A Grand Old San Juan
I've passed through the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan a zillion times, but merely to make a connecting flight to other Caribbean islands. The only time I've spent out of the airport has been at the beachfront bar at the Ritz-Carlton in nearby Isla Verde (a pleasant and easy way to kill time during a long layover). So when Mister Groom and I were planning some downtime after entertaining wedding guests, I jumped on the idea of a few days in Old San Juan.
The trick was finding a hotel without the commotion of a casino or a sprawling pool scene. The solution: El Convento, a 68-room historic hotel with a fascinating past. Its story begins in 1651, when it opened its doors as a Carmelite convent, housing nuns for the next 252 years. I loved the idea of sleeping in such an old structure, but had no idea what a treat we had in store.
After traversing the airport highway and a few major thoroughfares dotted with ugly shopping strip malls, the taxi turned onto a winding road, and suddenly, we were magically transported to a European village.
It wasn't just the nearly 500-year old Spanish forts and castillo framing the perimeter of the city that blew my mind; it was the cobblestone streets, the twisty, turny alleyways, the balconies and the smell of history. Mister Groom kept saying it reminded him of a hilly French Quarter and I could see his point, but me, I just kept thinking Spain or Italy. Plazas where people congregate for a coffee, parks where people actually sit and take a personal moment, restaurants where working people sit down and eat lunch from a plate -- and not out of a Styrofoam box.
I love how people dress up for work and how they greet you with "Buena" whether or not you speak Spanish. And I love how feeble attempts at speaking Spanish are greatly appreciated, a gesture that has inspired Mister Groom and me to get into a conversational class pronto.
Although El Convento has four restaurants on site (including a fab complimentary wine and cheese hour every night on the roof terrace at 6), we strolled through the streets (aka calles) in search of local vittles for most of our meals.
Without much work, we found delicious eats, a mix of homespun soul kitchen and trendy fusion.
It was at lunch that we got our fix of cocina puertorriquena; on our first day, we tried the Spanglish CafÃ© (105 Calle Cruz), a homey neighborhood joint run by a friendly guy called Robert who's originally from Columbia, Md. We sat at the bar in the back room and ordered from the board of daily specials, which included carne frita (fried pork), pork chops, fried chicken (you can see the soul food theme here), served up with savory sides such (red) beans and rice, plantains and pigeon peas.
We loved the soul-kitchen theme so much we asked for more suggestions, so Hermes, one of the managers at El Convento directed us to El Jibarito, a cafeteria-style dining room with lots of homespun flavor. This time, with my pork, I had mofongo, a classic Puerto Rican dish made of mashed fried plantains and lots of garlic -- and salted pork. Oh my goodness, I couldn't get enough of the stuff!
For dinner, we got dressed up and ventured into something more upscale. The first night we hit Baru(150 Calle San Sebastian), a well-known bar with a creative fusion-y menu that claims to be "tapas" sized but is a whole lot bigger. It's a sexy setting, with lots of banquettes for two and sultry tunes that make you want to tango.
For our final supper, we chose Aguaviva, the renowned Latino seafood oasis from the successful restaurant group known as Oof! (Those in the San Juan know may be familiar with Dragonfly and Dragonfly Two, which offer more of a club than restaurant vibe.)
Don't bother making a reservation; you must add your name to the waiting list regardless of your extra effort. We waited about 30 minutes at the bar while sipping on respectable (but not fantastic) mojitos (the best we had came from El Pictoteo, the second-floor restaurant/bar at El Convento). If you like ceviche, do not miss out on this luscious opportunity. It is possibly some of the best ceviche I've ever had. Wow -- how it popped it my mouth and did a citrus dance. As tasty as our morsels were, the noise level was challenging (very Miami) for this weary traveler, but everyone seemed excited to be there and the servers were busy but bubbly.
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