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.
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.
At first, just getting good ingredients was a challenge. Puerto Rican agriculture has been in decline for years as workers have fled the countryside for manufacturing or service jobs, and as cheaper imports have flooded the island. Rosa says that those farmers who remained were far from San Juan and reluctant to deliver the eggplant and zucchini she needed. But that has changed, thanks to demand from people like her, as well as a couple of farmers markets and vendors such as Rodriguez.
“What I have noticed is that there is a very, very strong commitment, and it’s a new wave of farmers,” she said in an interview at her restaurant. “It’s a different farmer than in the old decades, who were just country men. Now it’s a lot of young professionals, agronomists, and many of them do have some degrees, and they’re growing food with a different mindset.”
Her restaurant’s philosophy is to offer interesting, organic and local vegetarian cuisine, but to do it in a subtle way. She describes it as being more like an invitation to try something rather than preaching to customers about what to eat. For those who want more than just vegetables, she prepares fish as well as creamy fruit shakes made with almond milk.
Experts in the island’s restaurant scene have a pretty short list of favorites, with many names appearing again and again. They include Abracadabra Counter Cafe, which opened in 2010 on the long and busy Ponce de Leon Avenue and features wraps and fresh juices, along with live music at night and events for kids.
Pure and Natural has been around for several years, offering healthy Caribbean food and fruit shakes. It’s on Ashford Avenue, in the heart of the touristy Condado, but it’s easy to miss the storefront amid the surrounding fast-food joints.
Also among the favorites is Bodega Chic, a blend of French-Algerian and Caribbean cuisine; its dimly lit spot is just up the cobblestone street from the cathedral in Old San Juan.
Outside the old city, there is La Jaquita Baya, serving tapas such as small fish tacos and bok choy as well as more traditional Creole dishes. There is also Pikayo, which for many years was inside the Puerto Rico Museum of Art but has moved to the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel. It’s considered another of the more ambitious restaurants; chef Wilo Benet has a book on Puerto Rican cuisine and a TV show.
Outside San Juan, the choices are much narrower. On Vieques, the former U.S. Navy bombing range that now attracts thousands of visitors each year to some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, there’s a restaurant called Next Course, which serves appetizers such as yellowfin tuna tartare with tempura avocado and yucca chips and, for a main course, butter-poached Caribbean lobster with white-truffle-scented crab risotto.
Over on the west coast, there’s the surfer town of Rincon, where Copa Llena offers up green papaya salad and grilled octopus on a bed of white beans with incredible flavors and freshness.
Rodriguez got into the restaurant business as an afterthought. She returned to her native Puerto Rico from New York in 2008 to help her mother, who had left a San Juan retail career to become an organic farmer. Rodriguez started to help her mother promote and sell their fresh produce. At first, she was dismayed.
“How am I supposed to sell organic produce if Puerto Ricans don’t know what dill is, they don’t know what tarragon is,” the 29-year-old said.
Later, she started El Departamento de la Comida — an ironic name meant to highlight the fact that she feels the Puerto Rican government doesn’t do enough to promote healthy eating — which has no waitstaff and offers a select menu of tapas for lunch. Regulars track it on Facebook to find out what’s on the menu each day.
Rodriguez says that she has started to get a few tourists, and she plans to double the size of the kitchen with some grants she has received.
“We realized that there was a huge, huge world that could get opened by just cooking this food,” she said. “And the conversation is amazing, because you don’t serve rice and beans anymore.”
Fox is a freelance writer living in San Juan, Puerto Rico.