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Posts from the ‘Puerto Rico’ Category

La Casita Blanca

While El Jibarto served solid Puerto Rican food I was familiar with, La Casita Blanca offered unique dishes and a welcoming, cookbooks and knick-knacks setting that I didn’t encounter elsewhere in San Juan. I hate to overstate the just like grandma’s house vibe (especially since my grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking—she did have lots of owl tchotkes, though).

Casita blanca exterior

Perhaps the character of this pocket of the Santurce neighborhood changes after dark, but I had been expecting a rougher area based on a smattering of online reviews. I only encountered bodegas, men working on cars outside, roosters on the loose (heard, not seen) and incongruously, a brand new luxury condo building at the top of road. (The only two times I’ve even been a crime victim were both in the Pacific Northwest, mugged in Portland and robbed in Vancouver, BC. Nothing bad has ever happened in Asia, Latin America or Europe, so I don’t worry about these things when traveling and I suggest you don’t either.)

Casita blanca chicken soup & bread bag

Casita blanca scallion fritters

When first seated you are given a little brown bag filled with strips of focaccia, and chicken rice soup in a paper cup. A pile of thin fritters colored with bits of green onion also show up. They were just like mini scallion pancakes and were exactly the type of thing that lend the home cooked feel. No one else in Puerto Rico provided a greasy snack while deciding what to order. 

Casita blanca entrance

No English is spoken and the blackboard menu carried table to table is written in Spanish. I would just take a chance on something if you weren’t sure. The only word that threw me for a loop was tenera. Not fish, beef, chicken, goat, duck, turkey, lamb, rabbit or pork, what else could it be? I was kind of hoping it was goat. I know that meat as chivo; maybe they use a different word in Puerto Rico? I asked about it in Spanish and our waiter tried responding in English but the only word he could say sounded like beer. Beer?

Ah, beef, I later realized. Tenera is veal. Instead of the mysterious fricase de tenera, I went for the fricase de pollo just to be sure. Ok, I just violated my advice to take a chance on something unknown.

Casita blanca fricase de pollo

The food is simple with colorful presentations. All that annatto orange looks inviting when completed by shreds of purple, framed by two lengths of sweet plantain. One of the only reasons I fear stewed dishes like this is that I worry that the meat will be bland and dry, but it’s never the case, not with chicken adobo or this fricase served with the classic mound of rice. Rich, tomatoey with added salinity from the green olives and capers, the stew transcends a plate of boiled chicken parts.

Casita blanca anisette shot

You are sent off with a shot of anisette and coffee beans. Like I said, I didn't want to to overstate the granny vibe, but get an eyeful of that lace tablecloth topped with plastic.

La Casita Blanca * Calle Tapía 351, San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Jibarito

The food at El Jibarito isn’t radically different from what you find in NYC; the photogenic cobblestoned streets, palm trees and macaron-colored stucco of Old San Juan just make it seem better (sorry, Spanish Harlem).

El jibarito
El jibarito interior

I don’t mind my first meal in a scorching, new-to-me city being in an air conditioned tourist neighborhood. I need to get my bearings in comfort. The comfortable restaurant wasn’t as hickish as its name might imply; a jibarito is akin to a hillbilly.

El jibarito fried pork

Knowing that I was about to embark on a long weekend of rich, fatty eating, I ordered the pernil instead of the fried pork even though that’s what I really wanted. Still pork, obviously. But they brought me the masitas fritas, anyway. My secret wish fulfilled.

El jibarito ribs in plaintain sauce

James opted for a pork rib dish in a plantain sauce. We ordered rice and beans and tostones as sides to share. Someone in the kitchen decided that the fried plantains went with my food and the rice and beans with the other dish.

El Jibarito * Calle Sol 280, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Lechonera Los Pinos

1/2 In less time than it takes to drive from Carroll Gardens to Middlesex County, New Jersey—40 minutes, give or take—we were high up in the foliage-covered mountains of Guavate, navigating the barely two-laned, sharp-cornered road known as “La Ruta de Lechon” a.k.a. the pork highway.

Dueling lechoneras

It’s hard to know when to stop. It doesn’t seem wise to pick the first lechoneras that appear on the horizon, no low hanging pork for us, so we carried on a few more miles until we hit a dense patch, parked and weighed our options. El Rancho Original was where the party was happening; their covered dance floor was booming with live salsa music and couples, many elderly, were putting on a show. We came back later for a drink and to hang out in the back picnic area with a little stream and wooden cabanas.

