Flavors of Puerto Rico sizzle at the island's top restaurants
During my first visit to Puerto Rico several years ago, I spent lots of time exploring the island in search of its best cheap eats, seeking out those food trucks and roadside stands I’d heard so much about that served up an authentic taste of the islands.
Fried plantains, mofongo, street tacos, fresh seafood. It was all good and I couldn’t get enough.
But on a return trip last week – almost four years after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, killing nearly 3,000 people in the worst natural disaster on U.S. soil in 100 years – I wanted to see how the island’s upscale food scene weathered the storm.
I knew the food trucks and stands would be back, but what about some of the island’s famed resorts, four-star restaurants and James Beard winners?
How had they fared after the devastation of a deadly hurricane in 2017, followed by the extended effects of the COVID pandemic in 2020.
Talk about your one-two punch.
After scoping out expert reviews and online recommendations, I decided to splurge at two upscale hot spots that just happened to both be within a 10-minute walk of my beachfront hotel in Condado.
One evening, I strolled a few blocks east to Paulina Escanes Gourmandize, a Puerto Rican farm-to-table restaurant and bakery where Escanes says she likes to “cook like at home … like my mother does.”
I started with the chef’s signature appetizer, a dreamy custard-like elote (grilled Mexican street corn) souffle with cheese and charred poblano chiles, topped with sour cream and tomatoes. I followed with a platter of fresh roasted vegetables topped with pumpkin seed pistou, olive oil and fresh herbs, then a perfectly cooked mid-rare flank steak.
The highlight of this meal, however, was definitely how it started (with a cocktail made from rye whiskey, apricot liqueur, agave, orange bitters and rosemary syrup in a rosemary-smoked coupe glass) and how it finished (with a soft brioche European white chocolate bread pudding spiked with salted caramel).
Still on a food high from the night before, I started the next morning with Puerto Rican coffee and pastries (YUM!) before walking a mile or so west later that afternoon for a combined lunch and dinner at Jose Enrique.
Named after the celebrated hometown chef – a multiple James Beard Award nominee and previous “Best New Chef” in American honoree by Food + Wine magazine – this Puerto Rican brasserie has also been named among the “Top 30 Best Restaurants in the World” by Food + Wine and one of the “Best Restaurants of the Decade” by Esquire.
And here I was, stepping right inside.
A place whose popularity speaks for itself, I walked by the restaurant three times before realizing where it was, because there was not a single sign, name, logo or anything identifying it as a restaurant – much less one of the area’s most sought-after.
Featuring a single-page menu that changes often, Jose Enrique in Puerto Rico features a handful of appetizers, salads, entrees and sides rooted in the chef’s local upbringing and influenced by the flavors of the island.
Here, I started with the best, most perfectly simple margarita I’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping, along with a small plate of Huevos Rellenos. Simple deviled eggs at first glance, these were filled with the most unctuous, pillowy, tangy cream, which I paired with a plate of smoked pork skewers that were tender, juicy and drizzled with a creamy piquant sauce to balance their saltiness.
Next came the restaurant’s signature snack, a small stack of traditional tostones, which are twice-fried slices of plaintain that are helplessly addictive.
“It’s like our bread basket,” one waitress laughed while explaining them to me. “You won’t be able to stop eating them.”
She nailed that description.
I would’ve been totally satisfied ending the meal there, but that’s not what I signed up for. Duty called.
I debated a selection of fresh seafood, but opted for a phenomenal grass-fed filet marinated in vinegar and garlic, topped with stewed onions and served with a heaping mound of Mamposteao rice, a traditional rice and beans dish flecked with bacon, peppers, onions and a cacophony of spices.
Jose Enrique’s interpretation was to cook it more line a paella to create a crunchy top layer covering the moist rice and beans below. It wasn’t a liquid stew, by any means, but not a “dry” rice dish either.
Photos and words simply can’t do it justice, but I will be haunted by how incredible this dish was for many years to come. And the fact that it transported me straight to a Puerto Rican family dinner table (in my mind anyway) made it all the more memorable.
There was a selection of incredible-sounding desserts – a flourless chocolate torte with hazelnut crema, for one, and stewed apricots swimming in syrup and fresh cream – but I just couldn’t.
That will haunt me for a long time as well, but there was just no room left after two days of incredible feasting.
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Finally, here’s one closing thought on Puerto Rico that has little to do with the food I ate there, but was touching nonetheless.
When we landed at the airport in San Juan, more than half of the people on our very large plane erupted in applause. Not because it was a rough flight or a bumpy landing, but it happened right after the pilot announced, “Welcome to Puerto Rico!”
Not only has this magical place bounced back after being knocked down so many times, but it’s also one of the most authentic places I’ve ever been. It’s beautiful and alluring, but also very raw and real. The people of Puerto Rico have a pride in their homeland that is both infectious and inspiring.
After two visits here, I feel it myself.
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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at email@example.com.