Burger Bar at Verdanza Hotel in the Isla Verde tourism district offers both a traditional version and island-centric varieties of the classic hamburger. // © 2016 Mary Welch
Feature image (above): Pirilo Pizza Rustic is a favorite among locals and visitors. // © 2016 Mary Welch
Puerto Rican cuisine has many of the same global influences as other Caribbean countries — Spanish, Cuban, Dutch, African, American, Taino and Indian. But according to Simon Majumdar, who often appears on Food Channel shows such as “Cutthroat Kitchen” and is the author of “Fed, White and Blue,” there is one extra ingredient that distinguishes it from other Caribbean islands.
“Puerto Ricans have such pride in their food,” he said. “You have all these fabulous local ingredients — fish, arugula, beets, plantains, ‘sofrito’ and ‘adobo’ [spice blends], all these root vegetables. And they’re all fresh. But it’s the passion and pride that really show up, whether you’re in someone’s home, at a food festival or in a restaurant.”
Majumdar was recently in Puerto Rico for his second appearance at the Saborea Food Festival, the island’s premier food event and the largest food festival in the Caribbean. Set on Escambron Beach, Saborea annually showcases more than 60 restaurants, wines and chefs from around the world. Many of the chefs adapted their recipes to include local ingredients, such as the Food Channel’s Ben Vaughn, who made a traditional Southern succotash with mangos.
Puerto Rico’s cuisine is ever-changing, vibrant and fusion-inspired — and that delicious combination was reflected at Saborea, with offerings from some of the best restaurants on the island.
For instance, Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar offers a natural and creative blend of eclectic, non-modified and nutritionally inspired ingredients, including sustainable and organic proteins. Peter Schintler, the eatery’s American-born, internationally trained chef, moved away from the island’s preference for meat-based, deep-fried foods to a core menu focused on vegetables. Marmalade is committed to vegetarian gastronomy, with raw and alkalinizing dishes often appearing on the menu.
Among its signature dishes are white-bean soup; heirloom golden beets with goat cheese, raw hearts of palms and radish carpaccio; and “jamon iberico,” which features grilled nectarines and lemon mascarpone cheese beneath cured ham. The red snapper ceviche and yellowtail poke were eye-opening highlights, but my favorite dish was the popcorn shrimp with anejo tequila, poblano guacamole and ancho-chili spiced popcorn.
Although rice is not native to the island, paella is a beloved dish in Puerto Rico. Ingredients may include mussels, cockles, clams, lima beans, carrots, shrimp, chorizo, string beans, artichoke hearts, asparagus and pimiento. Two excellent examples of this dish can be found at Alderaan Catering and 100X35 Restaurante.
Pirilo Pizza Rustica, a narrow restaurant with two large rooms upstairs, is a favorite among both locals and tourists. While many tout its empanadas, the pizza is the real star, with fresh ingredients heaped generously on the spicy crust. Try a pizza topped with goat-cheese mousse, the margherita with pesto drizzled over it or the meat-lover’s “El pecado,” which is topped with bacon, ground beef, Spanish and Argentinian sausage, skirt steak and ham.
Chef Roberto Trevino’s Budatai, which overlooks the Ventana al Mar plaza in the Condado area, is an intriguing fusion restaurant that adds Asian spices to tropical ingredients. A three-in-one concept, it features a restaurant, bar and terrace that each have different vibes, making it appealing to families, couples and tourists alike. Appetizers are varied and include pork dumplings “guisados” (stews), Peking duck-style eggrolls and octopus “a la plancha” (pan-fried). Among its deluxe dishes are ahi tuna served with smoked “kombu” (kelp) sauce and noodles with seared scallops.
There’s plenty of gourmet food to be found around the island, but sometimes travelers just want an old-fashioned burger. For these visitors, Burger Bar at Verdanza Hotel in the Isla Verde tourism district fits the bill. The brainchild of renowned chef Elvin Rosado, coach of the National Culinary Team of Puerto Rico, Burger Bar serves up traditional burgers, as well as island-tinged options. The short ribs burger, with bourbon-marinated ribs, is served with soft “pan sobao” bread. Other favorites include the ground pork burger with honey ham, Swiss cheese and mustard and the confit chicken burger with sweet-pepper aioli and provolone cheese. Burger Bar also offers up some amazing fish tacos and a creative brunch.
Majumdar, who confessed he was unfamiliar with Puerto Rican cuisine, is quickly becoming a fan, saying he relates to the Spanish and Indian elements in the dishes.
“They use the Spanish way of stewing, but with different ingredients, and so many are interchangeable,” he said. “So, it’s different every time, but each time it is bold. When you eat in Puerto Rico, you are truly feeding your soul.”