Lechonera los pinos exterior
Los pinos front window

I’d heard about Lechonera Reliquia, it might’ve been mentioned in the Times. Compared to bustling Lechonera Los Pinos across the street, the open air dining room was kind of desolate (this was a Saturday afternoon—Sunday is the bigger day to go). Pinos, it was.

Los pinos counter

Despite everything I’d heard, you don’t have to speak Spanish to communicate with the counter guys. I can speak basic Spanish and have a large food vocabulary—it’s practically the only thing I can talk about confidently—but as soon as they realize you’re not a local, they turn to English.

Los pinos meat chopping

We ordered a pound of pork. I knew I wanted morcilla, but just a little because I was still kind of full from breakfast (not realizing how quick the trip would be, we ate giant sandwiches at Kasalta before heading out of San Juan). They gave us a lot. Blood sausage signals that you’re serious about food. We started getting sides pushed on us like crazy, in a we’re happy to show off our food, not a running up the bill way. Even if you went wild, I doubt you could spend over $50. Trying to stay on course, we asked for pasteles and rice and beans, no more. A cold bottle of Medalla, and you’re set.

Los pinos lunch for two

This was our spread. Minus the big helping of rice (I’m not a big rice-eater), this would’ve been an acceptable lunch for a hungry twosome. We ended up taking half of our food to go. I was knocked out until 10pm when came up with an un-starchy dinner idea: ceviche.

Los pinos lechon

The moist slices of meat had just enough fat attached to remind you that you weren’t eating lean, low-flavor American pork. And the skin? It was like hard candy, brittle and shard-like on the surface with a gelatinous chew. Looking at this Styrofoam container now, I feel like I could’ve eaten the entire thing. In reality, one hunk is meal-endingly rich.

Los pinos morcilla

Puerto Rican morcilla is heavy on the rice and closer to Spanish morcilla de Burgos than the blood sausage I generally encounter in NYC. It was also spicier than I’d expected. In my experience, the only heat you get in Latin Caribbean food is from vinegary chile sauces offered on the side, not the food itself. Los Pinos offered such a hot sauce in appropriated vodka bottles.

Los pinos pasteles

In addition to cilantro, chiles, coconut and avocado, banana leaves are another Southeast Asian-Latin American similarity. Pasteles are like tamales made with a plantain dough, usually filled with pork and steamed in banana leaves. I could imagine a non-traditional pastele stuffed with fish and red curry.

Los pinos inside

The band was setting up as we were about to leave.

100% local pork

Oh, while just looking up the exact address—they use kilometer markers—I discovered that Los Pinos is where Tony Bourdain went on No Reservations. I’m not surprised; it felt like the most enticing lechonera on that stretch of Carretera 184.

Lechonera Los Pinos * Barrio Guavate, Carr. 184, Km. 27.7, Cayey, Puerto Rico

Kasalta & Panadería España Repostería

Panadería España Repostería and Kasalta are similar operations. Both have long counters divided into sections: deli meats and cheeses with whole jamon serano hanging as an enticement, baked goods and confections and cooked foods and sandwiches. You order, pay, wait for your food, then find a table. Café con leche is popular in the morning, red wine an option for later in the day (though many drink soda).

Kasalta counter

Kasalata ham & cheese mallorca

The second I learned about a ham and cheese sandwich served in a pan de mallorca, a popular sweet eggy roll, I knew I had to find one. La Bombonera is famous for theirs but we wanted to avoid the Old San Juan parking situation and instead headed to Kasalta, slightly out of the tourist zone (where the tight parking lot ended up being stressful anyway—the whistle-blowing attendant actually made things worse, not better).

Kasalta mallorca interior

A mallorca sandwich is a close kin of the monte cristo, possibly my favorite sandwich ever even though I never order one in NYC because they bungle them. I certainly can’t think of another sandwich that comes doused in a snowfall of powdered sugar. Simple deli ham and swiss cheese add the savory to the flattened roll. I love sugary-meaty combos, though if I were to change one thing it would be the addition of mustard, like in a traditional monte cristo. It could use a little zing to offset all the fluffy sweetness.

