Mario Pagan is the owner of two of the finest restaurants in San Juan, Puerto Rico: the Laurel Nuevo Caribe Kitchen Art Bar located at the Puerto Rico Museum of Art, and the newly opened Sage Steak Loft at O:live Boutique Hotel in Condado. Pagan was recently in New York City to participate in Puerto Rico Meets NYC, a new food festival that brought together top culinary talent from Puerto Rico and NYC’s finest through a series of dinners and events. He hosted both a solo 5-course dinner at Botequim and a collaboration lunch at the Fourth with chef Carmen Gonzalez—both restaurants are in the Hyatt Union Square. While in NYC, Pagan checked out how Puerto Rican cuisine is being expressed in the Big Apple. Here are his picks for the best places to experience Puerto Rico through food and drink in New York City.
“A vendor at Smorgasburg, a really cool outdoor food market in Brooklyn, serves one dish and one dish only: mofongo, the quintessential Puerto Rican dish—what some might say is our national dish. The chef/founder Manolo Lopez was born in Puerto Rico and came to NYC to study design at NYU, but left the design world to make mofongo. He is taking a very humble dish (fried and mashed plantains) and giving it a fresh face for a young food-loving crowd, all the while mashing the plantains by hand in a traditional pilón, a deep wooden mortar and large pestle. That is impressive.”
N 7 Street and Kent Avenue
“If you want a fun night on the town and great food, Sofrito is the place. It recently relocated from East 57th Street in midtown to Riverside Drive on the Hudson River with a view of the George Washington Bridge. This is hands down the best fine dining spot to experience Puerto Rican cooking. My favorite dish is the chillo frito, crispy whole red snapper.”
679 Riverside Dr.
3. Lechonera La Pirana
“This dude, Angel Jimenez, is a straight-up Nuyorican making lechon asado, or roast pork, up in the South Bronx at Vendy Plaza and La Marqueta. With his festive straw hat and requisite machete, it’s like being back at home in the mountains of Guaynabo at one of our many lechoneras. Jimenez has two trucks, one for serving customers, the other for roasting his pigs. He also serves arroz con gandules and killer crab empanadas. This guy is about as close as you can get to being in Puerto Rico in NYC.
East 152nd St., Bronx
“Though his restaurant isn’t an example of Puerto Rican traditiona, Puerto Rican chef José Ramírez-Ruiz, who has worked at Per Se and Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, has a tiny vegetable-forward tasting menu spot in south Williamsburg, Semilla, that’s a must if you’re interested in the evolution of Puerto Rican food and chefs in NYC. After success with his pop-up Chez Jose, he is now in a permanent space that seats around 20 diners each night. With a flair for Latin flavor profiles, Ramírez-Ruiz, , experiments with modern American influences and is a great example of a young, new chef pushing boundaries. The menu changes regularly based on seasonality, but most dishes are winners.”
160 Havemeyer St. No. 5
5. Rum House at The Edison Hotel
“This bar has an amazing selection of rums, featuring many of Puerto Rico’s finest including Don Q Gran Anejo and Bacardi 8 Year. The Tortuga is delicious: dark rum, ginger, citrus and cinnamon.”
228 West 47th Street