The Flavors of San Juan Food Tour is a fascinating mix of food, history, and culture that provides a tasty and provocative glimpse into what Puerto Ricans, as a culture, like to eat and how their culinary traditions started. It’s easy 3-hour walking tour through Old San Juan, and the food, while positively delicious, wasn’t strictly the best part of the tour. That was learning the context of WHY the dishes we ate were chosen for us. Carmen Rossi, our delightful guide, was such a great storyteller that I could spend the next 3 hours telling you exactly what she shared with us! Instead of doing that, though, I’ll share some highlights with you, just enough to whet your palate for this food tour:
Heady coffee with a sweet and savory snack
Our first stop was the beautifully appointed Cuatro Sombras, where the coffee is so rich and nuanced it tastes like … food. The beans grow under a shady canopy in the southwestern Puerto Rican mountains on the historic Hacienda Santa Clara coffee estate. That estate was established in the mid-19th century and boomed for over a hundred years, helping to bring Puerto Rico world-renown as a high quality coffee producer. But the economy forced it, along with other coffee estates, to close. About 10 years ago, young family members resurrected the land. They successfully replanted 100% arabica beans, producing quality coffee using the original shade-grown techniques that made Puerto Rican coffee famous. We saw photos of the land and learned about the harvest and processing, as well as about the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria and how the growers are recovering.
The coffee came with a breakfast snack, a croissant toasted with provolone cheese, Black Forest ham, and guava butter. Make this at home; it’s truly one of the most delicious combinations I’ve ever had. Carmen explained that Puerto Rican cuisine is all about pairing savory and sweet, a fact we encountered at every single Puerto Rican meal. The recipe for guava butter is simple: just mix guava paste with softened unsalted butter. Add to both sides of a sliced plain croissant, stuff with a thin slice of the cheese and a couple of slices of ham, press and toast it in a skillet, and you’ve got a delicious Puerto Rican style breakfast snack.
Cuatro Sombras was such a highlight, I made it a point to return the following day by myself to have another one of the delicious cups of coffee and another sandwich. It was a great place to take in the the atmosphere of Old San Juan. Plus, I’m happy that I can buy beans direct from the estate to keep my memories of Cuatro Sombras alive every morning here at home as well as to support the local economy.
Old San Juan history
For the next hour or so, Carmen walked us around Old San Juan, doling out interesting historical facts along with frozen fruit pops and panetela de guayaba. She brought the old quarter alive in a way that no guidebook can, telling us about everything from colonial history to balcony architectural styles to the reason for all the cats and cat statues we wandered past.
The main dish: mofongo
We walked just long enough to be ready for our main course was mojitos and mofongo at the restaurant Vaca Brava. Mofongo is a variation of the West African dish fufu with native Taino influences that’s a Puerto Rican staple. It’s made from green plantains, or another starchy root vegetable, mashed with garlic, oil, and bacon or chiccarones. It’s a hearty, savory/sweet dish that’s usually served stuffed with meat or shellfish. Ours came with with tender grilled chicken breast garnished with a tostone.
Milk chocolate with cheese
Our tour finished with crispy churros and hot chocolate at Chocobar Cortés. We ate the cheese the Puerto Rican way, melted in the cup of cocoa. That pairing of cheese and chocolate is another uniquely sweet and savory Puerto Rican taste. We learned that tradition has its roots in the period of time after the island became a colony of the United States. America sent monthly rations to the islanders, and at the end of any given month, all that was usually left was some chocolate, powdered milk, and a hunk of cheese that had seen better days. Carmen explained that mixing all those ingredients together provided a high calorie meal for hungry bellies. Necessity created a new national taste.
Chocolate and cheese isn’t as strange a taste treat as it sounds at first. In fact, I went back again on my own to try one of their grilled cheese and chocolate sandwiches!
We were in Puerto Rico in March of 2019, and despite what news and politics might have led us to believe, we found Puerto Rico to be friendly and safe. It has great natural beauty and people who take a lot of pride in their history and culture. I urge you to consider the island as one of of your next destinations. When you do, make sure you take a Flavors of San Juan Food Tour to enhance your experience.