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Top 10 Places To Eat In The City

By J.A. del Rosario

September 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

When I was growing up, my professional aspirations were limited to being a poor starving painter and being a poor starving writer. My father, who had introduced me to Pucinni's La Boheme and the age old tradition of romanticizing miserable poverty, felt responsible for my misguided ambitions and decided to rectify the situation.

He did not do this by telling me I had to pursue a different career. He did it by taking me out to eat, a lot. My father theorized that if I developed an appetite for the finer things in life (good wine, food, theater, books and music), then I would choose a career that could pay for my cultural luxuries.

The experiment had limited success. I developed a taste for the finer things in life, but never gave up on writing. Which means I now spend most of my meager salary eating out and generally living beyond my means.

Thanks, dad.

I was thinking about all of this while sitting at a new place called Buddha Bar on Condado Avenue. The Buddha Bar is one of those dimly lit, incense filled restaurants that boast creative hyphenated cuisine and waiters dressed in black who are friendly until you tell them that you are going to share a plate.

As an expert squanderer of hard earned money, I cannot recommend Buddha -- the food does not justify the prices. But I will credit the restaurant for making me take out my pen and make a list of my top ten places to eat in San Juan.

Mind you, this is not the standard list of upscale restaurants hidden in luxury hotels where the chef redefines the fried plantain as an overpriced Caribbean delicacy. I am talking of a restaurant list for people whose tax bracket is an obstacle to fulfilling their culinary desires.

If you are looking for places to eat and drink well, without losing your shirt, get ready to cut and paste the remainder of this column. These are my top 10 picks.

10. Divinos Bocaditos - Old San Juan

A Spanish tapas bar featuring small tables, loud flamenco music and a long list of Rioja wines. But Divinos' greatest asset is its faith in its patrons. Customers can freely serve themselves from several trays of tapas laid out on the bar. When it comes time to pay, a waiter counts the toothpicks on your plate to determine how much you ate. Remember, the honor system is a blessed rarity, so no cheating.

9. Royal Siam - Isla Verde (787) 726-1167

I am a sucker for spicy peanut chicken, and these guys serve it up with the best of them. The decor of the place is a cross between classic Oriental and classic Holiday Inn Tiki Bar Lounge.

8. Cherry Blossom - Condado (787) 723-7300

You need a sushi place in the mix, and although this might not be the cheapest place around, the prices are not offensive. No matter what you order, throw in an order of pepper tuna. And stay away from the teppanyaki side, where the bill can get astronomical faster than you can say "No egg in my rice!"

7. La Cueva del Chicken Inn - Hato Rey (787) 753-1306

The specialty is pizza, not chicken. The restaurant originally belonged to the parents of Raul Julía, the Puerto Rican thespian who became most famous for playing Gomes in the Addams Family movies. Behind the bar there is still a mural depicting the 1960s bohemian artist scene that ruled the place when the young Julia spent his weekends reciting poetry for the patrons. Julia is one of the characters portrayed in the mural. Good luck playing Where's Raul?

6. La Parrillada del Barriloche - Isla Verde (787) 268-5305

One of the best steak houses, period. This Argentine grill features mismatched tables and chairs, lots of old wood and a kick-ass skirt steak. Order a bottle of red wine, choose your favorite piece of cow and let it all hang out.

4. Tierra Santa - Hato Rey (787) 754-6865

I have to throw in a Mediterranean place because hummus should be adopted by every culture, and because there is something pleasing about watching belly dancers balance sharp objects on their foreheads while you digest. On a Friday night things can get pretty festive when the dancers start picking patrons to dance with them. Just make sure you have a couple of drinks to loosen up those limbs, or the whole affair can get pretty goofy.

3. Dragonfly - Old San Juan (787) 977-3961

All right, this can get expensive but it's worth it. It is one of the trendiest places in San Juan. It is claustrophobic, impeccably decorated, the waiters are good looking and the Asian-Caribbean food does not taste pretentious. I am including Dragonfly, not because they are reasonably priced, but because I don't mind paying their high prices.

2. Arepas y Mucho Mas - Old San Juan (787) 725-4639

A true success story. This place started approximately five years ago as a small Venezuelan luncheon specializing in arepas -fried flour patties stuffed with whatever you want. The place has since upgraded to a bigger and better location but the prices remain reasonable -- which means plenty of arepas for the likes of you and me.

1. Chayote - Santurce (787) 722-9385

Hands down, the best place to go for a good meal in San Juan. The food is great, the location interesting, and the art on the walls is good, what more can you ask for?

Eating well starts with comfort, and this is where Chayote leaves everyone behind. These people are masters of understatement. The place is formal enough to wear a tie, and casual enough to relax with a polo shirt. The art on the walls features local artists along with world famous names like Jean Michel Basquiat. By the time they serve you the food, you are already singing their praises.

And there it is, the best food in the city for those of us who don't walk the realm of priceless menus.

Now all I have to do is start inviting my father and get him to start picking up the tab.

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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