Where to Eat in San Juan, According to a Puerto Rican Chef
Ana Ortiz didn’t plan on becoming a chef. Working as a server in Los Angeles at the now shuttered but well-loved restaurant Canelé, Head Chef Corina Weibel — a pioneer of the west coast farm-to-table movement — inspired everyone, especially Ortiz, with her approach to food. “It was so simple... and perfect,” she recalls.
In truth, Chef Ortiz’s passion for food began in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico where family dinners were filled with equal parts food and laughter. Ana marvels at how today’s chefs, her contemporaries, have elevated the cuisine she grew up with. “It’s incredible to be in the same room with them. The smell of those herbs and spices still feel like home.”
But Ortiz was already injecting those tastes from home into her own personal cooking, before she ever dreamed of making it a profession. “I made a guava tart for the Planned Parenthood bake sale," she said. "People have tracked me down. They still tell me how they dream of my guava tart.”
Which makes how she ended up in Canelé’s pastry kitchen a truly happy accident: "One day the pastry chef didn’t show up.”
A team player until the end, Ana had already expressed an interest in cooking. She slipped on an apron and jumped behind the line. What she found was an opportunity to help and then, ultimately, to learn. The cooks took turns training her, pointing out the correct way to whisk cream into soft peaks or grease the tins for their namesake canelé, a crispy, custardy bun baked into brûléed, almost burnt, sugar at the corners. “Roll your dough like this… don’t put your sugar and your eggs together until you’re ready or you’ll ruin your eggs,” Ana laughs. “And they were right!”
The cooks gently nudged her towards the techniques she needed to create their signature delicacies. A deep curiosity for French pastry was born and, eventually, Ana left for a stint at Cook’s Atelier in Burgundy. Known for rustic, yet simple farm-to-table food, their take on classic French technique was an eye-opening education.
She brought that thirst for knowledge back to New York City and accepted a role as a pastry cook at Marlowe & Sons, then a small establishment. At the time, Brooklyn’s renaissance was still fresh, but tray after tray of croissants and morning buns cemented her pastry skills. By the time Reynard at The Wythe Hotel needed pastry cooks, Chef Ana was ready to jump on board. A stint at Reynard put her together with incredible chefs — like Erin Kanagyloux, formerly of Mah-Ze-Dahr and now Union Square Events — creating everything from wedding cakes and donuts to plated desserts with quenelles of smoked ice cream and savory lactose crumbles. With 6 a.m. start times, baking croissants for hotel guests reinforced her respect of French technique and the rhythm of the kitchen.
Next came time as a pastry chef at M. Wells, where classic desserts accentuated the bloody steaks and served as an intro to all thing French Canadian. As far as sweetness was concerned, “the maple syrup just flowed," she said. "You could not put enough maple on things.” Baking her way through maple pies, pouding chomeur ("poor persons pudding"), and baked Alaska, Ortiz remembers "drowning in maple syrup — but in a good way.”
Yet, there was something missing. Chef Ana felt disconnected from her roots. “I missed serving people, having that exchange. If you’re in the basement, you don’t get to interact with the people who are eating your desserts. It felt disjointed.”
So she started “Day into Night,” a venture that's not a catering company but a space to create “celebratory dinners,” including some in her hometown. Ortiz has an upcoming pop-up dinner in San Juan and is cooking for a vanilla conference in the mountains, reinforcing that sense of vitality and community from the meals that she prepares all over the world.
The point, as Chef Ana says, is simple: “I love feeding people.”
If you find yourself visiting Puerto Rico, here are seven must-visit food recommendations in San Juan from Chef Ana Ortiz
According to Chef Ana, this is the sort of place "your grandparents used to go, then your parents, then you." And that's understandable considering it's been around for over 100 years.
The chef and her friends used to skip school to sneak by for its signature snack. "The thing to eat here are Mallorcas, this very sweet bread that you eat either as a pressed ham and cheese sandwich or pressed with butter," she said. "Either way, it comes dusted in powder sugar and [is] just simply delicious. You can not go to [Puerto Rico] and not eat one.”
A Spanish bakery in Ocean Park, KASALTA is a good pre- or post-beach mallorca stop, but the real winner here is juice.
“Juices in PR are amazing: orange, passion fruit, grapefruit, pineapple, and also the coconut water. Obviously it’s great just to drink them but you can almost always get a cocktail made with them as well.”
Cocina al Fondo
"I’m a huge fan of Natalia Vallejo’s cooking," Chef Ana said. "She makes the most delicious Puerto Rican food. She has a long standing connection to farms on the island. Her recently opened restaurant, Cocina al Fondo, is at the back of an art gallery."
La Alcapurria Quemá
Speaking of late nights, Chef Ana was quick to note that "San Juan is full of them," and there are plenty of places to go out for food and drinks. One popular area, La Placita de Santurce should be on that list. At La Alcapurria Quemá you'll find "fritters made with plantain and taro usually stuffed with beef or crab," according to Chef Ana. Though they have all kinds of fillings, "crab is the best in my book," she said. "I love going out when I’m home."
At Junglebird, Paxx Caraballo Moll — one of Food and Wine's best new chef's in 2019 — serves "the best bites and snacks" from a small kitchen in this great cocktail bar. "[He's] one of my favorite chefs on the island and a dear friend," Ortiz said. "He's famous for his blooming enoki dish, but I love his pigeon pea and sweet plantain dumplings.
“On Saturdays there is a farmer's market in Old San Juan where you can buy organic fruits and veggies like papayas, carambola (star-fruit), pumpkins, greens, plantains, as well fresh local cheese, pique (Puerto Rican hot sauce), bread, soaps, and kombucha. There's music and food you can eat while you are there.”
At this tiny coffee shop in Conado you can pick up "simple, yummy tartines" and Via Lactea's vegan ice cream made with local fruits. According to Chef Ana, it's simply "not to be missed.