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I love taking food tours when I travel. I find them to be the perfect introduction to a destination – you are essentially on a guided historical walking tour themed around the cultural cuisine an food of a country or city.
Tours don’t get much better than that if you ask me. If I’m going to be walking around and learning about all the ins and outs of a culture, why not add in some food and drinks into the mix? So when I got to San Juan, Puerto Rico, I instantly looked up food tours. The first one I came across was the Spoon Food Tours.
They run different tours, and since I was going to be taking the tour with my mom who has a lot of dietary restrictions (no gluten, no dairy, no red meat, no nightshade vegetables, etc) I need to first check if her needs would be accommodated. And I was very happy to hear from Paulina, the owner that the evening 4pm tour would work well!
We met our guide Caroline in front of the Plaza del Armas and were ready for the tour. Our guide was originally from Spain, but went to school at McGill in Montreal, before living with her husband in England and finally settling down and having a baby in Puerto Rico.
She was bubbly, she was chatty, she was passionate about both food and Puerto Rico – just what you want in a tour guide. After explaining a bit about the history of Puerto Rico (the Spaniards were in control for 400 years until the Americans took over in 1898) we were ready for our first stop.
We entered this bright and vibrant restaurant where the focus is on locally sourced home made food.
Here we were greeted by a sangria de pacha – a white wine sangria with passionfruit which was ever so slightly sweet and refreshing.
Then we went out to sample a Puerto Rican specialty – mofongo with a chicken cream sauce. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish made with fried green plantains that are then mashed and mixed with garlic, onion and seasoning. It is mashed in a wooden pilon, similar to a mortar and pestle. The mofongo can be served plain or with a variety of different sauces and toppings.
Of all the Puerto Rican food I have sampled, mofongo is definitely a favorite.
From there we continued our walking tour through the historic old town. Our next stop was a cafe next to the most narrow building in Puerto Rico, the yellow one pictured below (also known as La Casa Estrecha) which is only 5 foot wide, and has recently been renovated. It can be yours for only $900 a month, as long as you can handle a 5 foot wide, 36 feet deep and 2 story home.
Too narrow for me, but I love the colorful facade. Our next stop was a cafe run by a Puerto Rican Italian couple – so the food menu is a fusion between the two cultures.
We started with a refreshing rum beverage. Rum is the alcohol of choice in Puerto Rico, and while Bacardi is the most well known brand, the distillery in San Juan is run by a Cuban family in exile, so for the real Puerto Rican run you have to opt from Palo Viejo or Don Q.
This classical daiquiri as we came to learn from Caroline, is not a blended strawberry fruity smoothie like drink. It is in fact a simple cocktail made up of rum, lime, sugar and ice. That’s what we sampled before our main entree.
For our food here we got to sample an upgraded arroz mamposteao, which is a classic Puerto Rican rice dish made with a mixture of rice, veggies, beans, sausage etc. Since this cafe is run by an Italian, there is a bit of a risotto flair on this dish and it ends up being a mix between a risotto, jambalaya, paella, etc. It was rich and creamy while being perfectly smooth. A truly delicious rice dish.
Caroline continued to chat us up, describing Puerto Rican food culture. It was interesting to learn that Puerto Rico currently imports 80-90% of its food, as this is an American territory, it has become easier to import food than to continue to build up the agricultural industry on the island.
Currently there is a shift more towards local food that is grown on the island, so Caroline is hopeful that in the coming years there will be a rise in the agricultural industry, especially in the fields of coffee and tropical fruits – produce that can grow well on the Puerto Rican soil with the climate.
I loved walking around the old town on the route mapped out by Spoon Food tours. We passed by what used to be a convent but is now a fancy hotel/restaurant.
Then we made our way down a street sloping downwards with gorgeous colonial style houses on both sides.
I love the colorful historical buildings in San Juan.
We made our way down to the water level, on Paseo de la Princesa and had a gorgeous view of the sky turning from light to dark.
It was also fascinating to learn that the Puerto Ricans are not huge fans of fish. This was surprising, considering this is an island, but with the Spanish presence here the diet moved towards more meat – pork, specifically, and moved away from fish and fresh seafood. It seems the average Puerto Rican is not a big fish eater (which we also learned to be true when talking with some locals in Culebra). Pork is currently the major source of protein here. And fried food seems to be highly valued as well!
Then we arrived at our 4th stop – a fancy gastrobar where there was even a wedding ceremony (not reception) going on as we walked in. The atmosphere at this venue was super hip and fun, with that exposed wood look and a bit of an industrial flair.
I quite liked the look of the rum barrels in the background.
It was time for another drink – this time rum punch – a mix of rum and a fruit juice blend. A bit sweet for my taste, but hey when in Puerto Rico!
Food time! Here we were sampling a grouper garbanzada – a dish made with a base of rice, topped with breaded and pan fried grouper in a tomato based sauce with chickpeas, veggies and garnished with greens.
I personally am a huge fan of grouper – I love how tender and soft it is, without being overly fishy or meaty.
While on it’s own the ingredients in this dish are fairly simple – rice, breaded fish, chickpeas, and a tomato sauce. Yes, traditional Puerto Rican cuisine is not incredibly adventurous or exotic in it’s mix of ingredients, but they do comfort food well. If you like rice and plantains in all shapes, sizes and textures, there will certainly be something for you here.
I love my plantains and rice is my preferred starch over pasta, so I have certainly enjoyed the various mixed rice dishes of all types.
From there our next stop was to a local artisanal grocery store that only sells what has been grown on the island. Here we sampled a fruit salad made with local fruit all grown locally. I love to support local businesses and encourage communities to continue growing food locally so I was happy to see that Puerto Rico is embracing this as well. There were a lot of root veggies here, plantains, tropical fruit, and even farm fresh eggs (which had almost been sold out that day).
Our last stop was an artisan ice cream and coffee shop with everything made in house with the local flavors of Puerto Rico. We sampled the lime sorbet and coffee ice cream, both of which were delightful. Coffee ice cream might just be my new favorite flavor.
We also learned from Carolina that Puerto Rico makes some seriously delicious coffee. Coffee used to be the island’s largest export, but now it needs to be imported and what happens is that major brands will purchase the coffee from Mexico, mix in a minimum amount of Puerto Rican coffee and then sell it as Puerto Rican coffee. Currently, there is a rise in single origin specialty grade coffee and as this becomes more popular, there will be more small coffee growers entering the market.
That wrapped up our food tour! We had a great time with Caroline as our guide, who is simply brimming with information and passion for the Puerto Rican food scene and the culture. She took some time after the tour to share her favorite foodie destinations in the city, and we left with a list of at least a dozen new restaurants to try.
I fully enjoyed this food tour, which not only lets you sample bites of the traditional cuisine, but also is a guided tour around the historical center of the city with lots of both historical and culture information.
To book your own food tour head on over to Spoon Food Tours. We went on the sunset walk and taste 4pm tour, but there are lots of other tours to choose from. The total tour price with tax + fees for the evening tour is $105, and while this seems like a lot, you need to view this not just as a dinner with drinks and dessert, but a full tour experience where you also have a guided city tour built in as well. If you have dietary restrictions the evening tour will be able to accommodate them.
**Thank you to Spoon Food Tours for sponsoring my experience. As always all opinions expressed here are my own.