Though he has been wowing diners in San Juan for almost seven years, José Enrique Montes caught a lot of attention only last year for being the first-ever Puerto Rican chef to nab a James Beard Award nomination for his terrific restaurant, Jose Enrique, as well as being named a Food & Wine Best New Chef for 2013. Here, authentic local flavors meet outstanding technique in humble, homey surroundings. The menu changes daily, but hope for his carne guisada (beef stew with root vegetables), dorado fish with chickpea stew and alcapurrias (fritters) stuffed with amazingly fresh crab.
Locals were thrilled when acclaimed caterer José Santaella decided to open his own restaurant in 2011. After all, he’s worked with some of the world’s best chefs, including Ferran Adria, Gary Danko and Eric Ripert. Within the tropical-urban ambiance of Santaella, diners can expect elevated treatment of local dishes, such as traditional roasted pork with rice, pigeon peas and plantain escabeche to internationally influenced creations such as popcorn chicken in curry and agave.
Juan José Cuevas brings his commitment to locality and sustainability from New York City’s Blue Hill, where he served as executive chef for four years. At 1919, the chef has an especially golden touch with fish dishes, such as a signature cod with local corn, young onions, shellfish and chive.
The beauty is in the details at Marmalade, from chef Peter Schintler’s slowly melting chile-flavored ice cube and the basil infusion in his tostones to his obsession with using local product. It is one of the only restaurants in San Juan that features a vegetarian tasting menu; fish fans and land lubbers should not miss out on queen snapper poached in coconut water or the heritage Berkshire pork cheeks with barbecued black-bean purée.
Former Top Chef Master contestant Wilo Benet has been serving modern Puerto Rican food for over 20 years at his legendary Pikayo. His small plates are particularly playful: pegao, the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot, serves as a crunchy bed for silken tuna, and lumachina pasta makes the perfect vehicle for creamy, bisque-inspired sauce with jueyes, a local land crab.
The dishes at Laurel within the Museo de Arte Puerto Rico are as artful as the surroundings. Chef Mario Pagan, known for appearing on The Next Iron Chef in Season 3, adds luxury to common ingredients: an ordinary sea bass, for example, is paired with foie gras and port reduction.