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June 11, 2004
Old San Juan has its share of gastronomical ups and downs. Chic eateries with newfangled decor open with much fanfare and then fizzle out like so much watered-down Piña Colada. Yet, other mainstays stay true, delivering fresh, top-quality food day after day, with or without running water.
As an Old City resident with a centrally located balcony, I get to witness the bewildered looks of tourists wandering around the cobalt-grey cobblestone streets with a cloud of wonder and hesitance in their eyes. Where should they even begin to look for a good place to eat?
Dont feel so out of touch guys; even we locals get confused. What with favorite eateries all of a sudden dropping their quality control levels or pricey posh places you cant even get into popping up, finding that perfect nosh-and-swill corner in Old San Juan can get tricky.
But alas, it can be done. Here are some excellent safe bets when less that perfect just wont do.
If you want to impress your clients, take them to Barú. This is the original nuevo tapas dining with a penchant for top-quality ingredients. I have never, ever, had a bad dinner at Baru. Ask for any obscure drink and the debonair bartender will whip it up pronto. Their Mojitos are some of the best around -- always sporting nice, healthy mint leaves floating about.
Barus Caribbean/Mediterranean fare is certain to make your mouth water. For starters, try the melt-in-your-mouth Beef Carpaccio, a colorful lime-twisted Ceviche or Fresh Oysters on the Half Shell with the works. Then move on to the Shrimp Pinchos with Yucafongo. Remember to share, thats what tapas dining is all about. Hit the big time with their Seafood Risotto or break the posh stance with their finger-licking-good Baby Back Ribs. Entrees are medium-sized, so 3-4 plates per couple should be good. To top it all off, try any of their sinful, artful desserts.
The mood can get boisterous inside, but the kick-ass air conditioning, ambient grooves and the pretty people parade will lull you and kindle many a conversation. Outside (the inside patio) can get hot and sticky during the summer, but is an otherwise perfect spot for top-notch al fresco dining. Its where to eat when youre living the high life.
El Picoteo lies deep in the heart of El Convento, tucked like a romantic cocoon underneath sturdy table umbrellas, peppered by flickering candles and blooming bougainvilleas. A bona fide tapas bar, it features more than 80 traditional Spanish tidbits, like "Gambas al Ajillo" (Shrimp in Garlic Oil) and Chorizo al Jerez. Certainly not the place for heavy eating, but the nibbling reigns supreme. If you need to fill up, try their Spanish pizzas with that wonderful light n crispy crust. Drinks are whipped up near perfect.
Service is tops, although they can sometimes take their sweet time. The ambiance is adorable and relaxed. If you feel like a fine, private conversation, this is the place to go.
Tantras Indo-Latino menu is simply orgasmic. Anything you order from there is good, trust me. After they switched to a tapas-based menu, the place immediately got cooler than cool, especially after they introduced that long list of trendy martinis. If youre into Chambord, try the not-too-sweet Black Love. For those with a sweet and tart tooth, I recommend the tangy Ginger Lemongrass. But if youre feeling a little spunky try the Roquefort Martini, an old fashioned martini with a wee bit of ye olde blue cheese. Hell, theres even a Rose Martini for you incorrigible romantics. Plus, that red rose petal they float on your sweet concoction just adds an ultimate savoir faire to your night out.
One of the best things about Tantra is their after-hours menu (available until 1 a.m. -- a late night savior indeed). Sink your teeth into the meaty Tandoori Chicken Pizza or eat the Tandoori chicken on its own, its your call.
The groove at Tantra cant be beat. Theres an effusive belly dancer that takes over from time to time. For $40 you can inhale the smoke off of a wild-colored pill with a hooka pipe and know just how the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland lives. The staff is friendly enough, eager to serve, and move quickly enough. The earthiness of the place and the sexy Arabian lounge music invites you to stay just a little bit longer, especially after those martinis have their way with you. So far, its standing the test of time.
Middle-of-the-road/ Reasonably priced
Although they only serve the Feijoada on Saturdays, Bossanovas rodizio-style menu keeps the chow coming until you burst. The Farofa De Manteiga (Toasted Manioc Meal) they serve with all the other accoutrements hits just the spot. Although they should have stayed with some of the traditional entrees on the menu, the rodizio way of eating can be fun. Just dont get too sloshed and forget to flip the green coaster to red, otherwise the food will pile up at your table.
