Aside from Forts that are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and other remarkable landmarks along its streets, Old San Juan is also a foodies’ heaven. From authentic Puerto Rican food to Spanish inspired and international fares even food trucks, every corner and every turn has its own culinary delights. There are budget dining options to upscale restaurants that will fit anyone’s budget.
Since I only have limited time in every place that I visit, I’ve looked up the internet to help me plan my wandering around the streets of Old San Juan more effective and efficient. I searched for a place where to eat affordable authentic Puerto Rican food and most reviews led me to El Jibarito Restaurante.
But first, what is Puerto Rican Food?
Puerto Rican food is a fusion of flavors from Spanish (use of meat, rice, wheat, garlic and olive oil), African (use of coconut, banana, coffee and deep-fat frying) and Taino Indians (original residents of the island, the use of cassava, corn, tropical fruits and seafood) influences. The locals call their cuisine as Cocina Criolla (Creole Cooking).
All Roads Lead to El Jibarito Restaurante
As I was intrigued and eager to try out some Puerto Rican food for the first time, and to kick off my food journeys for this year, I followed my map to search for the much-talked about El Jibarito Restaurante. I found it tucked at the heart of Old San Juan along Calle Sol about 13 minutes walking distance from the port.
I’ve reached the place at around 11AM just in time for its lunch opening. The façade was just like one of the regular houses along the neighborhood. I did not think that it was a restaurant at first, so I double checked the address if I was at the right number and looked for any signage. If you’re walking on the same side of the street it’s a bit hard to distinguish. You need to move away to see the signs clearly.
There was a small waiting area as soon as I entered and it was separated to the main dining which was on its right. One side of the dining hall’s wall was painted with vibrant colors. It resembled the outside of each house in the city complete with the signature entrance door, windows and verandas that were fully accentuated with iron grills.
There was nothing fancy about the décor, the furniture was very homey and its high ceiling opened up the dining area and made it look bigger. The restaurant has a seating capacity of about 50-60 seats.
The venue was not yet fully opened when I arrived and there were only three other tables occupied. The server said that they were still finalizing the menu and that they’ll be ready to take orders in ten minutes. So, I took a seat at the corner and waited. Fifteen minutes later, the server took my order.
At this time, people started to arrive in pairs, then in groups and in no time the place was packed in less than twenty-five minutes. Some had already left as there was absolutely no seats available but there were others who opted to wait outside the building until they get a seat at the earliest opportunity. I was astounded; it just confirmed how popular El Jibarito Restaurante certainly is.
There were only four servers/wait staff that time. One was preparing the drinks behind the bar, two were taking orders and the other one was assisting in serving food and clearing tables. Imagine this, with the number of patrons, both locals and tourists, who were coming in literally by the minute, what could have happened? You guessed it right, the staff was not enough to attend to all the guest needs immediately and service became a bit slow.
I worked in the food service industry myself, both front and back of the house, and I was pretty sure that it was overwhelming to those who were working there too.
The good thing was the servers were systematic and organized and it didn’t really seem to be a very long wait…well, at least for myself. 🙂 It only took about 15 minutes to have my orders served considering the number of people in the venue.
El Jibarito is known for serving authentic Puerto Rican food. I ordered the Fried Cheese Balls for appetizers. I only realized that I wanted to try the empanadas (turnovers) when I saw the table next to me having one. 🙂 For mains, I ordered the Baked Pork Ribs with Yellow Rice plus as side dish, I went for the highly-recommended must-try Puerto Rican Food, Mofongo. I actually chose to try the Trifongo, thrice the plantain, thrice the fun. Woohoo!
Of course, since I was in Puerto Rico, I didn’t let the opportunity to pass without tasting the real Puerto Rican Pina Colada.
One of the famous Puerto Rican foods is the Mofongo, a classic Afro-Puerto Rican dish made of mashed plantains. Green plantains are baked then mashed, seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and formed into a dome and deep-fried. The Mofongo had evolved overtime and now have several variations like Mofongo de Yucca (with cassava), Trifongo (cassava, ripe and green plantains) and Mofongo de Amarillo (ripe and green plantains).
This is EAT! Eating Time!
The drink was served first while the rest of the food was being prepared.
I took a sip at the Pina Colada and it was so refreshing. It had just the right balance between the sweetness of the pineapple juice and creaminess of the coco milk. The rum was not overpowering the rest of the ingredients. It was perfect for cooling down after a long walk under the sun.
Puerto Rico is the birth place of Pina Colada and it was declared as the National Beverage since 1978. It is a sweet concoction of pineapple, coconut cream or coconut milk with a splash of rum. It can be iced or blended garnished with maraschino cherry or pineapple wedge. Puerto Rico is also celebrating National Pina Colada Day every 10th of July
Then came the Baked Pork Ribs with Yellow Rice and the Trifongo. I was surprised when I saw both of it coming my way because it was ginormous!
First, I sampled the Trifongo and dug my fork into it. The outer part of it was crispy, I can hear a crackling sound as I sliced it open. Inside was a steamy mashed cassava, sweet and green plantains. On its own, it was just plain in taste but with their home-made garlic sauce, flavors started to burst in mouth on every bite. It was a great compliment to the plain Trifongo.
I shifted my attention to the three huge portions of Baked Pork Ribs that looked incredibly appetizing. I am a meat lover and I was hoping that it would not disappoint.
And my prayers were answered quickly, thank God for a wonderful meal. 🙂
The ribs were fork tender, it was easy to split the meat from the bone. The tender portions very succulent and flavorful, together with the savory and fluffy yellow rice, it was a wonderful match.
The fried cheese balls came in last while I was already halfway through my meal, I thought the waiter already forgot about it. It was not like the cheese sticks that we are used to in the Philippines where it is prepared like a spring roll, theirs was fried breaded cheddar cheese formed into a ball. I was not crazy about it because I was already devouring the tender pork ribs and Trifongo. If it could have been served earlier, I may have appreciated it more.
I am big on desserts, and I still wanted to try the coconut flan or tres leches that everyone raves about. Unfortunately, I can’t breathe anymore with so much food that I ate so I had to say pass, FOR NOW. 🙂
To Wrap It Up
El Jibarito Restaurante lived up to my expectations for having an affordable price, it’s menu offerings and food taste.
Although El Jibarito Restaurante has good food, service was a tad slow due to the high number of guest count that came in all at one time, which I understood. So, you need to have patience and be willing to wait. I was glad that I arrived before everyone else did, being early really pays off. 🙂
For me, it was also a plus that the menu changes every day depending on what they have available. It means that the ingredients are fresh. Down side is you may not have what you’re craving for that you have read on other reviews on the day of your visit. Well, at least you already have a good excuse to come back. 🙂
Food is an essential part of the whole travel experience. I mean, who doesn’t like to eat? We all do, right? What’s the use of visiting one place if you can’t get to take pleasure in any of its local dish?
Don’t be a tourist, try to blend in and do what the locals do. In this case, eat what the locals eat, where the locals eat. You might visit a place once so make it worthwhile and let your experience be as authentic as it can be.
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How about you? Have you been to El Jibarito Restaurante? Have you tried any Puerto Rican Food? How was it? Do you have any other recommendations? Share your thoughts.