Eatin’ in San Juan, Puerto Rico

March 10, 2012 at 9:57 AM 5 comments

This was our forth trip to Puerto Rico. We love the island, the sun and friendly population. We have also enjoyed a number of good meals on this island paradise. Our first visit, over thirty years ago took us to La Zaragozana, the legendary Spanish restaurant in Old San Juan. It was so good; a few years later we dined there again and again enjoyed it. On our last visit, we learned, sadly that it had closed, but we luckily found a new favorite, Ajili Mojili. This was a small, busy place, tucked away off the Condado that served luscious Puerto Rican cuisine. We left for this trip expecting another remarkable meal only to learn from the concierge that another San Juan favorite has disappeared. Like deja vu, all over again, we found a favored spot had fallen prey to fate.

Following in the path of favorites, La Zaragozana and Ajili Mojili, we now proudly add the name, Budatai. Located across the street from a new park on Ashford Avenue where the old Convention Center was located, Budatai is a second story room with a wonderful view of the park and ocean beyond. The space is filled with dark wood, warm people and great food. So good in-fact, we did something we NEVER do on a vacation…we went their twice! The appetizer we had on the first night set the stage for all the food to come. When asked for a suggestion, our exceedingly cordial and helpful server immediately recommended the Herame, a thin sliced fish in yuzu (a Japanese citrus) ceviche with matchsticks of carrots and a touch of garlic and sesame oil. When the fish was gathered around the orange, the combination of the silky seafood and the tart citrus is an unexpected blast to the taste buds. After the first bite, we knew we had stumbled into a treasure. The next visit we started with crunchy calamari, larger rings than normal, but very tender and served with beautifully grilled onions and sauce.

For our entrees Jeff tried the seared Ahi Tuna that was butter soft and topped with a sprinkle of roe. The plate was accompanied by taro gnocchi, wasabi peas and an interesting Kombu (Asian kelp) sauce. He also enjoyed the second night’s slow roasted half-duck in a Peking sauce. The skin was crispy, the duck meat was tender and the dish was served with an excellent mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican fried plantain dish.) Perfect!

Michele ordered the Cod, served “chop suey” style with Brussels Sprout leaves and tempura bacon. It was so good, she almost ordered it again on our second visit, but our waiter convinced her to try the grilled salmon paired with a mild green chili sauce and a light quinoa side. It was a good decision and she couldn’t have been happier.

For dessert, we had the Banana Tart one day and the Bread Pudding duo (one dish chocolate, the other cocoanut) the second night. Both were elegantly prepared and clearly the work of a clever chef.

Comments about Budatai cannot go without a mention of Michele’s tea. A colorful mix of mint, citrus zest and lemongrass, if this was alcohol based; she’d have needed a designated driver! Like everything at Budatai, it was truly special.

The other restaurants in this very continental city were less successful. That was a surprise to us. We tried Aguaviva in Old San Juan, right off the Plaza Colon. The interior featured some cute jellyfish lighting fixtures and we sat at a cozy corner table, but we were here for the food. The cod fritter appetizer reminded Michele of conch fritters, with perhaps a bit too much filler. Michele had the special Bass that was simply seared with a touch of pepper and little else, allowing the fish to speak for itself. It was served with grilled vegetables and a side of lobster mashed potatoes. She felt the fish bland and the mashed good. Jeff snuck a taste of the mashed potato and was less enamored. He did however enjoy his pan seared grouper served over a jalapeno cachapa (a pancake like, cornbread) with a tomato stew atop. We were both very happy with the flowerless chocolate cake served in a white chocolate sauce, but overall, we had hoped from more from this well regarded business.

We had a nice lunch of Empanadillas and chicken BLT (unfortunately, with bland fries) at the Parrot Club in Old San Juan. While Michele enjoyed a Caesar salad, Jeff had a very creative mushroom based cream sauce linguine at Di Zucchero. If we had another evening in San Juan, we’d likely try a full meal at this busy and chic Italian eatery. After discovering our little breakfast spot on the Condado had gone the way of La Zaragozana and Ajili Mojili, we found a tasty cup of luscious Puerto Rican coffee and Chai Latte at Picachos, a local coffee shop that carefully prepares each cup. Things change, new opportunities arise.

One place we will not return is, Casa Lola. When we found out Ajili Mojili had disappeared, we asked the concierge where to go for traditional Puerto Rican food. Apparently, we needed to qualify the request with the adjective, “good.” Our bad! Casa Lola does serve traditional food, but unfortunately, it is not very good. Michele fared better than Jeff with grilled Mahi-Mahi, served with cubed carrot and a tasty Puerto Rican sausage. Jeff unfortunately ordered the dried and over-cooked grilled pork tenderloin with milky risotto. (NOT described as such on the menu!) The disappointing dessert was a promised lemon tart that turned out to be a lemon cheesecake (cheesecake, the one dessert we collectively dislike.) All and all, a waste of money.

In conversation with our waiter at Budatai, we learned that he was previously employed at Ajili Mojili, working his way up from busboy to front of house manager. We also learned that while we were away from the island, the cozy little spot moved to the much larger, much more prominent spot on Ashford Avenue that is now occupied by Casa Lola. Like so many restaurants, Ajili Mojili increased its size in hope of added fame. The result being a reduction in the quality of the food and an inability to maintain the reason patron frequented the original place. Ajili Mojili committed suicide.

We’ll be back to Puerto Rico. We still love the vibe. Inevitably, one of our favorite places will disappear. The great thing that longevity teaches us is that when history disappears, a new, sometimes more interesting alternative will take its place. When that happens, we’ll be there to sample the great food of Puerto Rico, one of our favorite islands. Ashford Avenue San Juan, PR 00907 787-725-6919 Fortaleza Street San Juan, PR 00901 787-722-0665 Fortaleza Street San Juan, PR 00901 787-725-7370

http://dizuccheropr.com1210-1214 Ashford Avenue San Juan, PR 00908 787-946-0835 Ashford Avenue San Juan, PR 00907 787-977-8681 Ashford Avenue San Juan, PR 00907 787-998-2918

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Crystal @EatDrinkCleveland  |  March 10, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    I’ve always wanted to go to Puerto Rico! Loved reading about it…all the cod chop suey sounds amazing!

  • 2. Alicia  |  May 2, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    I agree with you reviews completely. Casa Lola is totally overpriced and the food is mediocre. The service is very good.

  • 3. house for sale in kuching bdc  |  April 2, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    I leave a response each time I like a article on a site or I have
    something to add to the conversation. It’s a result of the passion communicated in the article I browsed. And after this post Eatin’ in San Juan, Puerto Rico | Jeff and Michele Eat Cleveland. I was excited enough to post a comment 😉 I actually do have 2 questions for you if you tend not to mind. Could it be just me or does it look as if like some of the comments appear like left by brain dead folks? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional online social sites, I’d like to follow anything new you have to
    post. Would you list the complete urls of all your community pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    • 4. jeffandmicheleeatcleveland  |  April 6, 2013 at 7:18 PM

      We also Tweet as JeffMicheleEat – Jeff and Michele Eat Cleveland also has a Facebook page, but it seems superfluous, so we don’t add much there. Glad you enjoyed!

  • 5. Bernie  |  July 16, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    La zaragozana was our favorite restaurant in San Juan. We, too, went their twice in one week! Garlic soup and black bean soups were our favorites! Will miss it on our scheduled trip in January.


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