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Can Puerto Rican Food Actually Save Your Life?

By Natalia de Cuba Romero

April 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

All photos by: Pedro de Cuba
Photos taken at Restaurant La Familia in Mayaguez.


A couple of weeks ago I took you to some of my favorite fondas in the San Juan area. I ate big, fat, tasty, Criollo food and loved every minute of it.

However, you can’t do that everyday and expect to live a long and healthy life or keep that great body you got for free as a teenager and have to work so hard for now. So in the interest of balance — and in a flurry of contrition — I went in search of healthier dining options with great taste. Believe it or not — you can eat healthy on the Island of Enlardment. Just follow me.

Prana (787-726-6789), at 272 San Jorge Street in Santurce, opened less than three months ago. Open from 7 am to 5 pm Monday through Saturday, this is a godsend for office workers on Ponce de León and thereabouts, because you can eat in or call ahead for pick up.

What’s to like? Everything. The atmosphere is modern yet warm. Buffed stainless steel tables look clean, but not clinical. And the food is terrific.

Pictured: Chef Gladys of Restaurant La Familia in Mayaguez.

Chef Ariel Tomey is a specialist in "naturismo tropical", which sounds like something you do naked, but is not. It is a lifestyle based on the work of Dr. Keshava Bhat, a health guru from India, and focuses on eating local organic produce in season and eliminating toxins like caffeine, tomatoes, chocolate, eggs and even onions and garlic from the diet. Sounds terrible, right? Wrong. The smells from the kitchen are gorgeous and deliver on their promise. I had a delicious garbanzo soup and an eggplant sandwich in pita and I was well satisfied both in portion and taste. The regular menu includes a daily pastelón of mashed ripe plantains, potato, yuca, chickpeas or green plantains, grains, brown rice, lasagna, hummus and more. Then there are extensive daily specials, including pastas and sandwiches. Most entrees are well under $8.

The other new veggie restaurant on the map is really a surprise. Accustomed to health food luncheonettes, I didn’t expect a real restaurant with tablecloths, napkins, silverware and evening hours. But Pura Vida Café Restaurante Vegetariano (787-726-4168) at the Dolce Vita Center at 1764 Ponce de León, Stop 25, which opened eight months ago is just that real restaurant. Open Monday through Thursday 12 pm — 3 pm and Sundays 12 pm — 5 pm, on Fridays and Saturdays the hours are noon to 9 pm. And praise be to the Our Lady of the Perpetual Vegetables, there is parking. So now the natural set has a cool place for dinner that even their most carnivorous friends will enjoy.

Not only is the setting — hip colors of avocado, mustard and brick — grown up, the menu is varied. Eggplant a la milanesa, sancocho (stew) of root vegetables, veggie burritos and pizza are among the favorites. There is also a wide selection of soy products filling in for meat. I’m wary of veggie salmon, but Jonathon "Tony" Paulino, who cooks with his mom — chef owner Alma Paulino -- assures me that it is a favorite. You can have wine or beer with your dinner and there’s live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Try the maví de piña. Based on the fermented bark drink so popular here, it’s a sweet-tart pineapple drink.

The breads and cakes are made in-house without eggs or butter. Look for fruit shakes and desserts with almond milk. Entrees range from $6 to $9.

I took a trip to an old favorite — Salud Health Food Store (787-722-0911) at 1350 Ashford Avenue in Condado. The small cafeteria in the back is open from 8.30 am — 5 pm, and the food is consistently tasty and filling. Salud does offer tuna sandwiches and salads as well as bacalao (salt cod) on Fridays. Their lentil soup is a real restorative as are the fruit and vegetable smoothies.

It also bears repeating that Hostería del Mar (787-727-3302) at 1 Tapia Street in Ocean Park offers vegetarian and ayurvedic dishes daily.

Pictured: Sights, Sounds and Tastes columnist
Natalia de Cuba Romero sips a fresh strawberry frappé

And while I spend a lot of time complaining that there is nowhere to eat in Mayagüez, where I live, one of the places I do eat and get incredible value is Restaurant El Mesón Natural (787-831-6090) at 257 Aduana Street, parallel to the Post Office of La Playa neighborhood. Owner Maritza Vélez is following the footsteps of her grandmother, owner of Restaurant Vegetariano La Familia across town.

My girl Gladys Bonilla runs the kitchen and prepares delicious criollo food without frying a thing! Savoury yuca turnovers, rice and beans (of course), lasagna, piñón of sweet plantain and soy meat, roasted eggplant — the menu changes everyday. And the prices are ridiculously low — entrees under $2. The fruit juices are fresh and there is an arsenal of creole desserts. Gladys shops Mayaguez’ Plaza de Mercado — one of the best in Puerto Rico -- every morning for what’s in season. Open from 7 am — 2 pm weekdays, La Familia has pick-up and takes daily meals to the elderly and sick by monthly contract.

I was very pleased to find so many places for a healthy meal. Except all these options make it harder to justify continued trips to my beloved fondas with all the fat and twice the calories!

Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at

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