rice with pigeon peas, among other local delicacies. Ensaltao’s well-seasoned lechon with crispy skin, moist, tender and juicy meat is the main attraction. Besides its regular menu, the restaurant also provides daily specials.

So, when visiting Ponce, make sure to take time to enjoy some amazing restaurants during your stay.