While the island of Puerto Rico earned a reputation for delicious but fatty fritters, rice-heavy sides, and exquisitely roasted pork (no culinary tour is complete without a trip to the famous pig-roast stalls of Guavate), there are healthier alternatives on San Juan's menus, thanks to a growing number of chefs cooking with a lighter, more local, and modern touch.
Pictured:Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, home of 1919 restaurant
"What makes this place stick out is that we don't have a deep-fryer," says Peter Schintler, chef/proprietor of the sexy Old San Juan spot Marmalade. "Thirty percent of the menu is made up of vegetables, and we eliminate animal fat or dairy in any stage we can without compromising flavor." As the farmraised lowan points out, his menu is also surprising in the sense that it opens diners' eyes to the fact that the island's bounty is more than just pineapples and plantains, with locally grown hearts of palm, golden beets, arugula, and watercress. When the restaurant opened nine years ago, it was novel for offering a vegetarian tasting menu, featuring small plates meant to be shared tapas-style in the dramatically draped, souk-like dining room.
Diners can expect everything from a nourishing "superfood minestrone," loaded with organic kale, pumpkin, chayote, black quinoa, and local cheese, to a luxurious foie gras with warm blackberry sauce, confit sausage, and toasted brown bread. The No No dessert, a chai-spiced cake with no gluten, no egg, no dairy, no refined sugar, and no GMO ingredients, is good—no kidding.
A haven for pescatarians and vegetarians, Verde Mesa originally opened five years ago as a small lunch spot. It became so popular that it began offering dinner service in 2011. Earlier this year, the restaurant expanded to a larger space with an antique, bric-a-brac interior that feels like a bohemian tearoom.
The menu plays up local ingredients: One of owner Loyda Rosa's missions is to "rescue a bit of Puerto Rico's native diet," focusing on the indigenous fish and roots that sustained the native Taino people. She and chef Gabriel Hernandez sponsor a farmer who grows exclusively for the restaurant. The resulting menu includes daily Caribbean and Gulf catches, such as cobia served with yucca.
An attached deli and shop selling mostly local products—from produce to preserves and honey—will open before the end of the year.
Chef Wilo Benet is often considered one of the godfathers of modern Puerto Rican cuisine, and his restaurant, Pikayo, was among the first to serve refined Puerto Rican fare when it opened in 1990. In modernizing the cuisine, Benet cut out lard--the traditional fat used in most island dishes—in favor of olive and vegetable oils. His menu balances the modern and the authentic with spins on traditional dishes such as lumachine (snailshell) pasta with jueyes, local land crab. Benet also pays tribute to locals' love of snacking with pikadera (small bites such as lobster taquitos with yuzu vinaigrette) and his signature pegao (crunchy rice topped with tuna and a dab of chipotle mayo).
Credit: Photo courtesy of Mercado Agricola Natural
Old San Juan's first organic farmers' market sits within the courtyard of the Museo de San Juan, which, coincidentally, served as the city's main marketplace in the mid-19th century. Every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., more than two dozen vendors proffer the island's riches, from tropical fruits like guanabana (soursop) to fresh flowers to locally made cheese. Catch a cooking demo; enjoy prepared foods, such as root vegetable sancocho and vegetarian empanadas; or pick up some island-grown coffee to take home as a souvenir.