San Juan has earned a reputation as the culinary capital of the Caribbean so it is constantly evolving with eating-out options ready to satisfy the wildly different tastes of local and international diners, from fans of Puerto Rican cooking and fast-food brands to gourmands seeking memorable eating experiences.
What feeds this perennially shifting gastronomic scene? New concepts introduced by the culinary impresarios opening restaurants in San Juan and let’s not forget that creative culinary trends, like the savory aromas wafting in the air during cooking, sooner or later reach Puerto Rico from the kitchens of the world to be taken up by adventurous local chefs.
The latest concept to hit San Juan is “vibe dining,” an enhanced eating experience that turns a restaurant into a mix of hip club and entertainment, courtesy of dancing waiters and a live DJ amping the music volume up as the night burns.
STK San Juan, which The One Group Hospitality, Inc., opened at the luxe Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in the heart of San Juan’s tourist sector, kicked off this new trend on the island after having been successfully tested in the U.S. and abroad.
Think of STK as modern steakhouse meets chic lounge, a fusion splendidly pulled off in an exciting space that is at once hip and glamorous. The restaurant, which accommodates 188 people, is divided into a hip bistro area decked out with high chair tables and a stylish dining area with creamy, semi-circular banquettes and dramatic crystal vases, filled with glass gems, from which long-stemmed fabric flowers shoot out. The color scheme is black with hot flashes of red. Everything having to do with sight, service, sound and light is controlled.
The menu focuses on top quality meat (Linz Heritage Black Angus in portions of 6 to 34 ounces), combining classic STK staples and Smith creations such as a stewed rabbit served over a bed of arepas. He likes using the flavors, colors and textures of Caribbean cuisine, favoring such locally-sourced vegetables as malanga and yuca. So far, Filet Mignon and Tomahawk steak, which is dry-aged between 33 and 44 days, are big favorites among diners. Another winner is the Cloud dessert, deconstructed strawberry shortcake topped with ice cream, wrapped in cotton candy, splashed with Grand Marnier and dramatically torched to the delight of everyone.
For pre- or after-dinner drinks, lounge at the bar sipping STK classics like Cucumber Stiletto and Not Your Daddy’s Old Fashioned or cocktails created with Puerto Rico in mind like Ventana del Mar, Curious Jorge, Not a Paloma, and Condado 75.
The company already has 20 STKs in major metropolitan cities in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. And now San Juan is its stepping stone into the Caribbean.
Another trend that continues to gain ground in Puerto Rico is farm-to-table with many chefs now using a significant percentage of homegrown ingredients in creating their dishes.
Vianda takes up the challenges and delights of this trend out of a cozy locale with a mellow ambiance and understated decor tucked on the ground floor of a commercial building in the heart of Santurce. The restaurant’s large bay windows look onto busy by day, quiet by night Ponce de Leon Avenue.
The menu at Vianda mixes the familiar with the unexpected, resulting in most intriguing combinations. Like the recently featured pig head “carpaccio” with pickled vegetables and grilled sourdough or the mature plantain torte with crispy pork belly and bacon topped by a balsamic glaze. Entrees might include a USDA-Prime Strip Loin but, for the more adventurous diner, there is a Tom Kha Cod served in a coconut broth with mushrooms, chili oil and crispy rice or a pork trio — belly, cheek, and sausage — with yuca and a confit of peppers.
Vianda is a great place to stop over for happy hour. The restaurant has a fine wine list at sensible prices and you might want to try an appetizer or two for a taste of what Vianda offers.
Most local diners that come to Vianda are excited that the concept is a little different but it can be confusing for some people to wrap their heads around the fact that it is not criollo cuisine.
Overall, there is a demand and desire for fresh, delicious food and people are eager for more diversity of cuisine.
Fresh, local ingredients and an eclectic menu also distinguish San Juan’s Wicked Lily that is situated at The Tryst Beachfront Hotel in Condado.
Wicked Lily is a beachfront space where you feel good. The recipe: ingredients are simple and fresh.
On the menu you will find a spin of classic cuisines made into sophisticated dishes that bring together interesting combinations of flavors. Like bacalitos, quarter sized fried marinated cod fish served with squash blossoms, artichokes, chili pepper and lemon aioli; lobster guacamole made with chilled Maine lobster and smashed avocados served with local chips; Truffle Wings prepared with crispy boneless wings, toasted sesame seeds, cilantro, gorgonzola crumbs and truffle buffalo sauce; and Chicharron of Calamari served with sweet and sour peanut sauce, mezclum, sesame seeds and roasted peanut with togarashi.
For the restaurant’s sipping menu, there is an array of concocted unusual combinations of spirits, liqueurs, spices and herbs to create drinks like Melao Melao Melao (Bombay Sapphire, St. Germain, sage, yuzu and egg white) and Lily’s Colada (Myers rum, roasted pineapple, coconut water, nutmeg cream).
Cutting-edge restaurants are but one segment of Puerto Rico’s diversified food scene which includes casual restaurants and the popular fast-food brands that many people, pressed for time or short on cash, depend on regularly. This sector too is seeing more choices and locations opening up.
