Savoring San Juan: Cuisine and Culture in Puerto Rico’s Capital
By Bart Beeson
There is perhaps no better way to discover the soul of a city than through its food. The main ingredients, the spices, and the preparation of local dishes are a living testament to a city’s history, the availability of resources, the arrival of immigrants, and the mixing of cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than in Old San Juan, the historic colonial district in Puerto Rico’s capital, as I recently discovered on a tour with the culinary experience company, Spoon. Billed as a “walk and taste” tour, it quickly proved to be much more than that, with our guide delving deep into the history of the city and its food, as well as topics ranging from architecture to linguistics to geography.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Spoon was started by husband-and-wife team Paulina Salach and Gustavo Antonetti as a labor of love. Paulina, a native New Yorker, relates that she moved to the island 15 years ago and was taught about the spices and secrets of Puerto Rican cooking by her mother-in-law.
“I wanted to transmit that love and passion and that understanding of the culture to anyone who visited,” she explained. So Paulina and Gustavo started Spoon as a bootstrap enterprise, doing everything from guiding tours to accounting to social media. Since then, they have grown their team and now offer a variety of tours and experiences, including cooking classes and trips to other parts of Puerto Rico, such as Loiza, known for its Afro-Puerto Rican music, dance and food. They also help organize the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America series, where a local chef and a chef from the mainland U.S. collaborate on a special dinner. For all of their tours, Paulina emphasizes that through the restaurants they partner with, they want to make it an immersive, well-rounded experience.
“We look for something on that menu that’s a wow factor that ties into our storytelling and our culinary heritage,” she said.
My tour started in Old San Juan’s Plaza de Armas, the city’s lively central square surrounded by colonial buildings featuring balconies with wrought iron railings and decorated with hanging bougainvillea plants. As we waited for the rest of our group to join, our guide Pablo talked about Spoon’s philosophy when it comes to tours. A phrase he used repeatedly was “nerd out,” or going into detailed accounts of the food history, complemented with interesting stories and anecdotes – and in a 500-year-old city, there’s no shortage of stories to tell. He said they take an “edutainment” (education + entertainment) approach, making sure the tour is both fun (and filling) and enlightening. And he explained that they limit the group size to 12, explaining that “with groups any larger than that you start to lose eye contact and connection with some guests.”
Our first stop was at Chocobar Cortés, a fourth-generation, family-run “chocolate everything” restaurant, where we were treated to a chocolate rum martini (dark rum, Irish cream and liquid chocolate) along with a warm Mallorca, a traditional Puerto Rican sweet bread, that came with a chocolate spread and a dusting of powdered sugar. As we ate, Pablo explained to us how the Mallorca came to be a staple Puerto Rican treat, some of the history of the Cortés family and the historic building, and why Puerto Ricans have a well-deserved reputation for loving a good party (hint: there are 78 municipalities in the territory and each one has its own patron saint to celebrate).
Our sweet tooths sated, we headed to our next destination, Deaverdura, for some savory dishes. Walking through the cobblestone streets, Pablo pointed out how beautifully restored Old San Juan is, explaining that the work done there became a model for restoring colonial cities throughout the Americas.
He explained how a local scholar developed a set of guidelines for restoration, including making sure that no two consecutive buildings were painted the same color, and even providing an acceptable list of colors, known as tropical pastels. At the charming, family-run Deaverdura, we were treated to tapas-sized portions of pernil (slow-cooked pork shoulder), longaniza (locally seasoned sausage) and tostones de pana (fried breadfruit), served with the house-made hot pique (hot sauce). (Spoon does offer a vegetarian alternative for all the meals). All this was accompanied by our choice of fresh passion fruit, acai or guanabana juice – with an optional shot of Palo Viejo white rum added. During the meal, Pablo explained how the exchange of spices and ingredients between the old world and the new changed cuisine on a global scale.
Spoon advises tour guests to come hungry, and after just two stops I was glad I had followed their advice; even with smaller-sized portions, it was easy to fill up on the hearty food. While we still had three stops left, it wouldn’t do the tour justice to try and describe all the different dishes we sampled, as well as all we learned about the country and its food. The following stops did include a couple more cocktails, including a daiquiri at a historic convent-turned-hotel and a version of a piña colada at one of two bars that claim to be the birthplace of the drink.
The tour concluded at a small plaza with views of San Juan Bay and La Fortaleza – the fortress dating back to the mid-1500s that serves as the governor’s residence. As we enjoyed our last treat, a paleta (popsicle) from a local company, and watched the sunset, Pablo talked about how the island came to be known from its description, literally “rich port,” and what made it such a desirable location.
The passion with which he talked about his native country and the obvious delight he found in sharing his knowledge through stories made the three-hour tour fly by. And while the tour does come with several cocktails, this might not be the tour for those looking for a simple pub crawl (even their cocktail tour does cover some history and points of interest.) But for anyone who’s interested in learning about the cultural and culinary heritage of Puerto Rico, while sampling some tasty dishes and a few cocktails, this tour hits the spot.
Visit Spoon for more information.
Bart Beeson is a Plymouth, New Hampshire-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.