Photo by Holly Barzyk
Courtesy of El Pretexto
The farm at El Pretexto, in Puerto Rico's Cayey Mountains
A growing number of Puerto Rican chefs and restaurateurs are turning to homegrown ingredients—and making dining on the island more sustainable.
From the streets of San Juan to the mountains of Cayey, there’s a culinary movement afoot in Puerto Rico that’s making dining on the Caribbean island more sustainable.
The devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 amplified the need for Puerto Rico to focus on building its own reliable food system, should another natural disaster strike again. The hurricane caused months-long power outages and about $2 billion in agricultural damage, while creating severe delays in external supply chains upon which the island heavily depends. About 80 percent of food consumed in Puerto Rico has traditionally come from abroad, the majority of it from the mainland United States.
Chefs and restaurant owners across Puerto Rico have begun to address these challenges by creating partnerships with farmers to source ingredients locally as much as possible. “We’re battling power outages, water, the government . . . so creating a sustainable environment also creates a shield against those variables,” says Carlos Portela, chef and owner of Orujo, a fine dining restaurant in San Juan.
More restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts are opening outside of San Juan, especially in areas where chefs—and their guests—can be closer to the source of such ingredients as breadfruit, taro root, and pumpkin, which show up on menus in innovative ways.
“Beyond supporting local farmers, we also buy locally made desserts and coffee. It’s important for us to keep the economy flowing in our communities,” says Jorge Casas, co-owner of O-Markt, a produce distributor with a farm-to-table fast-casual dining concept in the towns of Caguas, Cupey, and Guaynabo.
With this new focus on sustainable farming—and a culinary history featuring Indigenous, European, and African influences—there’s never been a more exciting time to dine in Puerto Rico. Here are a few ways travelers can experience the new wave of sustainability-minded Puerto Rican chefs and restaurateurs.
Tucked away in the emerald mountains of Cayey, El Pretexto is a tranquil mountain farmstay with a strong culinary focus. El Pretexto opened in 2017, just before Hurricane Maria served a devastating blow to Puerto Rico. Despite this setback, owner Crystal Díaz was able to reopen within a year and grow her business. Here, chickens roam freely around the property, banana plants line the hills, and vegetables like taro roots take shape under the soil. El Pretexto serves breakfast and dinner to its guests upon request. It also hosts a series of pop-up dinners on the weekends featuring notable Puerto Rican chefs, including Jose Carles, Natalia Vallejo, and Francis Guzmán.
Dinners, popular with both residents and travelers, take place on a long communal table with 360-degree views of the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that crosses the island from west to east. In addition to producing many of her own ingredients, such as duck and chicken eggs, pumpkins, cucumbers, and ginger, Díaz also believes in empowering her neighbors through employment opportunities. “Everybody who works at El Pretexto comes from our community,” she says.
A 40-minute drive south of busy San Juan, Bacoa is a countryside restaurant created by Puerto Rican chefs Raúl Correa, Xavier Pacheco, and René Marichal, who wanted a place of their own where they could highlight the flavors that define Puerto Rico. Bringing together Spanish, Taíno, and African ingredients and methods, the chefs dream up menus that incorporate many of the ingredients grown on site at the farm, such as cabbage, pumpkin, zucchini, greens, and herbs. “Aside from what we grow ourselves, we also count on local farms such as Frutos del Guacabo and PRoduce,” says Correa.
As you enter Bacoa, you can smell the smoky scent of grilled steaks and red snapper from the wood-fired grills. Bacoa has also gained a reputation for its vegetable-forward dishes, and the grilled calabaza (Puerto Rican pumpkin) and red beet dip with freshly baked bread are guest favorites.
Located on Vieques, a small island east of the Puerto Rico mainland, Finca Victoria sits atop a hill with views of the coastline of La Isla Nena (Vieques’s nickname). From solar panels to AC-free rooms, the bed-and-breakfast aims to work sustainable practices into its operations as much as possible. “The whole property is run on solar power,” says Sylvia De Marco, the owner of Finca Victoria.
In a place like Puerto Rico, known for roasted pork and fried fish, Finca Victoria created an entirely vegan experience using Ayurvedic principles. Start the day with yoga and breakfast with mashed taro root and yuca, which resident chef Jordan Dossantos refers to as a “Taíno bowl,” paying homage to the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico. As you walk around the 2.5-acre farm, you are surrounded by banana, papaya, starfruit, and mango trees, whose fruit is used in Finca Victoria’s chutneys, cakes, and cookies.
Finca Victoria opens its doors to nonguests with a Vegan Dinner Series, prepared by resident chefs, including Brittany Lukowski, who has lived in Vieques for more than 10 years. If you can’t make it to Vieques, check out Finca Victoria’s sister property, Casa Botánica, which organizes vegan pop-up dinners in San Juan.
Book now: Finca Victoria
The winding mountainous Road 149 connects the center of Puerto Rico to the town of Ciales. There, Casa Vieja sits on a mountain ledge with a view of the surrounding green vegetation. “We focus on natural flavors,” says Lilliam Ayala, the owner of Casa Vieja. “This is why we buy our ingredients from neighboring farmers and students, like green bananas, plantains, pumpkins, and yautía, which we use for our signature dish, Pastel al Caldero.”
Ayala purchases from farms located in Ciales or such neighboring towns as Finca La Agricultora, Finca Mi Pequeño Paraíso, Finca La Parcha, and Finca Tío Pepo. She says homegrown offerings don’t come without their challenges. “With a weak power grid and a government that creates unfair practices with local businesses, we work very hard to survive, but we’re still here,” she says.
Fine dining restaurant Orujo is owned and operated by husband and wife team Carlos and Armalie Portela. What makes Orujo special is the singular culinary approach to endemic Puerto Rican ingredients envisioned by chef Carlos Portela, who is also a sommelier. “I like to call our style dynamic, experimental, and inspirational,” he says. “We merge different styles—from Indigenous Puerto Rican cooking methods to Spanish techniques—to make something unique in our kitchen.”
Portela’s tasting menu can include up to 17 courses and changes daily—no two dinners are alike. They feature such seasonal items as water chestnut fritters, textured coconut, and seared bonito fish. “We’ve been able to create many of our dishes with 100 percent Puerto Rican–produced ingredients,” Portela said. “We have built relationships with farmers to bring the best ingredients and offer local fish, poultry, and meats. Beyond what is locally sourced, we are also trying to employ zero-waste practices with our ingredients.”
>> Next: Puerto Rico Travel Guide
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