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.

A roof-top view of Old San Juan's architecture. (Kim O'Donnel)

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.

A street scene in Old San Juan. (Kim O'Donnel)

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 Café (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.

Got a San Juan tidbit to share? Do so in the comments area.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 14, 2007; 11:31 AM ET Travel
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Hey! Puerto Rico is amazing. Whatever you decide to do next...PLEASE PLEASE go see the phosphorent Bahia - there is one there in Vieques. It is really unbelievable - one of the best five experiences you will have in your life - to swim in the bays with the plankton that feels as if you are swimming in a sea of stars. That is the magic of Puerto Rico.

Posted by: Andrew Miller | March 14, 2007 12:44 PM

I was in Old San Juan last July and ate a fabulous diner but I cannot remember the name. I had mashed plantains stuffed with shrimp - it was incredible! It came with a side of black beans too. The place was great - it has some table seating but most was counter seating diner-style. My friend and I sat at the counter and were surrounded by regulars speaking spanish and enjoying the day. I plan on going back there someday and ordering the same exact thing! Puerto Rico is great! Congratulations on your wedding!

Posted by: Melanie | March 14, 2007 1:39 PM

I had lunch at Aguaviva in mid-January. Had their version of paella which was made with Israeli couscous.

It was great.

Where can you buy Israeli couscous in DC area? I have not found it at my Giant or Harris Teeter.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 14, 2007 1:43 PM

You should have gone across the street to Buron for dinner for mofongo-mania.

Posted by: Paul | March 14, 2007 2:49 PM

As someone who has been to Puerto Rico quite a few time, I find your characterization of the road to Old San Juan inappropriate. To characterize the appearance of old colonial structures (while nice) as a relief because of the "atrocities" that you passed by is denying what Puerto Rico truly is. It is no longer a vestige of colonial times, but a modernizing Caribbean island, and thank goodness for that. You will definitely see more "ugly" strip malls if you go to Fagardo, Aguadilla or Ponce. That, however is what makes Puerto Rico Puerto Rico.

Posted by: RS | March 14, 2007 2:56 PM

RS: Thanks for your comments. My characterization was intended to show contrast of modern life versus legacy of the old, not to say that one was better than the other. And I stand by my characterization that driving into Old San Juan from 21st century SJ is not so much a relief as it is a stark contrast as well as a delightful surprise -- in architecture and overall feel.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 14, 2007 3:11 PM

Israeli couscous - I buy it at Whole Foods in the bulk food section

Posted by: eidebc | March 14, 2007 3:52 PM

I love that you mentioned Baru. I have spent 3 months in Puerto Rico work over the past three years and I make sure I hit Baru every time! The service, and Luis in particular, has kept us coming back. El Convento is wonderful as well. Next time, try the Horned Dorset in Rincon, on the west side of the island. That's where we're going for our honeymoon.

Posted by: Melissa in NY | March 14, 2007 5:03 PM

Giant and Safeway sometimes expand their Jewish/kosher food selections before Passover, even foods not kosher for Passover (go figure), like Israeli couscous, so you might look there now, in the Jewish food section.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | March 14, 2007 7:02 PM

no such thing as israeli couscous-original name came from the palestinian small sized pasta called in arabic 'maftool'

Posted by: what? | March 15, 2007 3:44 PM

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