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In San Juan, Eat as the Spanish Do

By Paola Singer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 7, 2008

At first glance, Puerto Rico is the Caribbean version of an all-American place, with such marquee names as Starbucks, Walgreens and Marshalls around every palm-studded corner. But the island's cultural ties to Spain remain strong, especially when it comes to food. San Juan has a good variety of Spanish restaurants, some following new trends in cuisine, others serving traditional dishes rarely found outside the Iberian Peninsula.

El Meson Gallego (Ave. F.D. Roosevelt 1247, 787-781-4450, http://www.elmesongallego.net), in the Puerto Nuevo neighborhood, is known for such specialties as cocido madrileño, a hearty stew made with chickpeas, potatoes, chorizo sausage, beef, veal and pork belly (now served on Sundays only), and for roasted suckling pig and paella, all considered national dishes in Spain. Since it opened in 1972, the restaurant has focused on those time-tested classics; decor was never its forte. That changed in April after a makeover by interior designer Jorge Rossello, who covered walls in stone and cherry wood to give the space a sober elegance. Although the menu now features contemporary dishes -- piquillo peppers stuffed with sherry-roasted lamb, squash soup with manchego cheese -- many patrons keep coming back for the old hits.

"Spanish cuisine is very well liked here," says co-owner Manolo Ceide, an emigre from Galicia, in the northwest of Spain, who arrived in San Juan in the early 1960s. "Spain and Puerto Rico have a great affinity."

Christopher Columbus landed on the island and claimed it for Spain in 1493. The 400-year colonial rule ended in 1898, when the United States took control of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War.

Although immigration from Spain largely ceased in the 20th century, a few Spaniards settled on the island during the 1960s and '70s. Many of them opened restaurants.

Compostela (Ave. Condado 106, 787-724-6099, http://www.bodegascompostela.com), considered one of the best restaurants in the city, was founded in 1982 by Maximino Rey and José Rey (no relation), both from small towns near Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Much as at El Meson, the early menu was old-school: Dishes included suckling pig confit and boneless pork chops with beans. The restaurant quickly became a favorite of the business-lunch set and the city's upper crust. Last year, this revered establishment surprised patrons with a new minimalist decor and a slightly altered name: Bodegas Compostela y Tapas. The new menu focuses on present-day small plates such as snail casserole with shiitake mushrooms and serrano ham, and octopus carpaccio with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

"Spanish food has nothing to do with what it was 25 years ago," Maximino Rey says. "We think something informal has more future, and we want to concentrate on the wines." Compostela's updated list includes such trendy bottles as Dominio de Atauta's Llanos del Almendro, a top Ribera del Duero according to the Guia Peñin (the bible of Spanish wine), and Rafael Palacio's aromatic As Sortes, a godello produced in Valdeorras, Spain, since 2004.

Kasalta (Ave. McLeary 1966, 787-727-7340, http://www.kasalta.com) is another Spanish eatery that has reinvented itself. This panaderia, or bakery, in the Ocean Park area was known for typical pastries such as Majorcan ensaimada (a sweet, fluffy bread) as well as soups and sandwiches. Headed by Galicians Jesús Herbón and Froilán Varela, Kasalta has been a lunchtime meeting point for a variety of customers from surfers to executives for more than 20 years. The renovated space is furnished with modern tan Pedrali chairs and tables, and a sleek stainless-steel counter. As for the food, although sandwiches and sweet nibbles are still offered, as well as a selection of tapas including veal sweetbreads and callos a la madrileña (tripe stew), the new favorites are rich dishes such as cod casserole with chickpeas, or fideuà, a type of paella made with noodles.

One of the oldest Spanish panaderias in town is La Ceiba (Ave. F.D. Roosevelt 1239, 787-782-0419, http://www.laceibapr.com), in business since 1962. At lunchtime, customers rush in to order small plates such as tortilla, chistorras al hojaldre (thin sausages wrapped in puff pastry) and pulpo a la Gallega (octopus garnished with paprika and rock salt), plus sandwiches and pastries.

Fans of Spanish-style seafood head to Miró (Ave. Ashford 1214, 787-723-9593), in the Condado neighborhood, which looks to Spain's Catalonia region for inspiration. A popular starter is the cod croquette; the entrees vary depending on the day's catch and usually are served with a side of piquillo pepper marmalade. The restaurant's brightly colored walls are a nod to Catalan artist Joan Miró.

"Puerto Rico broke ties to Spain much later than other colonies," says José Luis Díaz de Villegas, a local food critic and author of "Puerto Rico: The Grand Cuisine of the Caribbean." "There's a bond that lingers."

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