Where to Eat Real Food on Puerto Rico's Northwest Coast
When I'd visit Puerto Rico as a kid, we mostly just ate at my grandparents' house on the farm. They raised mangoes, bananas, oranges, guavas, chickens, avocados, spinach, and coffee. We'd eat what they grew and supplement it with a few local things, like the really good white queso from the small dairy down the road and big loaves of airy white bread from the small paneria in town. For dinner, my abuela made arroz con gandules, tostones, and pasteles cooked in banana leaves. Her cooking was a treat, and the food we ate at their place was better than anything you could buy on the island anyway.
Because if you wanted to eat healthy, fresh stuff in Puerto Rico back then, you couldn't really get it at most restaurants or grocery stores. Thanks to decades of bad economic policy, a fertile island that should have been a self-sustaining mecca of agriculture and culinary tradition had become a wasteland of American chain restaurants, imported produce, and packaged convenience foods. Even in the affluent, tourist-driven neighborhoods around San Juan, there weren't a lot of restaurants to get excited about. Basically, you could eat at Pizza Hut or at home. And if you were a vegetarian, good luck.
Thankfully that's all changing. In the wake of the island's descent into fiscal collapse, a small movement has been growing. On a recent trip to Isabela, Aguadilla, and Rincon on the west coast, we were excited to meet people who were working at organic farms, starting CSAs, and opening farm-to-table restaurants and food trucks. We ate well found much more diversity than we expected: Peruvian, Thai, and even vegan Puerto Rican. While the island may have a way to go before it's a culinary destination, it's definitely not impossible to eat fresh any longer — especially if visitors to the island and locals continue show their support for those who are paving the way. Here, a few of our favorite places doing just that.
This little truck makes a tasty post-surf lunch stop, especially thanks to its prime perch on the hill overlooking Domes Beach in Rincon near the lighthouse. The focus is on organic, healthy beach classics — grilled tuna tacos, housemade veggie burgers, acai bowls, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. The picnic tables that surround the truck are always packed, with good reason.
This may have been the most memorable meal we had during our time out West. Chef Wilson Davalos grew up in New York but returned to his native Puerto Rico to open this small, barebones restaurant a couple years ago, and he (and it) have been garnering praise ever since. Located in an orange house just off the main square in Isabela, CLMDO features fresh but hearty dishes with a local slant, like slow cooked pork ribs in gauva espresso sauce or chicken with smoked aioli and smashed chickpeas. BYOB.
We're kind of obsessed with Carta Buena, an organic farm and food truck on a beautiful plot of land in Rincon. The menu features yummy breakfast and lunch dishes (acai fruit bowls, summer rolls, gluten-free muffins) all made from ingredients grown on the farm or sourced locally from nearby growers. The smoothies and juices are super popular — try the Kermit, a beachy blend of coconut, lime, greens, pineapple, and papaya.
We stumbled across this Peruvian food truck on our way back from surfing in Aguadilla and it immediately became our favorite lunch spot. We ended up returning at least three more times. The dished, which are based on the owner's old family recipes, is incredible. Order anything that comes with papas huancaina (Peruvian potatoes in yellow chile cheese sauce) and be sure to try the homemade hot sauce and the fresh tamarind juice.
The Breakfast Club started as a pop-up brunch spot at the bar Ola Lola's near Shacks Beach, but it became such a hit that owners Courtney and Christine Parks decided to relocate to more permanent digs. Now housed in a former Waldorf School complete with a big grassy yard and a cute little lending library, TBC is the kind of place you'll want to spend some time. You'll have plenty of good stuff to eat and drink if you do so: Old Fashioneds and Micheladas and local-caught fish sandwiches and omelettes with carmelized onions and cheese.