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How to eat your way around San Juan

The piña colada was invented in San Juan; you’ll probably sample one while you’re here. And they don’t need the rum — this one at Solera at La Concha Resort is the virgin variety.Diane Bair

SAN JUAN — Mofongo. Quesitos. Alcapurrias. Bacalaitos. Traditional Puerto Rico dishes and street foods are fun to pronounce, and even better to eat. But as a tourist in San Juan, it’s easy to overlook them, given the bounty of dining options available. Here, a yakitori spot; there, a Peruvian place; next door, chicken and waffles. The city is a vibrant foodie destination, packed with restaurants and bars, and food-and-entertainment enclaves such as Distrito T-Mobile.

“You will never hear people complain about the food on this island,” says Luz Gonzalez, sales and marketing director of La Concha Resort. Currently trending — besides Bad Bunny, who was in town during our visit: local, independent restaurants. “They are experiencing a boom right now,” Gonzalez says.

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Our goal: to sample the essential eats in this food-forward city. With only three days to accomplish that, we cheated, hopping onto the Old San Juan Walk & Taste Tour (www.thespoonexperience.com; $129.) “We support local, independently-owned restaurants in San Juan that reflect our Taíno Indian, African, and Spanish heritage,” said our guide, Lorna Zayas, who led us on a merry, Don Q Rum-filled ramble of colorful, lively Old San Juan, seasoned with a sprinkling of history.

On a food tour (with rum and popsicles)

Besides revealing tucked-away restaurants and bars you wouldn’t discover on your own, this three-hour tour is a good way to get the lay of the land. The itinerary focused on the Old San Juan Historic District, the capital city’s historic core.

Our first stop: Rincon Iberico (787-725-5936), for sangria and mofongo. “You can find mofongo in any Puerto Rican restaurant,” Zayas said, but this place gives the traditional recipe a tweak: Instead of using mashed green plantains, they prepare it with boiled yucca, topped with chicken and cilantro. Delicious.

We looked forward to sampling Puerto Rico’s national dish, arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). The secret to elevating this simple preparation: sofrito, typically a blend of green peppers, onion, garlic, sweet Caribbean peppers, and cilantro. “It is sofrito that adds the magic,” Zayas said. You can buy sofrito mixes in the supermarket, but fresh seasoning is the way to go, she says. “Everyone makes it differently, and you can use it in any savory dish.” YouTube videos are a great sauce for tutorials, she added. Note that sofrito isn’t fiery. “In Puerto Rico, we love seasoned and flavorful foods, but we do not love spicy food.”

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Any good food tour has a chocolate component — this one featured a visit to family-owned Chocolate Cortés, home of this chocolate martini.Diane Bair

We stopped alongside El Morro, San Juan’s famous fort, and watched local families fly kites on its sloping lawn while Zayas shared more local history. Once enclosed by 3 miles of walls (some remnants still exist), “Old San Juan is considered one of the best-preserved Spanish-Colonial cities in the Americas,” our guide noted.

Stepping along San Juan’s blue cobblestone streets, we entered tiny La Taberna Lúpulo (www.latabernalupulo.com ) for a “Beermosa” and a Cubano sandwich. What’s a beermosa? A blend of Don Q passionfruit rum, passionfruit juice, and Mambo beer, a local craft brew. But the sandwich was the star, layers of ham, pork, and pickles, slathered with mustard on toasted bread. “We eat Cubanos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Zayas said. Pork is the protein of choice in Puerto Rico. “Pigs are not endemic to the island, but they have no natural predators here, so the animals quickly multiplied,” she said, making pork a reliable foodstuff.

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The passionfruit ceviche we sampled during the food tour was a welcome light bite, served at the Consular Restaurant.Diane Bair

There’s no sign on the door at 148 Calle de San Sebastián, and the paint is peeling on its exterior, which belies La Factoria’s reputation as one of the best bars in the world. It has been named the best bar in the Caribbean, and the 12th best bar in North America. We slipped inside the dark watering hole, where secret passages lead to six bars-within-a-bar, feeling very insider-ish.

Next up: Chocolate Cortés (www.chocobarcortes.com), established by a family-owned bean-to-bar chocolate company, now in its fourth generation. Everything on the menu is infused with chocolate. Along with our chocolate martini, we sampled pionono crujiente, sweet plantain fritters filled with bacon, tapenade, spices, and chocolate-hazelnut cream. This mixture sounds odd, yes, but it works.

For mofongo, everyone loves Restaurante Raices in Old San Juan. They serve several versions, and, for variety, fried chicken and a really good garlicky shrimp dish with fried plantains (shown here).Diane Bair

So, we’d knocked a few dishes off our list, and the tour wasn’t even finished — we still had two stops left. At the Consular Restaurant (www.palacioprovincial.com) within the Palacio Provincial hotel, we sampled a watermelon mojito and passionfruit ceviche with taro root chips, a nod to Peru. That might’ve been dessert — but no. We stopped for fruity, frozen treats called paletas at Señor Paleta (www.paletashop.com.)

