For years the best chefs in Puerto Rico would look outward and execute the cuisines of other regions to perfection. French, Spanish, Italian and more were executed and hailed as great. Now a new generation of chefs have decided to look inward for inspiration. They all have one thing in common, a desire to investigate creative, thoughtful, and unique combinations based on local, tropical ingredients and traditional dishes. You can say it’s a reaffirmation or even the creation of the Island’s new Puerto Rican cuisine. The results so far? A 2023 James Beard Best Chef South award for Natalia Vallejo of Cocina al Fondo and 5 new nominations for the 2024 James Beard Awards.
What does this mean for you?
The new Puerto Rican cuisine is creating a vibrant life of its own in the hands of passionate local chefs. Gone are the days of repetition of the classics. Now you will find many restaurants on the Island creating a new cuisine they can call their own. Curiously enough and proof of the success this movement is having is that you can find 6 of the best restaurants in the United States as recognized by the James Beard Awards within a 5 mile radius in San Juan. That’s goodness concentrated in almost walking distance. This new inward philosophy goes hand in hand with the rebirth of Santurce. Once the most important area of San Juan, it went through neglect and decline in the early 2000’s. Now its charm and unique architecture provide the perfect setting for innovation and discovery.
Ponce de León Ave is your road to culinary happiness
5 of the 6 James Beard winners or nominees are on, or really close to this avenue in Santurce. Will this area become a world class culinary destination, a center for the new Puerto Rican Cuisine? If it does, make sure you get there before the reservations schedule gets booked solid.
Here’s the list:
Cocina al Fondo
658 Calle San Juan, San Juan
Natalia Vallejo- Winner Best Chef South James Beard 2023
This Puerto Rican-owned and operated culinary destination is rooted in the traditions, flavors, and history of the island. They feature dishes that display the fertility and fruits of the land and sea with an international influence. Most ingredients are locally sourced from farmers, fishermen, local producers, or even harvested from their our own garden. They also feature a bar that far from being a pretentious cocktail culture player, seeks to combine flavors and spirits in delightful ways for all to discover.
1413 Avenida Ponce de León, San Juan
2019 selected for the 20 Best New Restaurants in America by the James Beard Foundation.
Chef Francis Guzmán- 2021, 2022, semifinalist for Best Chef South, 2024 Outstanding Chef nominee
After spending some time in various restaurants in the States, Francis Guzmán returned to Puerto Rico to open up Vianda. Here, he has developed excellent relations with local producers to provide a menu filled with constantly changing farm to table options based on local ingredients. Make sure you make reservations early, they fill up fast.
Miramar Food Truck Park, 1006 Ponce de León Ave.
Chef Roberto Guzmán- 2024 Best Chef South nominee
Even Food Trucks can share the spotlight in Puerto Rico. Roberto Guzmán is a live fire enthusiast with a simple, but extremely well executed and sourced menu. The local flavors shine even in the name as it recreates the particular way Spanish is pronounced on the Island where the “s” becomes an “h”. Leña means firewood and “eh” could “it is”. So head on over here because firewood is where the flavor’s at.
906 Ponce de León, San Juan
Chef Carlos Portela- 2024 Best Chef South nominee
A five-hour fixed price tasting experience will take you on a trip to savor the best that local ingredients have to offer. Chef Portela serves up to 20 courses that will change your perception of Caribbean flavors forever. Every night a family environment comes alive and you’re even invited to the kitchen to watch the art in action.
1353 Ponce de León Ave.
2024 Outstanding Bakery nominee
This is an ice cream shop called Vía Láctea or Milky Way, that uses no dairy products whatsoever. All ice cream is coconut milk based and completely vegan. Even the waffle cones are gluten free. If you read the reviews however, you’ll quickly realize that there is no compromise on flavor here with most saying they prefer the taste over the “real” thing. Maybe the local fruits and flavors can be thanked. More than likely you would have to thank Lorivie Alicea and Reinaldo Sánchez the chef and partner behind the creations. Besides ice cream they also offer amazing ice cream cakes.
107 Calle Tetuán, Old San Juan
Chef Gabriel Hernández- 2018, 2024 Best Chef South nominee
In February 2018, The James Beard Foundation selected Chef Gabriel as a Semi-Finalist for Best Chef South, a huge surprise considering he has no formal preparation as a chef. Over the years many mentors have helped him. He was one of the first chefs to look inward at his Island and discover all the amazing ingredients that are, or can be produced locally. Verde Mesa is unique in that the menu is pescatarian and vegetarian with most of the ingredients coming from local waters. This has allowed Verde Mesa to create a culinary language for Puerto Rico to share with visitors and locals alike. It’s also the only 2024 nominee not in Santurce or close to Ponce de León Ave.
As we say in Puerto Rico- ¡Buen provecho and let us know how your new Puerto Rican cuisine experience went.
For more information on the James Beard Awards go to www.jamesbeard.org