Chef and Hell’s Kitchen finalist Mia Castro’s guide to eating in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Chef Mia Castro’s culinary roots are in Puerto Rico. Raised in part by her grandparents in San Juan, she cooked alongside her grandmother daily before moving to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. She’s studied under renowned chefs like Wolfgang Puck, and went on to appear on shows like Food Network’s Chopped, before becoming a finalist on the most recent season of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. Castro, now based in Miami, tells us about Puerto Rican culinary specialties that hold a special place in her heart, from sweet baked goods to savory fritters, and her top choices for where to enjoy them in San Juan, so you can eat local delicacies all day long.
Sobao Bread at Sobao by Los Cidrines
“Mornings in Puerto Rico weren’t the same without waking up with fresh bread and delicious coffee from la panaderia (bread shop or bakery). While French bakeries may be known for their vast bread varieties, I’m willing to bet Puerto Rico’s bakeries can give them a run for their money. Our bakeshops are also known for easy grab ‘n go options like traditional Cuban-style croquetas, quesitos (sweet cream cheese pastry), and empanadillas (savory turnovers).
Sobao by Los Cidrines is located in a very lively, pedestrian-friendly area in the hustle and bustle of Condado. Try the sobao bread, (slightly sweet and soft texture, bread made with lard); I like to eat it plain or toasted with butter and coffee. This bread never made it in one piece if my sister and I had something to do with it, pinching off pieces from el culito (the butt) on our way home.”
Mallorca Bread at Panaderia Pepin
“Located in a suburban area, Panaderia Pepin is a panaderia well-known among locals. Get the Mallorca bread (sweet egg bread rolls dusted with powdered sugar). These are delicious with coffee as well. I also like to make ham and cheese paninis out of them because the sugar on the outside caramelizes and forms a delicious brûlée-type crust.”
Media Noche Sandwich at Kasalta
“Located in a pedestrian-friendly area close to local Ocean Park beach in Isla Verde, Kasalta is iconic among locals and great for a bite before or after going to the beach because of its proximity. Try the medianoche sandwich (Cuban sandwich on soft, medianoche bread).”
Bacalaitos at Kiosko El Boricua
“When Puerto Ricans talk about going to a chinchorro, they are referring to a simple, rustic, informal local business often serving up a variety of our traditional frituras (local fritters), drinks, and sometimes live music or even a jukebox, all at very low prices.
Chinchorrear is the act of going on a day trip with friends and/or family, usually along a certain route (there are many in P.R.) and stopping in different ones along the way. Instead of ‘bar-hopping,’ it’s ‘chinchorro-hopping’ = chinchorrear.
Frituras are considered ‘street food’ and are very nostalgic because they’re not so readily available in restaurants. You kind of have to be in a chinchorro (or your abuela’s house) to enjoy them, which makes them sacred … and your salvation when you’ve had a few drinks too many.
Kiosko El Boricua is located in Piñones, in the north coast right outside of San Juan connecting San Juan and Loiza. There are many chinchorros to visit along this scenic route. Order the bacalaítos: made with a salt-cod batter, and fried, they form a pancake-like shape and meet all the flavor and texture marks necessary for a good fritter: salty, crispy, chewy, and creamy.”
Alcapurrias at La Alcapurria Quemá
“La Alcapurria Quema is located in a pedestrian-friendly area in La Placita de Santurce, a trendy area that has become famous for its local bar-hopping, and street-fest, casual atmosphere. Grab an alcapurria as fuel between your drinks—a meat-stuffed plantain (and sometimes yuca) fritters, often served with pique (homemade hot sauce) and a cold beer.”
The Best of Chinchorros at Lote 23
“Lote 23 is part of Santurce, a trendy, outdoor food park, housing many different kioskos or chinchorros. It’s a great spot to have lunch or to hit up after work to relax and have some drinks and a variety of good food. My favorite spots are Pernilería los Próceres (for food), Caneca (for drinks), and Señor Paleta (dessert).”
Mofongo at El Guateque
“Located in Cupey, this casual, unpretentious local restaurant serves up my favorite mofongo (Puerto Rican dish with fried plantains as the base) of all time with little chunks of tocino (pork fat) scattered throughout. Make sure to ask for it with a side of caldo (broth) to drown your mofongo in. Try the mofongo con caldo and roast chicken.”
Pastelon de Amarillos at La Casita Blanca
“La Casita Blanca is in a charming location in Santurce, reminiscent of Abuela’s house. This local restaurant serves nostalgic staples. It’s the perfect spot to get some typical, Puerto Rican comfort food, or as we call it ‘comida criolla.’ Order the pastelon de amarillos (sweet plantain lasagna) or any of their stews.”
Seafood at Cayo Caribe
“Cayo Caribe, meaning ‘Caribbean Key’ has three different locations throughout the metropolitan area. The specialty is freshly caught seafood served our way.
Try the stuffed arepas, mahi-mahi or grouper bites, octopus salad, fried whole fish, and rice with crabmeat and coconut.”
Cocas and Burgers at La Bodeguita de Manolo
“Located through a ‘secret door’ inside of Sobao (bakery by Los Cidrines), this trendy eatery has a fun, speakeasy vibe and serves up modern twists on local favorites. The best part: live music. Make sure to call and find out when bands are playing before coming in or making your reservations. And eat the cocas (flatbreads) and burgers.”
Malanga Fritters at Santaella
“Chef Jose Santaella serves up his modern take of traditional Puerto Rican food in this eatery located in the heart of Santurce. Order the malanga (root vegetable) fritters, fried red snapper, and veal cheeks.”