Puerto Rican Fare Worth Relishing

<i> Muller is a free-lance writer/photographer living in Pittsburgh. </i>

A visit to Puerto Rico’s fast food outlets--and we’re not talking franchises here--instantly immerses you in the island’s culture. At colorful kioskos, small stands perched on the edge of narrow mountain roads or lining golden beaches, you’ll taste local specialties most tourists miss and meet pleasant people on their own turf.

The kioskos are mom and pop enterprises, often enlisting the help of grandparents and all the kids. They seem to be run as social events as well as businesses. An easy drive from San Juan are the food stands at Boca de Congyejos on Route 187, just east of the city limits, and los kioskos del Luquillo, the food mecca at Puerto Rico’s most popular public beach 20 miles east.

Specializing in traditional Puerto Rican fare, these snack bars are open to the street on one side and the beach on the other. They contain a few tables flanked by a counter, and have names like “La Fabulosa” and “Teresa’s Place.” Weekends are the time to visit when all the kiosks are open to serve thousands of swimmers at calm, mile-long Luquillo Beach.

But if you have a fear of frying, better eat someplace else. All manner of seafood and local specialties such as crispy plantain and sweet potato are deep fried in big kettles of bubbling fat.


Empanadillas, which are called “tacos” at Luquillo, encase fish, land crab or meat in dough the size and shape of a banana and cost about $1.50. Codfish from Newfoundland finds its way into delicious, mild bacalao fritters for 40 cents. Don’t be dismayed if some food looks orange. It’s colored and flavored by annatto seed, a local seasoning. Cocos frios, chilled and topped coconuts to sip with a straw, cost 65 cents. Rum is extra, of course.

Great land crabs, jueyes, are the real treat at Luquillo. The blue-gray creatures are captured at night when they venture from their holes in sugar cane fields and coconut groves, and are delivered to the kiosks live. For a few days in captivity they’re fed grain or corn meal to enhance their flavor.

In San Juan, authentic Puerto Rican fare can be had at the 2O-table Ajili-Mojili Restaurant in the Hotel Condado Lagoon. With white walls covered by contemporary art, it’s a mecca for young professionals and their families.

We tried outstanding black bean soup and shared an appetizer, pastelillos of fish and meat, which was a $9 delight. The menu of the day had no prices and it was something of a chore to extract them from the waiter, but most entrees seemed to cost about $15.

Roast leg of lamb, cabrito (baby goat) fricassee, arroz con pollo, stewed guinea hen and rabbit with mango appeared. Lamb and cabrito were excellent. The wine list features French, Spanish, Australian and California wines starting at $15.

At Restaurant Tita, a few blocks from the beach in Santurce, prices are less, with 14 Puerto Rican specialties like tasajo, jerked beef with rice and yucca, for $7.50. Mofongo, a mix of plantains and potatoes, is offered stuffed with shrimp for $11. Also featured is chillo (red snapper), filleted or whole.

In Condado, the elegant Reina de Espana serves the freshest ingredients, Spanish style. In Spanish, the menu explains that chef Jesus Ramiro regards his cocina, or kitchen, as a divine temple where he cooks heavenly food for his friends. Service was faultless and beautifully arranged food was presented on pale green Villeroy & Bach china. Dorado with sea urchin sauce was memorable, as was striped bass with black olive sauce, both at $19.95.

If you’re shopping in Old San Juan, note the store at 104 Fortaleza, marked with a plaque commemorating the creation of the pina colada in 1963. Head one block down the hill to 152 where Butterfly People serves a nice lunch among butterflies and flowers.

The balcony restaurant, in a beautiful l8th-Century building, displays cases of brilliant butterflies. In the exotic white dining room tented with green and blue batiks, service is pleasant, background music is Baroque and lunch specials like salmon mousse with creamy dill garlic sauce are about $7. Huge, fresh sandwiches on homemade bread start at $5.