Their Caipirinhas are stupendous and surprisingly cheap. You can get a wild buzz from those powerful little drinks. The atmosphere is chilling, plus you can get a glimpse at what the Carnival in Rio is like on their wee TVs and go far in your mind by staring at the Copacabana waves that flank the bar. Waiting for a chance at the bathroom can be harrowing, as the kitchen is right next to it and the heat scorches. Otherwise, the place is as relaxed and cool-beans as they come.
For you seekers of healthy, fine aliments, this is your Mecca. Even though the vibe might be just a tad snooty, the vegetarian lasagna is tops and the hummus cant be beat. Everything seems to come with alfalfa sprouts. The homemade lemonade is flawless: not too tart, not too sweet. The parfaits, quoting Donkey on Shrek, "are simply delicious."
The walls are sometimes covered in pretentious artwork, but the layout and the soothing music make you feel very much at ease. The service is quick and generally attentive. The people-watching rocks, as the wide, open windows face San Francisco St. and the Plaza Colon, the entry point to Old San Juan. Café Berlin is the upscale healthy eatery. Organic is its middle name.
This macabre wannabe of a place is often overlooked because of its offbeat location, yet its Romanian fare is definitely up to par. The houses eggplant spread goes well with just about everything. The Merguez sausage is very tasty and spicy indeed and the chicken is always juicy and tender.
The bar has yet to attract those gothic types and is still not sure what it wants to be, blasting that Roxbury house music sometimes, and then cranking the volume on the Sunday football game. Yet the staff is down-to-earth and talkative. Its because of this unassuming kitsch that this place becomes great for a weekend luncheon.
(BBB) Bueno, Bonito y Barato/Inexpensive
During the weekend brunch time, this place is busier than Grand Central Station. But if you can muscle your way in, order the Ham, Egg and Cheese Mallorca Sandwich. The mixture of the salty ham and the toothy sugar of the mallorca is heavenly. Deli-style sandwiches abound. Many tell me the Bacalao Guisado con Arroz Blanco (Stewed Codfish with White Rice) is some of the rest around. The coffee is excellent and the orange juice is, for some odd reason, better than Tropicana.
This old-fashioned deli features swift and attentive waiters in traditional uniforms. Although it can get crowded, they move fast to accommodate you. If you cant get a seat, at least order some mallorcas for your trip home. La Mallorca is honest to God and simple. Perfect for wiping out a hangover.
El Jibarito is a glorified "fondita" (Puerto Rican food kiosk), true, but boy, oh, boy does it hit the spot. Service sometimes takes too long and the conch salad is not their forte, but nothing beats it for typical Puerto Rican fare: pasteles, rice and beans, and pork done just about any way you want it. Daily specials are plentiful and come accompanied with the usual plantain suspects: amarillitos, tostones or arañitas. Remember to ask for the garlic mojo.
Down all that heavy boricua foodstuff with a Medalla while gazing at the many Puerto Rican icons adorning the walls. The place was made to look a like an old-town plaza, complete with 19th century balconies, an old-fashioned barbershop pole and tables that look like big dominoes. An icon of Puerto Rican cuisine, this place rocks steady.
This eclectic and creative eatery is all the rage, plus its incredibly cheap to boot. It is, like its slogan says, "what was missing in Old San Juan". Dont be surprised to see it become THE meeting grounds for the citys burgeoning artist population. The 90 % vegetarian menu shines with simple goodness. The cool gazpacho goes down smooth and refreshing, while the Rollitos de Primavera (Spring Rolls) filled with vegetable crunchies are complex, yet light. The Tortilla Española is divine. The juices are all homemade and the cakes are organic and exceptionally yummy. The coffee is jaw-clenching strong and the Crema Catalana (similar to the crème brulee) comforts like no other. Everything is as fresh as it can possibly be.
The bald and naked Carmen Miranda-like mannequin hanging at the end of the main room is representative of Old San Juan art nouveau kitsch. The décor is so quirky and welcoming that you have to see it to believe it. Its like a softer version on Pepón Osorios work.
Other than because it sports my own name, I love this place because of the patrons, the unpretentious staff, the good food and the down-to-earth vibe. Definitely a thumbs-up from me. I truly hope that it stands the test of time.
Caribbean and Mediterranean Cuisine
150 San Sebastian St.
El Convento Hotel
356 Fortaleza St.
358 Fortaleza St.
407 San Francisco St
317 Recinto Sur St.
La Mallorca Cafeteria & Restaurant
Deli/Puerto Rican Cuisine
300 San Francisco St.
Puerto Rican Cuisine
280 Sol St.
353 San Francisco St.
Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org