EAT LIKE A LOCAL

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico's historic capital is home to terrific down-home restaurants that mix Spanish flair with Caribbean spice

Less than five miles inland from the beach communities of Condado and Isla Verde are many restaurants serving authentic criollo food. And in San Juan, criollo is the way to go: It's a blend of the island's African, Spanish, and Taino Indian heritages, it's rich in flavor, and it's inexpensive. English is not all that widely spoken away from the beachside resorts, so it helps to polish up that high school Spanish.

The Santurce marketplace is just eight blocks south of Condado, yet most of San Juan's tourists never hear about it. (A taxi from Isla Verde or Old San Juan costs $6 to $8.) Farmers sell fresh produce out of wooden stalls, and mom-and-pop shops offer everything from classic salsa albums to laundry soap to fresh flowers. The marketplace has also become popular with anyone craving criollo food. At least eight restaurants surround the plaza, ranging from contemporary-chic to cafeteria-style; most have outdoor tables.

As El Popular's name suggests, this family-owned joint in a corner of the marketplace is a local favorite. There's no air-conditioning, and pictures of boxing champs and Puerto Rican flags serve as decor in the 10-table dining room. But no other place serves tastier chicharrones de pollo (fried chicken pieces, $7). Saturdays are reserved for la olla española, a chunky soup made up of seven different meats, including beef, pork, and turkey ($5). A block southwest is the larger Don Tello, known for serious portions. Monday is sancocho day--the beef-based soup, full of vegetables, is hailed as a hangover cure ($6). Thursdays are for oven-baked turkey ($7), Fridays for serenatas (sliced codfish with root vegetables, $7). Shorts, T-shirts, and sandals are the norm. On Don Tello's walls are photos of locals and TV personalities as well as works by area painters. A big plus: air-conditioning.

There's no A/C at La Casita Blanca, and the restaurant is in Santurce's low-income neighborhood of Barrio Obrero, a 10-minute drive east of the marketplace (a $7 cab ride from Isla Verde, $10 from Condado). Still, it's worth the trouble. La Casita was founded in 1983 in an old wooden house. Tables and chairs are similar to those in 1930s Puerto Rican country homes, with decorative touches to match, like old rusted pots, straw hats, and fresh produce neatly stacked inside wicker baskets. Posted on a chalkboard, the menu usually includes beef stew ($9), fried pork chops ($9), and stewed cod ($9.50). A cup of soup, a basket of garlic bread, and a batch of freshly made bacalaitos (cod fritters) are on the house. One of the restaurant's signature drinks is an after-dinner shot of homemade chichaíto, a blend of anise liqueur and rum.

Bebo's Café is perfect for a late lunch after a morning at the beach. It's two blocks south from the ocean, six blocks east from the Santurce marketplace, and a 10-minute walk from the heart of Condado. For less than $10, feast on oven-baked pork chops, half of a barbecued chicken, red snapper fillet with criollo sauce, or pastelón de amarillos (a fried sweet-plantain pie stuffed with ground meat). Entrées come with a choice of starchy sides. While waiting for your order, try the mariquitas (plantains sliced thin and fried golden, $3). To avoid lunch crowds--the 50-odd tables fill up fast--go after 2 p.m. Even then it can be noisy. The vast dining room is about as fancy as a Sizzler, but the powerful air-conditioner is comfort enough, especially after a few hours in the sun.

El Jibarito, the longtime favorite of Old San Juan's criollo restaurant scene, is a welcome contrast to the pricey, trendy spots two blocks south in the area known as SoFo (South of Fortaleza Street). The food resembles a Puerto Rican grandmother's--and that's exactly what you get when Aida, the owner's wife, takes charge of the kitchen. Appetizers include fried plantains ($1.50 each or $6 for an order of four--and don't forget to order the delicious garlic dip), and bite-size fish empanadillas ($3.50). Entrées worth considering are stuffed mofongo, mashed green plantain with chicken, shrimp, or lobster ($14); shrimp in garlic sauce ($14); and fried whole red snapper ($14 to $20). Request the homemade papaya-based hot sauce. It's not on the menu, and it can only be called a blast.

At the entrance plaza to Old San Juan, facing the statue of Christopher Columbus, is Café Puerto Rico. Four of its tables sit outside, overlooking the San Cristóbal Fortress and the beautiful trees in Plaza Colón. Starters include Spanish sausage with wine sauce ($5) and corn and ham croquetas (stuffed fritters, $7 for one order of four). There's a wide sampling of typical Puerto Rican fare, but the specialties are the mofongos ($10 to $18) and asopaos (chicken-, shrimp-, and lobster-based soups with rice and local herbs, $10 to $18). As an after-dinner drink, ask the owner, Hector Andujar, for a sip of his version of Cointreau-aged rum with oranges.

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