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Puerto Rico Food Highlights

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Puerto Rico Food Highlights

Andrew Arnold | Mar 9, 2004 04:44 PM

This board was very helpful in providing tips on where to eat during my recent vaca in Puerto Rico. I thought I might return the favor by adding my 2 cents on the various places my girlfriend and I ate.

We flew into San Juan and immediately left for the northwest coast beachside town of Isabella. Along the way (Rt. 2) we picked up some ROADSIDE BANNANAS that were delicious -- 50 cents for two pounds. We stayed in Isabella at the OCEAN FRONT BEACH HOTEL, which has the most attractive restaurant on the beach, and excellent food. Tops was the Mahi Mahi ceviche, cured in coconut and limejuice making the fish's texture like butter, with a delectable sweet and sour flavor. A few days later we ate at the resto located at the nearby VILLAS DEL MAR HAU resort and it was terrible. Way overcooked grilled lobster for $30. Do not eat there. Breakfast in the area is tough. You will be forced to find a nearby bakery, AKA panaderia, of which we found none that were more than adequate. Load up on fruits before you show up.

While staying in Isabella we took several day trips into the surrounding area. Central P.R. is rather uncharted territory, food wise, so most choices were made spontaneously. We ate at various ROADSIDE LUNCH STANDS, which are very tasty. Lunch is early there, 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM, so don't wait too long. One must-visit is the HELLADERIA in Lares. Hellado is the P.R. version of ice cream, but closer to gellato. The one in Lares, located in the town square (just ask anyone around where the helladeria is and get ready to spend some time looking for parking on the hilly streets), is famous in the area. They are known for crazy flavors, including chicken and rice, dirt, and on the day we were there, garlic (ajo). More tasty choices include corn, pumpkin, and many tropical fruits. If your timing is right you should try and get to the AGRICULTURAL MARKET in San Sebastian on Fridays from 10:00 AM to about 6:00 PM. It's a pretty large affair, with livestock, clothes, gadgets and fruits. Food is also available. I got a pint of homemade vinegar suffused with garlic and chilies -- a popular condiment. Also I had a glass of cane juice where they put the sugar cane through something like an old-fashioned clothes wringer to press out the juice. Very sweet, with earthy undertones.

We returned to San Juan for our last two days. We stayed at the HOSTERIA DEL MAR, in Ocean Park, a gated suburb of S.J. The hotel resto, located right on the beach, was a delight to sit in. It was rather pricey ($50 for lunch for two) but the food was generally quite good. To our relief they have a selection of excellent salads, something that P.R. cooking generally lacks. The mahi mahi wrap was delish, but the so-called FouFou -- plantain chips with a blackbean/plantain dip -- was quickly tiresome. Half the price and only three blocks away, REPOSTERIA KASSALTA on Ave. McLeary, should not be missed. Bright and clean with mouthwatering pastry displays, this was the best café we ate in. Try any of their pressed sandwiches, like the media noche, the P.R. version of the cubano: ham and pulled pork smothered in melted swiss with mustard and pickles, it is pressed between two halves of a yellow, slightly sweet bread. This was also where we had the best café con leche (coffee with hot milk) on the trip. Rich like cocoa, we had to have seconds! We also tried their mallorca, a sweet, twirled bun with powdered sugar on top, but it was not as tasty as the ones at LA BONBONERA, a famous café in Old San Juan. There they cut them laterally, smear butter inside and hot-press them down to a crispy wafer. Heavenly. Our "splurge" dinner was at OSTRA COSA, a seafood resto in Old San Juan that got positive reviews in all our books. The setting, al fresco in a quiet courtyard, is lovely, but ask for the bug spray they keep at the bar. The gregarious owner gives you very personal service, sitting down at each table and asking what seafood you like. Then he decides what you will eat, with the caveat that you can reject anything for any reason. The appetizers were tops -- fresh anchovy fillets in a vinaigrette and smoked calamari with seaweed. The main dishes were disappointing, however. The salmon in mustard/white wine sauce was sent back due to overcooking. The grilled prawns were better (they come with a detailed lesson in how to eat them from the owner) but were also overdone. (Is overcooking endemic to P.R. cuisine?) If you eat here, insist on nothing but appetizers. By far the best restaurant we ate in was MI CASITA BLANCA, on Calle Tapia. Mentioned elsewhere on this message board, they specialize in regional cooking. Aromatic and homey, it was a true respite on Sunday afternoon, when they serve an all-you-can-eat buffet. We packed away salted cod with eggplant, beef stew, corned beef ground up with spices, a kind-of P.R. shepard's pie with mashed potato on top of meat, and rotisserie chicken. All of it excellent and reasonable priced.

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