Fresh local fruitsand vegetablesare becoming abigger feature onrestaurantmenus. (Stacey Hocheiser /STACEY…)
It seems like an unlikely place to go for a salad: a warehouse in the middle of car repair shops on a San Juan side street, where few tourists venture.
But this warehouse is the home of El Departamento de la Comida — the Department of Food — an organic produce vendor that doubles as a restaurant serving dishes such as rice pilaf with squash and tortilla española with plantains and cilantro. It fills at lunchtime with people looking for what constitutes rare food in the Puerto Rican capital.
Healthy fare is plentiful in most major U.S. cities. But it’s still hard to come by in Puerto Rico, where the majority of restaurants still serve the familiar staples of rice, beans, fried plantains and some kind of meat, usually chicken or pork, often fried and sometimes on a stick. Vegetables, if they even make it to the plate, are also often fried and may come from Costco.
Details: Puerto Rico
But things are definitely changing in the U.S. island territory. Puerto Rico has been undergoing something of a restaurant renaissance, with a handful of eateries adopting elements of the local food movement that has flourished on the mainland.
“In terms of the food scene, things have gotten much, much better. People are starting to catch on,” said Tara Rodriguez, who started El Departamento de la Comida just over two years ago, initially to deliver organic produce to people’s homes. “We’re about 10, 15, 20 years behind everybody else in some things.”
Fortunately, the best new places are not as out-of-the-way as her warehouse in Santurce. But they’re not exactly easy to find, either. A popular San Juan restaurant called Jose Enrique, which specializes in big plates of fish suffused with tropical flavors, has no sign in front of the residential space it occupies a block from the Plaza Mercado farmers market; Verde Mesa, a vegetarian restaurant, is on a quiet back street of colonial Old San Juan; Abracadabra, a lively cafe, is in a neighborhood that hasn’t quite lost its sketchiness despite several new apartment buildings and shops.
One thing that these and several other relatively new entrants into the market have in common is a more sophisticated approach to the island’s cuisine, said Giovanna Huyke, executive chef at Mio restaurant in Washington and the author of two books on Puerto Rican food culture.
For many years, chefs on the island were either European or at least trained in that style, and their cooking reflected it, Huyke said. This started to change in the 1980s, as a younger generation emerged and incorporated flavors of home such as sofrito, a mix of onions, cubanella and sweet chile peppers, a cilantro variety known as ricao, and garlic, as well as some of the island’s traditional fruits and vegetables, including yuca, malanga, yautia, apio, batatas and breadfruit.
“Puerto Rican kids started to look at cooking as a profession in the 1990s,” she said. “We have more professional chefs now who embrace and are proud of our culture and our history of food.”
Among those who embody this trend is Jose Enrique, whose namesake restaurant near San Juan’s main farmers market is packed most nights and doesn’t take reservations. The menu changes frequently, depending on what’s available, but includes such dishes as carne guisada or whole snapper served with a papaya and avocado salsa.
Puerto Rico, with a population of about 4 million, has more than 7,000 restaurants, including many of the chains found on the U.S. mainland. The island has only recently emerged from a six-year recession that saw lots of eateries go under, including many in tourist zones such as Old San Juan, Condado and Isla Verde.
Tourism is important to the island economy, though it contributes much less to the GDP than manufacturing, and local officials are trying to promote Puerto Rico as a foodie destination.
For the past five years, the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association has organized an annual food festival called Saborea at Escambron, a beach between Old San Juan and Condado. The event, on April 6-7 this year, will feature the work of chefs from 60 restaurants. It drew nearly 8,000 people last year.
The dishes one finds in Saborea have evolved over time, along with the local restaurant scene, says Clarisa Jimenez, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association. Though there are still plenty of old standbys, including the fritters stuffed with ground meat known as alcapurrias, there are chefs displaying more sophisticated dishes. “Cuisine has more importance now, more relevance,” Jimenez said.
Few local restaurants, and perhaps none, have embraced the farm-to-table ethos to the extent of Verde Mesa, which overlooks San Juan Bay and the city’s cruise ship port.
Founder Loyda Rosa became a vegetarian 20 years ago and realized just how hard that was to maintain in Puerto Rico. She eventually developed enough expertise to open the restaurant just a little more than four years ago.