On your own — tasty food finds

We’d heard good things about 1919 at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel (www.condadovanderbilt.com), where Michelin-starred Chef Juan Jose Cuevas gives farm-to-table cuisine a Puerto Rican twist. The hotel itself feels like vintage Miami (in fact, “anytime filmmakers want ‘Olde Miami,’ they come to San Juan,” Luz Gonzalez said.) The food at 1919 did not disappoint. Highlights of our splurge-y four-course meal ($169 per person) included local dorado (mahi-mahi) with spring peas, organic mushrooms and ramps in a mustard-tinged sauce, and a brioche pudding with caramel rum. The service was so attentive, we felt like royalty, or at least the Hollywood kind, who are often spotted here.

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Everyone we asked recommended Restaurante Raices in Old San Juan (787-289-2121) for Puerto Rican fare. The waitstaff wears traditional dress in this colorful space as they serve up bacalaitos (fried cod), asopao de gandules (pigeon pea soup), and sorullitos de maiz (fried corn meal sticks.) The menu features seven versions of mofongo relleno (stuffed mofongo), along with chicharrones de pollo, a dish on our “must eat” list — fried chicken chunks, marinated in spices. We could’ve used more spice. But if you love fried food, you’ll be in culinary heaven here.

There are salads — and then there’s this architectural creation at 1919, helmed by a Michelin-starred chef, Juan Jose Cuevas.Diane Bair

We couldn’t wait to try SOCIAL, the buzzed-about eatery at the Condado Ocean Club hotel. The roasted tomato soup with truffle grilled cheese was a tasty take on a childhood favorite. Sticking with our theme, we ordered the most traditional Puerto Rican item on the menu, bacalao croquettes (salted cod, deep-fried.) Surprise: The filling is a creamy cod mousseline, not the flaky fish we expected. “It’s like fish-flavored cream cheese in there,” our companion declared. Dipping them into garlic aioli helped. A mixed green salad with pear confit was a welcome palate cleanser. And since we only picked at our entrée, we ordered dessert, a tropical fruit-filled bread pudding that earned our “best bite of the week” award.

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Did we try every Puerto Rican specialty on our list? No, but we gave it a good try. We even brought some takeout fare for our flight: stuffed sandwiches from Pannes (www.facebook.com/PannesCondado/). And it was Tuesday — two-for-one sandwich day! We’re not sure which meats and vegetables lurked inside this fat, delicious sandwich, but we do know that everyone in Row 15 on Delta flight #1780 was jealous.

Things to eat and drink — a cheat sheet

Here’s a list of some local foods to try when you visit San Juan: mofongo (mashed green plantains filled with vegetables and/or some type of protein); alcapurrias (green banana fritters); pastelón (a layered dish with plantains, ground beef, and cheese); chicharrones de pollo (fried chicken seasoned with garlic, achiote, and oregano); lechón (suckling pig, typically roasted over a wood or coal fire); serenata de bacalao (salted cod salad, often with potatoes, eggs, and capers); chillo frito (fried snapper, often served whole); and arañitas (shredded, fried green plantain strips.)

To drink: That’s easy — the piña colada was invented here. The official drink of Puerto Rico, this cocktail was first poured by bartender Ramón “Monchito” Marrero at the Caribe Hilton hotel (www.caribehilton.com) in 1954. This blend of rum, Coco Lopez coconut cream, and pineapple juice is a festive taste of the tropics.

For the airport, this sandwich from Pannes will be the envy of everyone aboard: The tripleta features three kinds of meat, grilled steak, lechon pork, and ham.Diane Bair

Side note: Some San Juan intel

Direct flights to San Juan from Boston are priced at their lowest from May to November. You won’t need a car if you’re staying in San Juan; Ubers are efficient and inexpensive (the ride to Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to the Condado district (waterfront hotels) was around $15. Heading to El Yunque National Rainforest? It’s a 45-minute or so drive from San Juan; you’ll need a car for that (or to book an excursion) since Ubers aren’t allowed there.

If you’re doing a food-centric trip, pick a hotel with good dining options, in case you don’t feel like going out every night. The 478-room beachfront La Concha Resort (www.laconcharesort.com; from $319; resort fee $65) offers a hip Latin vibe and ocean-view guest rooms. Opened in 1958, this one has a “tropical modern” design and a fun poolside scene (three pools), with good food throughout. Our favorite among the six restaurants was Solera, an open-air, multi-level poolside eatery. (We could eat that ahi tuna sandwich, topped with spicy salad and sprouts, every single day.) La Concha draws a youngish crowd, with fashion pop-ups, mixology classes, and the like. (Psst: A new restaurant with a big-name chef is set to open next year in the resort’s iconic seashell-shaped building. Renovations to the pool areas and other spaces are also slated.)

Prefer a boutique hotel? The Condado Ocean Club (www.condadooceanclub.com; from $359), offers 96 rooms and a popular infinity pool, with a pool bar that stays open till midnight. Take advantage of that, and you’ll be happy to encounter DETOX, their coffee-and-juice bar with wellness-boosting pressed juice and detox shots. SOCIAL, the bistro mentioned earlier, offers a globally inspired menu featuring shareable dishes.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com