Kasalta chorizo & cheese sandwich

I shared half-and-half and also split this pressed sandwich with crumbly slices of chorizo and cheese. Rich, oily and hefty. My kind of sandwich.

Panadería españa repostería exterior

Panadería españa repostería caldo gallego

At Panadería España Repostería, another day, and at night instead of morning, we cobbled together a dinner from random things on display. Everyone seemed to be eating caldo gallego, so we did too. The soup is porky, flavored with both ham hock and little bit of cured chorizo. White beans, kale and potato chunks add more bulk.

Panadería españa repostería octopus salad

Big fat rounds of octopus tentacles dressed in olive oil are also very Caribbean-Spanish. This salad is like the one at Margon, just declared number two of the Top 10 Best Things to Eat in Times Square by The Village Voice.

Panadería españa repostería cheese balls

I thought I was getting an alcapurria from the glass case. These turned out to be balls of cheese, not gooey but warm and firm, very sharp and aged. Maybe a little too aged, it was hard to finish one.

Panadería españa repostería alcapurria

This was the alcapurria, fried potato (and possibly yucca) molded around ground beef picadillo. There’s almost something British about this fritter. Maybe if you added some peas and HP Sauce on the side.

Kasalta * 1966 Calle McLeary, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Panadería España Repostería * Centro Comercial Villamar, San Juan, Puerto Rico


So, I’ve now tried $38 “mofongo,” which looked an awful lot like $7 mofongo, just smaller. Ok, it was tastier too—smoked chunks of bacon have a way of transforming anything, and the shrimp, peas and saffron broth created a lighter paella effect. Frankly, the serving size was perfect. If you’ve ever eaten mofongo (and the funny thing is that most eateries in San Juan assume you haven’t—I’m guessing New Yorkers are at least aware of its existence) you know that the mound of fried plantains mashed with garlic and chicharrones, is a gut bomb. A pinnacle of mofongory can be found at Chinese-Dominican Sabrosura in the Bronx where I once ordered a yuca version that whose leftovers stuck with me for days.


Pikayo, chef Wilo Bennet’s high-end restaurant, happened to be in our hotel, The Conrad. Sure, I’ll try upscale takes on local cuisine, especially when so many of the showcase restaurants in other hotels were beefy American chains like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, BLT Steak or Strip House. (I took James to the original Strip House location for his birthday in March and never wrote about it because I’ve been trying to wean myself from the photograph/blog everything affliction. It was great, but not what you need to be doing while on a tropical island, even an American-ish one.)

My original intent was no photos, as the fancier a restaurant, the less appropriate it feels. But I brought my camera along just in case (it’s not like I couldn’t have ran up the two-flights of stairs to our room to retrieve it). It was fine; Pikayo, and much of San Juan, felt more Miami than NYC (I could just be responding to the ubiquity of stilettos and child-sized skirts). You might be spending a lot of money, but you’ll be doing so informally. The wine cellar is a focal point of the room, though if you want to sip a caipirinha like I did (followed by a glass of Albariño) that’s fine, too.

Not knowing if San Juan was on American or Latin dinnertime, we made reservations at 8pm to be safe. The room was filled with English chatter. By 9pm the entire restaurant was echoing Spanish and had transformed into a polished, 40-somethings-plus tablehopping scene. Everyone seemed to know everyone. High society.


First, we started with a few very snacky “pikaydera” selections from the menu. The mini pork belly burgers were a little dry and I wanted to taste more of the gouda. Lobster empanadillas served with what I think was yellow pepper-infused clarified butter, were just decadent enough in their two-bite form.

Key lime

While these were nibbles, the dessert was surprisingly hefty. We ordered the key lime pie to share (they really push the chocolate or cheese and guava soufflé that you need to order at the same time as your main dishes) and I expected a dainty deconstructed thing. Instead, we were presented with a substantial citrus custard surrounded by graham cracker walls and finished with a browned meringue tuft. The photo is a little deceiving; this tart was larger than a standard slice would be.

Just across the walkway from Pikayo was the hotel casino (I didn’t realize this was a San Juan feature). James won a whopping $17.50 on a $5 slot machine gamble. Hardly a windfall, but it almost covered two drinks at the hotel lounge that had been commandeered by a sunburnt wedding party.

Pikayo * 999 Ashford Dr., San Juan, Puerto Rico