Having vast experience in the restaurant industry in Puerto Rico, I began to notice the same group of dishes every single menu. This trend made the pitch of selling the restaurant experience extremely boring, ordinary and uninteresting over the years. The trend was the relentless use of the same mass produced super GMO ingredients on expensive menus in all restaurants, make the food scene in Puerto Rico suck.
My island has tried, unsuccessfully, to create a foodie culture. With over 700 restaurants in the San Juan area alone, the industry seems to consistently fail in offering a variety of cuisines. All restaurant menus will have tuna tartare and/or ceviche, a skirt steak dish, a chicken dish, a roasted pork dish and supposed “local” or “fresh” red snapper. These items are the base, then you’ll get rice and beans, fries or one plantain concoction or another on the side.
Once you’ve explored the island’s food scene for a week or so, you’ll be bored as hell and start notice that even the most “trendy” spots will have the same menu. In a tourism economy, trendy means the place with the best online marketing, not the best food!
If you’ll stick with me to the end of this article, I’ll give you my recommendations on where to eat.
Sauteed, baked, fried, grilled, sous vide, and fried again styles of the same crapola aggressively priced has turned Puerto Rico into a food desert and a tourist trap. When a restaurant on the island acquires a unique seasonal item cheap, such as black truffles, 75% of well known restaurants in the area will all have a black truffle pasta, fries, or pizza.
This phenomenon happens with non local cuisine as well. For example, “asian” restaurants, that roll skirt steak sushi topped with sweet plantain because they might not have enough raw fish available.
The island lacks both food supplies and a definitive food culture. Using terms like “fusion”, “global” or “international” on a menu in Puerto Rico is a total scam.
And high net worth US persons are flocking to this food desert. Puerto Rico continues to bring attract high end investors under Act 20 and Act 22, (most of which have discerning palates), and they’re finding out that the food scene sucks, and is beyond repair for the following reasons.
- Move your business to Puerto Rico and cut your tax rate down to 4% under Act 20.
- Move yourself to Puerto Rico and pay zero capital gains tax on assets acquired after you become a resident under Act 22.
Why does Puerto Rico’s food scene suck? Blame the US government.
Chefs don’t lack creativity in Puerto Rico, they’re limited by the island’s lack of quality supplies. Even local growers are forced out by over regulation. It’s like being on a competitive chef show like Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, allowed only a handful of ingredients, and being expected to build a Michelin star meal. Adding insult to injury, you’ll get these same ingredients all year long.
There are two reasons Puerto Rico’s food scene sucks – The US FDA and the Jones Act.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has the task of certifying and allowing regulated products across borders. The FDA is the sole arbiter of foods (not including meats, poultry and eggs, which is done by the USDA) for U.S. territories. In 1911, San Juan District of FDA established an office with 4 employees, serving both the Commonwealth of PR and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This one office is still in charge of ensuring only regulated products are made or imported into these territories and that they comply with FDA’s standards.
It’s not cost effective for any local companies to go through the FDA process. Therefore, only big farm pro GMO products reach Puerto Rico. Only the big US providers can climb the stone wall put up by the FDA.
The seafood industry is even worse off. It’s nearly ceased to exist in Puerto Rico due to high costs, competitive pricing from US farm fisheries, conservation laws (EPA compliance), and FDA compliance.
This industry has also been smashed by hurricane seasons and the occasional oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (at least that’s what servers are instructed to say to clients, about the lack of variety of local fish on menu).
In addition, restaurants are only authorized sell FDA approved products. All the restaurants in San Juan seem obligated to obtain their “fresh catch”, freshly frozen from distributors like Seaworld Inc., Jose Santiago Inc. or even Costco if the supplier is out of stock. These wholesale distributors have competitive pricing and are able to corner the market, with mass distribution of seafood for the Caribbean. Local fisherman are blocked from even thinking about competing with that.
- Yes, many of the best restaurants in Puerto Rico buy their product from Costco.
The second and most devastating factor is the Jones Act. The Jones Act, established in 1920, Section 27 of the Merchant Marines Act, regulates shipping between all U.S. ports. It basically says that, any vessels, transporting goods into the US or a US territory must have a US flag and be crewed by US workers. That is, foreign vessels can’t deliver to Puerto Rico.
