Neighborhood Guide: Santurce, San Juan’s Hipster Haven

Puerto Rico’s main attractions are undoubtedly its abundance of sandy beaches and welcoming tropical climate. But even if you’re not a beach bum, there are a host of other reasons to head to the island’s capital city of San Juan. The dining scene is currently booming, and the historic charm of the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan are always a draw. Now, there’s a bona fide art scene in the neighborhood of Santurce, and with it, a vibrant area renewal. The center of the revival is Calle Loiza, also known as San Juan’s own hipster headquarters.

Loiza Street stretches between the tourist hubs of Condado and Isla Verde, and its name stems from its time as the conduit between San Juan and the town of Loiza to its east, before the existence of highways. Over time, Loiza Street came to be known as the neighborhood’s “Main Street,” the heart of a working-class commercial district and a social haven for Dominican immigrants. Today, it features just enough grittiness and modern indie color for the local bohemian youth to claim it as their playground, with pawn shops, discount stores, fast food joints, and retro beauty salons mingling alongside the brightly-muraled façades of vegetarian cafés, up-and-coming design ateliers, and trendy bars.

Now is the time to catch the up-and-coming scene while it thrives. It’s an easy 1.5-mile stretch to explore by foot during the day, or you can hook up with Spoon Food Tours for a custom-designed taste of the area’s nightlife and restaurant scene. Either way, it’s a side of San Juan you’ve likely never seen before.

Dining

The café society of the area is made up of an indie crowd housed in artsy, multi-use spaces. Kamoli at 1706 was one of the first on the strip. Settle at an antique sewing table and order a coconut chicken curry bowl or a vegan “pot” with a fresh-squeezed juice before browsing the wares on two floors, from flowing beach cover-ups to handmade earrings to a bejeweled candelabra chandelier. Café del Loto at 1762 is a local favorite for mallorcas, puffy sweet bread sometimes stuffed with ham, egg, cheese, or all three. And where would the young and artsy be without food trucks? The Shell Station at Loiza, on the corner of Taft Street, is the preferred parking for El Asador, which specializes in Peruvian rotisserie chicken and Italian-style porchetta. Chef Hector David Herrera Huyke inherited his cooking skills from his mom, local celeb chef Giovanna Huyke, known as the “Martha Stewart of Puerto Rico.” Further down the stretch toward Condado on the corner of Avenida De Diego, The Monkeys truck is known for serving late night tripletas, beef, ham and pork sandwiches.

A more permanent yet equally savvy portable eatery is Tresbé at 1765, which serves tacos, empanadas, sliders, ceviche, and other quick bites. Its wooden deck makes for pleasant outdoor seating, and a brand new smoothie bar just opened on the property. Young owner and chef Mario Ormaza studied under international superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Pizza is big on the block, too, with Pizzology at 1857, where the staff plays up the science of the pie. And Si No Corro Me Pizza (translation: “if I don’t run, it will run me over”) at 1917 features “Neapolitan meets Nuyorican” flavors and a comfortably funky interior, decked out in photos hanging from clothespins and colorful mosaic glass light bulbs. Loiza 2050 (the name is also its address) doubles as a whiskey bar.

The Double Cake Baking Studio is a particularly sweet stop, where you can see busy hands at work through its street-side window at 1852. Once the neighborhood’s iconic Five and Dime, the newly fashioned bakery offers cupcakes in flavors from red velvet to strawberry shortcake. Nutella bread, cookies, and baking classes are also offered. Healthy eats are popping up in abundance as well—there’s no shortage of açai bowls on the row. The vegetarian Cocobana at 2000 is marked by a giant mural of an ape, serving dishes such as lentil and falafel burgers. La Buena Mesa de Oscar at 1801 is another option for green scenesters, with its electric-lime-colored façade.

Two other newcomers of note: Acapulco at 2021, a charming, authentic taqueria, where the tortillas are homemade, and the al pastor pork is habit-forming; and Agarrate Catalina at 1503, an Argentine-themed tapas bar and restaurant, perfect for carnivores. And for every newcomer, there’s a long-standing favorite. Some of the veterans on the block include the 16-year-old Greek Restaurant Fleria at 1754; Molini, at 1902, a lunch counter serving local fare, from a rich sancocho to a hearty mofongo; a spacious location of seafood restaurant La Cueva del Mar at 1904 (don’t miss the conch salad, when in season); and Boccado’s Divino, a Dominican restaurant just off Loiza at Calle Degetau 115, with enormous (4- to 5-pound) lobsters, served only on Friday and Saturdays.

Shopping

You’ll smell the incense wafting through the street from Kembali at 1917, a narrow spot filled with imported handmade clothing, accessories, and knick-knacks from the Far East. If you’re in the market for vintage home décor, Claudia at 1804 is the stop for hand-painted, one-of-a-kind furnishings. And for vintage fashion, Len.T.juela at 1852 more than fits the bill. Want to wear “lifestyle clothing?” We’re not sure what it is either, but Noxiuz at 1917 will provide all the urban-chic hats, t-shirts, tank tops, and sweatshirts you need. For high-fashion, it’s hard to do better than Harry Robles at 1752.

Nightlife

At night, the crowd on the street changes from the coffeehouse and shopping set to groups of partiers. They like to hang at Bar Bero at 1507, which plays on the Spanish word for “barber” in every way: cans of Barbasol are used as vases, moustaches dress up lamps, and barbershop chairs, adorned with lights, make up the décor. The Plan B, next door at 1503, features karaoke and great pizza. PK2 at 2008 is known for its ceviche and potent pisco sours.

Entertainment

The new energy in the neighborhood was born out of the art scene, so a visit to Galerias Casa Jefferson (106 Calle Jefferson, just off Loiza), a gallery/museum, is a requirement. For body art, the tattoo parlor, and gallery, Color Conspiracy at 1851, is a must. Once an iconic department store, Almacenes Infanzon, the vast, lofty space is owned by award-winning artist Juan Salgado. The landmark Rivera cinema may no longer stand on the street, but film buffs can catch classics at Cinema Paradiso, a free, open-air movie event the first and third Sunday of the month, set in a vacant lot between the Banco Popular and Gemileo at 1810 Loiza. Bring your own chairs to enjoy classics from Charlie Chaplin silent films to acclaimed dark comedies, such as Harold and Maude. Monticello Smoke Shop at 1820, features clothing and accessories, along with smoking paraphernalia. Before you puff, buff up at the dance-centric Zionic Dance Fitness at 1855 where the pink, blue, green, and yellow gym emanates all the energy you need to move and groove. You can also head to OM Studio at 1750, which sometimes features DJs in the house.

To stay up-to-date on the Loiza Street scene, visit La Calle Loiza.

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