San Juan Stories and Tips

Pimpin' the Plates

Café Celeste Photo, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Often on a tight schedule and even tighter budget, food is usually the least of my priorities while opting to sate an appetite of a different kind. I'm a faithful patron to some, but there's also always a new find on the blocks that manages to catch and satisfy my attention. Here's a few of my favorites, all conveniently located near the guesthouses:

Coffee dominates my Breakfast of Champions with a large costing $.89 at the Burger King on the corner of Tanca and San Francisco. There's a nice morning-shaded plaza across the street to enjoy while waking up! Fast-food joints litter the Old City with familiar fair and slightly cheaper prices.

However, this last adventure, I found San Juan has finally caught up with the Starbuck's craze, and there's a new one just off the southwestern corner of Plaza de Colón heading south. Their pastry case is loaded with sweetbreads, muffins, and specialties featuring tamarind, guava, and other tropical pastes; a large coffee costing $1.80, great for enjoying outside at one of the umbrella-shaded tables while watching the city come to life.

Tío Danny's, at 313 Fortaleza, has been a long-time favorite that is full of surprises since it's always undergone another change for keeping up with competition. If they still happen to be serving breakfast, a plate of eggs, potatoes, and choice of meat with bread and coffee is never more than $4. I've also had some exceptional local cuisine for lunch within the same price range, but the bonus is dining in the center courtyard of the colonial-styled historical building; something you'd never expect from the street. As of the summer of 2003, they convert into an upscale seafood house of an evening well beyond my price range.

A couple of other favorite stand-bys are Cafeteria Mallorca at 300 Calle de San Francisco and La Bombanera just down the block and across the street at 259 San Francisco. Both offer standard, sit-down breakfasts for under $5. Their window fronts are loaded with fresh-baked items, both serve lunch, and La Bombanera stays open late for dinner with nothing on the menu costing over $15. The latter is worth passing through just to see this old-time diner and fountain counter operating "as is and as has been" historically for almost a century.

I stumbled across a new find during my last extended visit that's rather obscure but worth tracking down. Café Celeste is tucked away at 197 Callejón de la Capilla; a small alley that runs between San Francisco and Fortaleza. Initially I was drawn to the music and large crowd in the passageway of a late night...long after the food was gone. It's definitely a local hot spot without the frills, beers costing $1.50.

For dining, they only serve lunch beginning around 10am and going until all the food for the day has been devoured. There's a new menu posted out front daily featuring 6 Creole favorites, such as stewed shredded beef in salsa, fried chicken, pork roast, pepper steak, and codfish just to name a few. Everything is packaged and ready for take-out, including large portions of rice and beans, salad, and non-alcoholic beverage of choice for $5.

The space is very limited and crowded inside with compact walls lined with stand-up counters for eating on the run. Outside in the alley, there are a few shaded patio tables and chairs great for confirming you've found a memorable place. Aside from barely being able to finish what adequately suffices as the meal for the day, local life parades by to the beat of whatever Latin music is pulsing inside. Call it the final indicator of success, but I was surprised at the number of local business people in suits which made a quick appearance before returning to the office with a haul. I highly recommend this place.

The last meal of the day has always been somewhat of a challenge, and why I like to load-up on a late lunch regardless of afternoon heat factor. All the local-based places have closed, leaving a huge dining void with choices limited to posh, upscale-priced restaurants or fast-food; all their availabilities inconsistent based on whether cruise ships are in port.

On the ground level next to the guesthouse on Tanca is a standard, Asian-run Chinese food take-out restaurant with lots of seating and the typical menu read around the world. They've tried recreating a few of the local dishes with rice, but stick with what they know - sweet and sour chicken or pork, veggie medley in garlic sauce, etc., for under $6, not including drink. It's something, if not convenient, and I find myself here more than I care to remember. Meals are made to order; obvious by the long wait if there's any type of business for the night.

I don't patronize fast-food establishments at home and cringe at the thought of doing so here. But there's a pair of local chains serving up something different to spare you from McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC and the likes.

Flamer's is on the corner of Tanca and Tetuah, and La Meson Grill is swallowed next door to Wendy's at the northwest corner across from Plaza de Arma. They've a large selection of salads and specialty sandwiches, but it's a pleasant change of pace to have a helping of tostones, boiled yucca, rice and beans, and other local favorites as side dishes. You can leave either of these places stuffed for under $7.

Street Vendors
What's a Latin encounter without swarms of vendors hawking drinks and snacks from make-shift carts? A day-time favorite are paraguas; cups of shaved ice saturated in tropical flavored syrups; better than any snow cone you'll ever have. They offer two sizes and I've never paid more than $2 for a large.

Vendors tend to flock to a pair of high-traffic areas. You'll find them on Calle Norzagaray at the corner of the lawn leading up towards El Morro Fortress. This is also where you can purchase kites should you care to test your luck around the wind-swept sprawl. Vendors here are also only out until the sun goes down.

The other cluster are always filling the plaza area just off the docks where cruise ship passengers come aground, and are often scattered along the straight-away entry to Paseo de la Princesa promenade. Expect their prices to be higher; especially if purchasing consumables or tourist trinkets from an immigrant vendor.

The best experiences here come on evenings when there isn't a ship in port and the local, die-hard entrepreneurs are out like they've been for centuries. Surprisingly, pizza off one of these carts was decent; a large slice of pepperoni and coke for under $5.

More than a Night
If planning on being around a couple of days, I head for the Super-Ex Mercado (formerly Pueblo de San Juan supermarket) on Calle Cruz on the eastern side of Plaza de Arma. You'll find a little of everything you would at home, but I challenge you to try the local brands of items rather than U.S./global kinds. You'll be pleased at the differences.

Similar snacks and things for the room can also be found at Walgreen's on the northeast corner of Plaza de Arma or at a local drug store chain just across the street. The local version is more interesting, but both are priced higher than at the grocery store.

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