The Culinary Effervescence of San Juan's Calle Loíza

Barbara Noe Kennedy

 

Hurricane Maria may have devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, but the island has come back with a vengeance—with a foodie twist. Granted, the dining scene already was starting to boom even before the deadly storm, but from the ruins is arising what locals call an “effervescence.” It’s as if the devastation gave chefs permission to scratch the past and start completely anew. Local ingredients are being reinvented to create culinary wonders far surpassing traditional Puerto Rican fare (as good as Puerto Rican fare is), and chefs are gaining national and international accolades for their creativity. See the effervescence in action on and around Calle Loíza, the hub of the revival, located between Condado and Isla Verde east of Old San Juan. Here you’ll find more than 25 eating venues, shoulder-to-shoulder with indie boutiques, pawn shops, and fast-food joints, and a thriving mural art as well.

 

And what better time to wing here than in the heart of winter? With the sun shining, no passports required, and the U.S. dollar the official currency, this easy-to-reach Caribbean island is the idyllic antidote to the winter blues. In between forays to the beach, check out these hipster eateries along Calle Loíza’s 1.5-mile stretch of scrumptious road.

 

Tip: Spoon Food Tours offers custom-designed tours for those wishing more insight.

 

 

Repostería Kasalta 

An iconic destination for Spanish classic cuisine, Kasalta, located on Av. McLeary in the Ocean Park residential enclave, reigns as Puerto Rico’s “hit” café and restaurant. This is the place to try pan de mallorca—sweet spiral buns, popularly stuffed with ham and cheese. The bistec slider—beefsteak and sautéed onions on a sourdough roll—also is amazing, as is, well, everything else. President Obama ate here when he visited in 2011, as indicated by the many photos on the wall (and the “Presidential Special” on the menu—a yellow bread sub with ham, sliced pork, pickles, and mustard pressed and served hot).

 

Cocobana

It’s not coincidental that this fresh vegan restaurant stands proudly across the street from McDonald’s. Even the greatest hamburger lovers will be tempted to convert. The black bean burger slider on pumpkin tumeric bread, for example, is one of the most divine creations around. The milkshakes made from fresh coconut milk are memorable as well. Be sure to check out the menu del dìa, offering a main, two sides, and a shake for less than $15.

 

 

Ana's Café

This cozy place serves up comida corilla, including a modern twist on mofongo, a smashed green plantain dish of African origin.

 

TresBé

Starting off as a food truck offering simple, cheap, accessible food, TresBé is where the Loíza renaissance all began. The first restaurant to open after the hurricane, it ushered in plenty more. Centered around shipping containers with outdoor seating, its name, “Three B’s,” plays off the Spanish “Bueno, bonito, y barato”—"good, nice, and good value.” The aioli-dripped fish tacos are delish, as are the varied empandillas (crab, octopus, and lobster are just a few of the options), marlin skewers … and don’t forget the poke bowls.

 

 

Sabrina Brunch and Bistro Bar

The isle’s brunch spot, Sabrina—named for the Audrey Hepburn movie—combines Caribbean traditional with innovation in a lush tropical-esque setting. The eggs benedict, for example, include mangu (smashed plantains) and longaniza sausage. Pancakes are flavored with bacon and cinnamon, luscious beneath a spray of coffee syrup. Pork chops are served with a pineapple mojito and avocado topping. The cocktails are just as creative.

 

Azucena

This small restaurant is bringing back “grandma-style” Puerto Rican cooking based on historic recipes, using as much local product as possible. The veranda is heavenly, where day’s end couldn’t be better celebrated with the decadent passionfruit mousse.

 

 

Double Cake

This mouth-watering bakery has squashed two other local bakeries just because it’s that good. Yet the baker/owner refuses to open another shop because she’s focusing her efforts on a teaching lab in the back to help young local girls learn to cook professionally. All sweets—innovative takes on traditional Puerto Rican goodness—are made from scratch. Do not leave without trying one of the cupcakes, ranging in flavors from strawberry shortcake to red velvet, or the pacos, a cross between a pancake and a taco.

  

Where to Stay (and Eat Some More)

Even the chain hotels in the realm have a foodie twist. The Marriott San Juan Resort & Casino in Condado, near Loíza Street, takes its food seriously, including the oceanside Gingambó, its dishes inspired by Puerto Rican flavors. The nearby AC Hotel San Juan Condado recently opened in a converted beachside tower; its rooftop Bar.C.Lona is a beautiful place to catch the sunset along with enjoying craft cocktails and Spanish-inspired nibbles.

 

 

Author Bio:                                

Barbara Noe Kennedy worked as an editor at the National Geographic Book Division for more than 20 years. She has written four books, and her writings have also been published in National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. 

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

 

 Photos 1-6 by Barbara Noe Kennedy:

  1. Gingambo (appetizer)
  2. Kasalta (Bistec slider)
  3. Cocobana (restaurant interior)
  4. Anas (mofongo)
  5. Tresbe (restaurant ambiance)
  6. Doublecake (variety of sweets)

Cover Photo: DiscoverPuertoRico.com (official tourism site for Puerto Rico)

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Photos 1-6 by Barbara Noe Kennedy; cover photo: Official Tourism Website of Puerto Rico
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