This essay is part of the Hispanic Heritage series, Latinland USA: A Tiki Tiki guide to Latin flavor in cities across the United States.
Puerto Rico is a land that has developed the art form of what it is to enjoy the best of both worlds… we are a small Island full of culture and panache. San Juan might be small in size in comparison to most cities, but we have all the good and unfortunately, the bad, of any cosmopolitan metropolis. But let’s just focus on the good side for a while here.
Part of that rich culture includes a very abundant culinary vernacular… however, as a vegetarian living in San Juan, it is sometimes challenging to find a 100% vegetarian restaurant serving delicious food all the time. And by all the time I mean – breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. Deciding to follow a vegetarian diet/lifestyle can’t mean that you’ll never ever eat out again. It would not be right.
I like to frequent and support restaurants/chefs that even though they might not follow a vegetarian lifestyle, can still respect that vegetarian patrons are willing and should be able to also enjoy their culinary creations in a welcome environment. The decision to become vegetarian has made me much more of an epicurean than before. Now I enjoy carpaccios, quinoa and artichokes… I appreciate even more the beauty of a great aged sharp goat cheese and the pungent flavor of truffles. These things were not part of my vocabulary when I used to eat “everything.”
Here is a list of my favorite restaurants in the San Juan Metro Area… none of them, except one, are vegetarian. They all have many choices where you can enjoy the local and international flavors of great cuisine regardless if you’re vegetarian or not. Hope you can enjoy them as much as I do.
Casual and Delicious
Veggie Garden – 131 Eleanor Roosevelt Ave., San Juan, PR
To my taste, this is the best vegetarian restaurant in Puerto Rico… such a shame they only open for lunch on most days and only serve dinner on Friday’s and Saturdays. They have delicious food, many times with an Indian flavor twist. They serve daily specials, among them pakoras. I usually have their veggie burgers, the best in San Juan with freshly baked whole-grain buns. On Friday evenings they have a pizza night with very delicious offerings such as spinach and pine nuts in a white sauce or marinated artichokes on pesto sauce. A must try for every vegetarian in Puerto Rico.
Jerusalem – Ave. Roosevelt 1109, San Juan, PR
I love this restaurant… It has the best Middle Eastern food in my opinion. I have traveled to Israel and my standards for good falafel were established there. Jerusalem has THE BEST falafels in Puerto Rico – fresh-tasting and super crispy. I also love to have the vegetable kebabs with arab rice pilaf and salad combination. You could order it also with grilled beef or chicken, but I prefer the vegetable one. And as with any typical Middle Eastern restaurant, they have belly dancing show on Friday nights.
Akai – Road #2, Suchville Plaza, Guaynabo, PR
This is currently the most delicious and affordable sushi in Puerto Rico. It’s totally outside the touristic scene in Suchville Plaza on Road #2. They have very creative rolls with local twists like a “bacalaíto” roll or with sweet plantain on top. Something that sets them apart is they offer half rolls – a great alternative when you want to try a few new flavors without the commitment of 8 pieces to a roll. It’s not super big, but the ambiance is very cozy.
Ceviche House – Ave. Isla Verde #79, Carolina, PR
This is a restaurant located in the most residential part of Isla Verde. Currently there’s a boom of Peruvian cuisine in Puerto Rico and according to my friend Mara from Lima, this one is the most authentic. Their ceviche mixto is delicious and the fried calamari is extremely light and special. And what I can certainly vouch for is they have the best tostones ever!!! Super crispy!!
Kasalta Bakery– Ave. McLeary #1966, San Juan, PR
This Cuban/Spanish bakery is, for my taste, the best bakery in San Juan, if not Puerto Rico. Their sandwiches are huge and delicious and they are mostly known for their Cuban Sandwich and Bistec Sandwich.
President Obama had lunch here during his most recent visit to Puerto Rico. He enjoyed the now-known-as the “Obama Special”, the new “insider” name for a Media Noche sandwich. I usually order what I call a Veggie Cuban sandwich, it’s kind of like a Cuban but replacing the meats with lettuce and tomato. Check out my recipe for a Veggie Cuban here.
Their pastries are delicious too… if you visit you should order a Quesito, a puff pastry dessert filled with sweetened cream chesse. Another favorite is a Pastelillo de Guayaba, this is a love of mine from my Cuban-side of the family. I am not personally a coffee drinker, but the Cuban coffee smell fills the air and just makes you stay longer and longer.
Raíces – Calle Recinto Sur #315, Old San Juan, PR
This might even be considered a bit touristy, now with a location right on Viejo San Juan, but if someone is visiting Puerto Rico for the first time and wants a taste of the typical Puerto Rican cuisine, this is a great place to start.
The Old San Juan location is really cute… You are welcomed by women clad in crisp white Bomba dance outfits, a traditional Afro-Caribbean dance from Loíza Aldea. The inside is decorated as if you were in a wooden cabin in the mountains… The drinks and appetizers are served in metal containers just like the abuelitas used to do way back when. And the mofongos rellenos are served in a pilón. Super cute…
Fine Dining in Puerto Rico
And if you’re into fine dining… there’s plenty to choose from. My personal favorites are the following restaurants.
BudaTai and Bar Gitano – 1056 Ashford Ave., San Juan, PR
These are two of the three restaurants from Chef Roberto Treviño, of Next Iron Chef America fame. The food is innovative – BudaTai riffs on Latin-Asian flavors and Bar Gitano gives Spanish tapas a twist. The food is delicious and not as expensive as some people might think for local fine dining.
My personal favorites in BudaTai are the Caesar Salad with Wasabi Pea Croutons and the Vegetable LoMein. At Bar Gitano the Pan con Tomate, Croquetas and the Fried Cauliflower. I don’t know the cauliflower is on the menu, but I remember the chef sent them when he learned I was vegetarian… and I can vouch for the deliciousness of the sangrias too!!!
Pikayo – Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel, Condado, San Juan, PR
My favorite fine-dining restaurant in San Juan by Chef Wilo Benet, of Top Chef Masters fame. This restaurant has changed locations various times, but the quality of the food is always outstanding. This is not a vegetarian restaurant, but their attention to take care and cater to my vegetarian needs is the best I have seen in Puerto Rico, by far.
The last time I visited I had a the Gouda Cheese Lollipops with Guava Barbecue Sauce, the Fennel, Arugula, Manchego Cheese with Truffle Oil Vinaigrette Salad, a Portobello Mushroom Carpaccio, which they made especially for me, and a Wild Mushroom Morel and Shiitake risotto. Everything was exquisite… and the service, divine!
Madelyn is a lacto-vegetarian, living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She became a vegetarian after starting to practice Yoga seriously 10+ years ago and over the years, she developed an increased appreciation for cooking and developing recipes. Tired of listening to the bad rep Vegetarian cooking had, in 2007 she started the vegetarian blog KarmaFree Cooking, to share how a vegetarian lifestyle and diet is something delicious, healthful and easy to follow and enjoy. KarmaFree Cooking is available on Facebook, on Twitter @karmafreecookin and in Spanish on KarmaFree Cooking en Español.