Much like the charming streets of the Old San Juan, Puerto Rican gastronomy is a delicious study in history of the island. Leslie Padro, owner of Flavors of San Juan, offers group tours focusing on both the colonial and culinary aspects of the capital.
“This area has so much to offer historically I decided to combine the gastronomy aspect with history and show it off,” Padro explains. This 2.5-hour walking tour stops at several of the eateries for pre-arranged, ready-to-eat meals. The in-between intervals are filled with invigorating history lessons and some spirited walking.
We joined a tour recently, stopping at Aromas Coffeehouse, where we sampled chicharrones de pollo served with sweet plantains, a dish originating in Spain. At Rosa de Triana, located in an underground tunnel facing the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, we feasted on mofongo, a dish brought to the Caribbean by Africans, made of mashed fried green plantains stuffed with shredded chicken and served with rice and beans. We ended the tour at St. Germain Cafe for quite possibly the best rum cake ever made. Moist and flavorful, it had a fantastic crunch thanks to glazed nuts dressing the plate.
Speaking of rum, Bacardi Distillery is located just outside of San Juan, offering 100-pax tours of the facilities accessible by ferry from the Old San Juan’s Pier 2 to Cataño. A 45-minute tour not only spills Bacardi’s production secrets stopping short of revealing its secret formula; it effortlessly mixes Caribbean history lessons with impromptu cocktail networking.
SAN JUAN HOTELS
Puerto Rico’s hotels and resorts are doing their part to support the local gastronomy by presenting its delicacies in unique settings. For groups booking executive club privileges at Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, the 3,200-sf Club Lounge features an al fresco terrace with specialized dining options catered by the award-winning in-house chefs. Try the tomato avocado lump crab salad with mango air.
The views of the bay from the penthouse lounge of this urban resort are equally impressive. And the hotel’s large pool deck is one of the most sought after venues for outdoor receptions with fantastic views of the cruise port and Old San Juan. Total meeting space is 35,000 sf.
The 483-room La Concha Resort’s James Bond worthy, 130-pax La Perla Restaurant is an unforgettable setting for any group outing. The Mid-Century Modern space is shaped like a giant seashell fronting a shallow pool. Feast on Atlantic cod squid ink paella with bacalao-stuffed piquillo pepper or grilled octopus with Spanish chorizo and chimichurri. We especially love this recently renovated hotel for group events in the lobby bar, with long sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors opening out into the pool area.
Regarded as the man who reinvented the Old San Juan dining scene, ostensibly reinventing Old San Juan, Emilio Figueroa is the owner of OOF! Restaurants. How did he come up with that name? “Because when you walk into one of my restaurants, I want you to be so surprised, you go, ‘Oof!,’ he says. “So I called my company OOF! Restaurants.” Each of his restaurants offer customizable private dining spaces for groups up to 60, while others can do more with outdoor cocktail receptions.
One of his newest venues, the Piña Colada Club is a fun space in the 910-room Caribe Hilton Hotel at the entrance of Old San Juan. We’ve attended events on the waterfront grounds here with 1,000+ attendees, while Figueroa’s chefs prepare rum-glazed steak skewers and jerk chicken quesadillas. For large groups, it’s hard to beat the setting this close to the turquoise sea.