I landed in San Juan on Jan. 8, just 36 hours after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico. It was followed by a series of smaller earthquakes and aftershocks that killed at least one person.
In San Juan, restaurants were affected to varying degrees. Some lost power for several days. "We've learned to come together after natural disasters," said Jose Enrique, the island's most celebrated chef. During the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Enrique was tapped by José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen to help feed what eventually became millions of locals and rescue workers.
Following Maria and Hurricane Irma, the local tourism market — which accounts for 6.5% of the island's gross domestic product — took a nose-dive. Now there are an average of 200 arrivals on any given day at San Juan's airport, up from a low of 20, and the inventory of hotel rooms has increased 3.4% since 2017. The year 2019 also saw the highest lodging revenue year-to-date for Puerto Rico tourism.
Enrique says the food scene in San Juan has evolved to become more dynamic and locally focused since the hurricanes. Now the island is showcasing a singular kind of cooking that you can't find anywhere else, as cooks and bartenders take a fresh look at such classics as mofongo (mashed plantains), empanadas, pernil, roasted pork and piña coladas. Even for dishes that aren't typically Puerto Rican, chefs are sourcing more ingredients from the island.
"After every earthquake, every storm, we say: 'We're going to do this bigger and better,' " Enrique said.
Where to eat
Jose Enrique: Puerto Rico's most celebrated chef has taken his exuberant criollo cooking to a buzzy, brasserie-style dining room in Condado. In the softly lit space, Enrique serves perennial favorites such as crispy fried yellowtail with sweet yam mash and paper-thin swordfish schnitzel. New and mandatory are plate-sized fried salt cod bacalitos, which are excellent with a coconut-water highball. In the spring, Enrique will transform the second floor of the building into an additional restaurant with a selection of ceviches and carpaccios and toasts with toppings like uni and herb butter, as well as assorted sparkling wines and sake, all with a view of the ocean.
Verde Mesa: This Old San Juan dining room has a romantic, antique-store vibe and a menu from chef Gabriel Hernandez with more vegetables than a lot of local dining rooms. There are options like pumpkin barley porridge stocked with roast eggplant, kale and mushrooms; pigeon pea hummus; and swordfish ceviche, sometimes accompanied by crisp chips made from malanga, a tropical root vegetable. The favorite dessert is the purple dream, a combination of berries and whipped cream, with crispy meringue and a floral hit of lavender.
Prole Cocina & Barra: Highlights include pollo frito-sous vide fried chicken with crispy Brussels sprouts and truffle mash, a 22-oz. cowboy rib-eye with grilled asparagus, and burrata salad made with heirloom cherry tomatoes and local sourdough. At the buzzy bar, customers can get the gin-and-cucumber Lobo Demesticado and house favorite Tito Placita, which combines vodka, aperol, ginger and lime with Ocean Lab Mambo beer.
Vianda: At his window-lined restaurant, Francis Guzman will serve Puerto Rico's game fish, snook, with roasted shrimp and fermented aji peppers, add morcilla (house blood sausage) to risotto and accent tostadas with short rib marmalade and caramelized onions. Along with inspired cocktails like the Rye-Cao Old Fashioned, Vianda serves mocktails like Limoncillo, made with lemongrass tea and fermented lemon syrup.
La Casita Blanca: As the name suggests, this is a white house fronted with an arboretum's worth of plants and has been welcoming locals for decades. Servers offer up comfort food from a chalkboard menu that includes tostones rellenos (stuffed plantains) and fried pork with rice and peas. There's a selection of beers and house sangria.
Kasalta: This old-school bakery and deli is renowned for its Cubano sandwiches and hot, fortifying café con leche. Try anything in mallorca (sweet bread) and the sandwich de bistec, or a medianoche, a local favorite that's similar to a Cuban sandwich. President Barack Obama had breakfast at Kasalta; a plaque marks the spot.
El Churry: For over 20 years, El Churry has been providing Puerto Rico with messy, meat-filled churrasco sandwiches via a fleet of food trucks, as well as a couple of storefronts. The Mixto combines griddled skirt steak and chicken with lettuce, tomato, ketchup-infused mayo and potato sticks, all packed into a roll. It's the perfect late-night-drunk sandwich.
Where to drink
JungleBird: Neon signs and palm trees animate this tropical lounge-gone-wild, with a DJ. Drinks include tepeachecolada, a smart riff on the piña colada made with the fermented pineapple beverage tepache, and Adios Panalones, which combines vodka, pisco, pineapple and spices. The snacks roster might include dan dan dumplings and snapper ceviche with kimchi.
La Factoria: A bar that evokes a spacious house, with a front room devoted to superior cocktails such as Mercado Roma, which combines mezcal and honey with a tart punch of ancho chile shrub and grapefruit. An interior room is devoted to wine drinks. The place is good enough to have scored a spot on the 2018 World's 50 Best Bars list.
Where to stay
Condado Vanderbilt: Built in 1919, the imposing beachside hotel has 108 suites, including a pair of tower suites, all with butler service and the island's first Hammam spa. It's also home to one of Puerto Rico's most sophisticated restaurants, 1919, where the prix fixe menu might start with caviar and include black tagliatelle with lobster and shrimp.
El San Juan Hotel: Designer Jeffrey Beers led a $65 million restoration of this iconic resort, which claims a whopping two miles of pristine coastline. A 4,000-pound crystal fixture gives the Chandelier Bar its name.
Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve: The island's standard-bearer for luxury reopened in October 2018 with a brighter color palette in its 114 beachfront rooms, a new five-bedroom villa for families, and redone restaurants. Already beloved for its lush and expansive grounds, Dorado Beach got 300,000 new plants after the hurricanes.