Metropol, a well-known local chain specializing in Puerto Rico’s criollo cuisine, opened its 10th casual dining restaurant at exclusive The Mall of San Juan. The restaurant prides in its selection of traditional dishes and its own classics like stuffed chicken, stuffed mofongo (mashed plantains served with different meats and fish), and Can Can Porkchop.
A new stateside brand that set up a local presence is Red Lobster. The well-known chain chose Plaza Las Americas, the biggest mall in the island and the Caribbean, as the location for its first local restaurant. This addition has proved good news to everyone familiar with this chain known for its generous portions of seafood.
San Juan’s food scene would not be complete without the presence of food trucks, a popular alternative that continues to offer new eating options to the public. At Miramar Food Truck Park, “Que Toston” delivers “comida criolla” of such perfection that it already has a fan club, including former San Juan resident David Vos, host of his own Internet show, cookingwithonehand.com.
Meanwhile, an upscale take on the food truck has gotten attention for its concept and the fresh design of its ocean front locale in Condado. “La Marqueta” is a large, breezy metal frame hangar in which shipping containers kiosks are lined up along an open, central patio with no barriers which opens to the Atlantic Ocean, each specializing in a particular cuisine. People can go from one kiosk to another trying out different dishes and sit at patio tables. The furnishing is tropical, there are potted palms, and the whole ambience is one of delicious al fresco living tying the sensory experience of flavors, sounds, smells and tactile sensations with a maritime theme.
Culinary experiences feature Asian, Puerto Rican, Italian, Mexican, and Mediterranean dishes. The Asian menu features dishes from various regional cuisines, such as Japanese, Chinese, and Thai, with offerings including poke and sushi. Likewise, the Mediterranean menu brings together the culinary traditions of Turkey, Greece and Spain, with classics ranging from babaganush and falafel, kebabs, and paella. The Italian menu offers classics such as risotto, a selection of Panini, and artisanal pizzas, and the choices from the Mexican menu include an array of tacos, among others.
Seafood, vegetarian dishes and emblematic specialties curated from local ingredients are also on the menu. Beverages include fresh fruit cocktails as well as a variety of freshly squeezed juices from local fruits.
The Oyster Shack in Condado is a family business that started out of the love for eating fresh oysters, seafood and connecting with people in a fine dining ambiance. Freshly opened oysters, clams, crudo, and a variety of refreshing ceviche are the main attractions – dishes straight from the tide to your table.
Fresh seafood is seasonal, which means its daily selection can change. You may find on the menu wild mussels, steamed oysters and clams, garlic shrimp, octopus, mahi mahi and scallops all prepared with their special blend of freshly chopped parsley, white wine, garlic, Spanish olive oil, peppers and red onions.
At 1208 Ashford International Cuisine and Steakhouse, the finest steaks and high-quality seafood are served in a vibrant setting. The restaurant’s fine dining and rooftop areas will soon reopen with a special menu. Its diverse menu will satisfy any personal craving, as they serve the best prime steaks, succulent seafood and shellfish along with inventive and classically inspired side dishes and appetizers.
Chef specialties include, but not limited to, pan seared scallops with roasted sweet Brentwood corn, bouillabaisse, salmon caviar and sweet potato ginger mash; 8-ounce wagyu steak, exotic mushrooms, truffle au jus and saffron risotto; smoked dry aged duck breast, endive and citrus glaze as well as Yukon mashed potato; and the catch of the day in white wine, garlic butter sauce with grilled asparagus and roasted rosemary potatoes.
Also enjoy from the grill, tomahawk steak for two with foie gras and brandy sauce; New York steak, prime angus filet mignon, and ribeye with tasty sides of grilled asparagus, Brussel sprouts, sautéed vegetables, mashed potatoes, roasted rosemary potatoes and pigeon pea risotto.
Morton’s The Steakhouse, an internationally acclaimed steakhouse, at the iconic Caribe Hilton Hotel. This premier establishment has unmatched personalized service and signature steakhouse selections of primed-aged beef, succulent seafood, shareable sides, decadent desserts and an extensive award-winning wine collection. From the bar to the main dining area, guests can enjoy breathtaking panoramic ocean views.
Morton’s interior incorporates the area’s waterfront offering with floor-to-ceiling windows and stunning waterfront views in an elegant dining room ambiance with black patent crocodile leather booths and decorative glass within tiered light fixtures that reflect off smoked mirror columns.
In Old San Juan is Electric Wok, a new concept that takes fast food to another level. This restaurant provides fast and fresh cuisine in a casual setting. Guests are able to see the food preparation with its open kitchen concept. At Electric Wok you can create your own vision of stir fry using either fresh zucchini noodles or opting to add from its vast selection of succulent fried rice.
Also, Electric Wok prepares fresh flavorful cocktails such as the traditional mojitos and piña coladas however, the house specialty is called ‘Mi San Juan,’ which is made with a combination of fruits, Puerto Rican rum and a touch of agave in combination with edible seasonal flowers. The bar offers tapas, also referred to as bar snacks, that includes tempura wings with savory BBQ guava sauce or mouthwatering tuna tacos made of wonton croutons.
With so many new and exciting establishments with an eccentric mix of tastes, budgets, and influences opening in San Juan’s culinary scene, it no wonder why that diversity is what makes Puerto Rico, the culinary capital of the Caribbean.