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Puerto Rico – Island of Culinary Delights

Seen in San Juan
Seen in San Juan
(c) Terry Zinn

Puerto Rico claims to be the culinary capitol of the Caribbean, and after a short visit there I concur. I started my culinary investigation at their SABOREA food festival, where a tented carnival atmosphere is the setting for sampling a number of gourmet treats, and beverages. The festival location next to the ocean offered cooking demonstration as well as small tented venues with a variety of offerings. The alcoholic beverage area was a popular venue where samplings of various brands could be consumed. For more detailed information check out the SABOREA website for next year’s tickets and dates.

Sights of San Juan
Sights of San Juan
(c) Terry Zinn

I had a Chefs private tasting dinner at the Pikayo Restaurant at the Condado Plaza Hotel, prepared by Chef Willo Bennet. The elegant small plate preparations provided a plethora of taste explosions. My favorite was the Corned Beef Brisket Stew and Coconut Milk Polenta.

The Condado Plaza where I stayed provides two towers of rooms; one facing the ocean and one a lagoon. While I thought I wanted the ocean view – I found my sunrise side lagoon quite enjoyable were I could view the water sport activities from my balcony and the skyline of San Juan. The hotel’s location away from Old San Juan was enjoyable, but if you want a more intimate lodging you might try the Bed and Breakfast, Casa Sole. A newly renovated home, where each room is its own character and the food offered is freshly prepared upon ordering. The atmosphere is charming, adding to the appeal of its location in Old San Juan proper.

The recommended eating venues are so numerous, space here does not do them justice, but I must list them for your San Juan culinary explorations. Café Cialitors is a gourmet coffee lovers delight – where Joaquin Pastor takes great pride in his carefully hand selected beans which he brews. He might take you in the back room for a more in depth explanation of the coffee process.

Lunch at the Hotel El Convento, again offers gourmet meals in an old world renovated convent. There I got a very special Mojito Recipe from Bar Expert, Luis Flores, who also created a most delectable Pina Colada. They also offer Mango, Guava or Passion Fruit Rum Mojitos. Their lunch of Red Snapper and a Lime Beurre Blanc along with a beverage is a must respite while touring Old Town.

Quesos Casa Lila Rose, upon appointment, can help you make your own artisanal cheese, with flavors you choose. And while wine always goes well with chesse, you should not miss a tour of the Barcardi Distillery, where I learned in a VIP tasting the process of various Barcardi Rums. The regular tour includes two rum drinks before your tour of the visitor center to learn the history of the Barcardi family business.

My lunch at La Casita Blanca in Santurce offered authentic Puerto Rican food in an intimate home-like atmosphere where fresh tortillas are made before your table. My dinner was at Santaella in La Placita de Santurce which is an upscale, popular restaurant offering flavors with global influences. I had an acceptable Filet Mignon, with exquisite Fried Plantains, Chocolate Sponge Cake and a Citrus Martini that needed assistance. With one wall encasing a green jungle garden, it’s a dining venue you should include.

Breakfast came with a sweet tooth at the Casa Cortes Choco Bar where chocolate pervades most all of its offerings, from pastries, to hot chocolate varieties. Casa Cortes is another example of a family owned tradition. The famed chocolate is now being offered in gourmet tins (Forteza), and accompanies the art gallery on the upper floors promotion of indigenous artists, in a space for community events. I am impressed with Casa Cortes’ many entrepreneurial ventures.

My favorite dinner venue was the Olive Restaurant in the Olive boutique Hotel, where the private roof top lounge offers surprising elegance with an old world Mediterranean ambience. Out of five courses my favorite was Oliva’s Signature Crème Brule. Another outdoor balcony dining can be enjoyed at Chef Trevino’s Budatai restaurant a short distance from the Condodo Hotel. The unprepossessing entrance disguises the elegant upscale décor with an efficient kitchen team, and their unison good natured chant of “Working!”

You can alleviate your guilt of over eating by touring the El Yunque Rainforest, via the Rico Sun Tour Company, which was my host for many of my epicurean excursions all over San Juan proper and its suburbs. I’ve offered my recommendations here and so now it’s your turn to explore in person or via cyberspace, Puerto Rico’s culinary delights.

Explore: www.thecondadoplaza.hilton.com, www.fincacialitos.com, www.loizadark.com, www.casacortespr.com, www.wilobenet.com, www.elconvento.com , www.ootwrestaurants.com , www.santaellapr.com, http://saboreapuertorico.com/, http://rstpuertorico.com/tourspuertorico/home.php, www.casabacardi.org/

NOTE: Zinn is past president of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association

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