From simple to sublime, a delicious food tour of Puerto Rico

At Cafe del Angel in Old San Juan, diners can mash their own mofongo.
At Cafe del Angel in Old San Juan, diners can mash their own mofongo. Photo Credit: TW photo by Christina Jelski

In Puerto Rico, they say "Barriga llena, corazon contento," which in English translates to "Full stomach, happy heart."

The phrase is an apt one, considering I spent the vast majority of my recent trip to Puerto Rico feeling full to the point of bursting.

I was visiting San Juan as part of a group media tour of the Caribe Hilton, which, following extensive damage from Hurricane Maria, officially reopened in mid-June after a months-long, $150 million renovation.

Originally opened in 1949, the property lays claim to an important moment in culinary history, with bartender Ramon "Monchito" Marrero widely credited with inventing the pina colada cocktail at the Caribe Hilton in 1954. Today, the hotel serves a classic blended version of Marrero's original recipe made with rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice and sells around 250 pina coladas a day.

That number may have averaged slightly higher during my three-night stay, as I indulged in more than my fair share of pina coladas at the hotel's revamped Caribar, pairing the cocktails with small plates of ceviche and plantain nachos.

A center square in Old San Juan.
A center square in Old San Juan. Photo Credit: TW photo by Christina Jelski

Delicious bites were also plentiful in Old San Juan, where our small group opted to take a local food tour. Among the tour's more notable stops was Cafe del Angel, an unassuming little restaurant specializing in traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.

Here, we were served chicken and rice and beans, as well as each given our own miniature mortar and pestle, the mortar filled with fragrant garlic, butter and fried plantains. After given brief instruction -- with directions not to mash our plantains too energetically, lest our butter spatter --we crushed and combined the ingredients, creating our own freshly-prepared mofongo.

Cafe del Angel was also where I had my first encounter with "mayoketchup," an all-purpose condiment made of mayonnaise and, you guessed it, ketchup. Although I was initially skeptical of the pale pink-hued sauce, I recalled that one of our drivers had waxed poetic on his love of the stuff, a staple he poured on everything from tostones to French fries. "If a restaurant doesn't have mayoketchup, you should leave," he had warned.

So, in an effort to do as the locals do, I doused my food in some mayoketchup and, after a bite or two, quickly became a convert.

The next day, we found ourselves dining at two decidedly more upscale joints.

The grilled octopus at Santaella.
The grilled octopus at Santaella. Photo Credit: TW photo by Christina Jelski

Lunch was at Santaella, a hip restaurant in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Santurce. The brainchild of Puerto Rico-born chef Jose Santaella, the eatery serves up high-end, globally influenced cuisine. Menu highlights: the Japanese crazy salad with spicy crab and seaweed, grilled Spanish octopus with fingerling potatoes and haricot vert, and a goat cheese quesadilla with honey and white truffle oil.

Dinner was at El San Juan Hotel's Cana restaurant, which aims to put a modern twist on Puerto Rican favorites.

Standouts included the pulpo en escabeche -- featuring octopus, sweet peppers, black olive remoulade and tostones -- and the longaniza ahumada, a local smoked pork sausage with taro puree and pickled pearl onions.

Both our meals at Santaella and Cana were outstanding. They were also served alongside small dishes of mayoketchup.

Coincidence? Not likely. Our driver's words were prescient -- any restaurant worth its salt in Puerto Rico had the condiment at the ready.

I was inspired to come up with a new saying regarding Puerto Rican cuisine. "Rica comida siempre acompanada de mayoketchup," which in English translates roughly to "Delicious food is always accompanied by mayoketchup."

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