Old San Juan’s La Mallorquina, established in 1848, claims to be the oldest restaurant in Puerto Rico. But the evening we dined bumbling waiters seem to have started yesterday. The place looks the way a Caribbean landmark should with soft pink and white decor, antique l2-foot mirrors and spotless tablecloths. Specialties like asopao (a soupy rice dish with chicken or seafood) and Paella Valeciana were very good, as were red snapper with capers and garlic soup. Entrees run $9.95 to $15.95.

The only time I really hate to eat alone is when I’m dining with others. At La Mallorquina, three of us were served separately, courses mixed up with beverages arriving an hour after we ordered them. The standard reply was “Yes, yes, coming right up,” no matter what we requested, while basics--like beans and spoons--never arrived. Maybe Monday is an off night.

At La Zaragozana, another Old San Juan standby, the food didn’t measure up to the service. The whole red snapper at $21.95 would not yield to a knife, which bounced away from the rubbery flesh. But the menu is ambitious, offering everything from Puerto Rican specialties though Shiskebab Beirut to Long Island Duckling a l’Orange. Affable mariachis wander through La Zaragozana and it’s a pleasant restaurant we’d try again.

A handy place to pick up mainland newspapers in San Juan is the Kasalta Bakery in Santurce just a couple blocks from the Ocean Park beaches. It’s also a good place to have roast pig, a Puerto Rican specialty, on weekends. The half-block-long, black and white tiled establishment serves delicious sandwiches on crusty rolls for $3.25, as well as deli items and tempting pastries.

A $5 taxi ride from Condado on the Ocean Park side of Isla Verde, is Che’s. A popular Argentine hangout for families, Che’s specializes in meat, such as Parillada Argentina, a mixed grill with sausages, steak, chops and sweetbreads that can feed four for $25.90. Chimichurri sauce of garlic, parsley, oregano and vinegar served on the side is delectable.

Out on the island it’s easy to find Puerto Rican food in clean, popular restaurants on well-traveled roads, but we overshot El Indio on a winding mountain road near the Caguana Indian Memorial Park, about 50 miles southwest of San Juan.

The owner-chef stated the menu: “Pizza, meat loaf, pizza, pork chops and um . . . today, pizza!” After deducing the specialty was pizza we ordered a big one with green peppers and pepperoni. It was wonderful baked in a gas oven and served in a jungle setting on a patio filled with laminated wood furniture straight out of an office. Don’t make a special trip, but if you’re in the vicinity, El Indio is worth a stop.

The following restaurants are recommended:

The kiosks at Luquillo Beach serve Puerto Rican snacks and full meals. These 60 or so small restaurants parallel Highway 3 east of San Juan. They’re closed Monday (as is the beach) and hit their full stride on weekends.

Ajili-Mojili specializes in Puerto Rican food at the corner of Joffre and Clemenceau in the Hotel Condado Lagoon in Condado. Lunch and dinner, closed Monday; (809) 725-9195.

Restaurant Tita (Puerto Rican) is in Santurce at 103 San Jorge. Lunch and dinner 7 days; (809) 722-7828.

Reina de Espana serves Spanish and Puerto Rican food at 1006 Magdalena in Condado. Dinner 7 days, lunch Sunday-Friday; (809) 721-9049.

Butterfly People, 152 Fortaleza in Old San Juan, is open only for lunch. The menu is eclectic; (809) 723-2432.

La Zaragozana is in Old San Juan at 356 San Francisco. The menu has something for everyone. Lunch and dinner every day; (809) 723-5103.

Che’s in Isla Verde specializes in Argentine grills at 35 Caoba, Puntas Las Marias. Lunch and dinner every day; (809) 726-7202.

Kasalta Bakery, 1966 McLeary in Santurce, serves sandwiches, deli items and desserts. Open all night; (809) 727-7340.

El Indio, near Utuado (south of Aeeibo) on Highway 111 specializes in pizza. Closed Monday; (809) 894-7586.