The Jones Act was drafted to secure American merchant marines jobs and to secure US waterways. It’s now the reason Puerto Rico can’t develop its own shipping industry. And this, combined with the FDA, make it impossible for Puerto Rico to bring in or farm fresh product, which, in turn, make it impossible to create a robust food scene.
Because of the Jones Act, foreign vessels carrying goods for sale, are not allowed stop in Puerto Rican ports. Nor are they allowed to offload goods for any reason or even onload goods to export to the mainland. Foreign vessels must first offload products in Jacksonville, Florida, where shipments can be passed on to American vessel bound for Puerto Rico.
Fixed freight rates for these transactions are non-existent, allowing a monopoly on prices, fees, and import tax. Upon receival in Puerto Rico, shipments are scrutinized and taxed again to fund DHS (Department of Homeland Security). And, inspections and may be released to only authorized brokers. As a result, imported goods end up costing at least 20% more. More importantly, the quality and variety of product receives, sucks.
Finally, when all these regulations are combined, the only companies turning a profit are the merchant marines and wholesale distributors. Only large distributors are able to control products consumed on the island.
For example, if a restaurant group wanted authentic French foie gras, they’d have to order a large supply through a distributor. If a small restaurant wanted to put foie gras on the menu, it would pass through at least 5 individual transactions before it reaches the client (French vessel, American vessel, Puerto Rico Holding Dock fees, HSI inspection, Broker fees, restaurant to clients).
The regulatory processes take a toll on society, especially in a tourist economy with more restaurants than farms. The Jones Act and other regulations make it impossible to create exciting dishes or access new product.
As a result, 99% of the food is imported at a very high cost. Making it even more difficult for restaurants, electricity costs are at an all time high (nonrenewable energy sources on the island, which runs on gas, also imported).
In order to compete, restaurants turn to cutting costs, charging tourist trap prices, and pay their staff’s below a living wage. Restaurants are forced to buy low quality product and selling it at high prices if they want to turn a profit. Moderately priced menus are barely breaking even.
I still urge people to taste Puerto Rico. Give it a try, keeping an eye out for how some of these amazing chefs can transform such average product into a good meal. But don’t wonder why places serve overpriced Maine lobster, Boston oysters, Pacific tuna, or ask where the grouper is from. It’s fresh frozen from a massive US distributor. The same goes for the meat. The food in Puerto Rico is as local as the laws allow it to be.
- Ok, I do like to ask these questions just to see how well trained the staff is at deflecting. For example, mayo ketchup can become tomato aioli with the right accent!
Thinking about moving to Puerto Rico? Here’s how to benefit from Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy.
If you’re visiting Puerto Rico, here are the places I recommend.
Not all hope is lost for restaurants. There are small clusters of innovative and environmentally conscientious chefs that make the most of what they get. For all you foodies visiting or living on my island, below are a list of places to consider.
- Verde Mesa- in Old San Juan, seafood with a limited menu, wait list, no reservations, but some good cooks in the kitchen
- Guavate- this is a location in the center of the island. Mountainous terrain, where all the chinchorros (dive bars) are restaurants. Most are great stops with hormone free roasted pork on a spit and other local delicacies such as boiled organic root vegetables, and morcilla which is puerto rican blood sausage. They keep it basic and good…. Homestyle.
- Los Kioskos de Luquillo- this is a line up of at least 30 different establishments on the beach with distinct styles from local to Peruvian. Wide range of prices. Very few tourists, so true Puerto Rican style.
- Ventura Vivoni- Local chef caters to parties and uses only local ingredients. Creates 8+ course adventures
- MiCasita Seafood- A gem hidden in Piñones. Great seafood, authentic, island flare at decent prices.
- Casita Miramar- in Miramar, south of condado, great food. This is Christian Reeve’s favorite spot.
- Casita Blanca – local food in Santurce. Not expensive, great for lunch, in a rugged neighborhood.
- Sabrinas- mid range on calle Loiza. Creative chef and great for lunch.
- Compostela- Upscale wine bar
- Rare 125- upscale steakhouse far better than the chains. Ruth Chris and others just suck in Puerto Rico.
- Departamento de la Comida- Vegetarian 100% locally sourced food
- Asere- Cuban cuisine in la Placita
- Mere Pescao- Small venue unique ingredients on Calle Loiza
- El Quenepo- If in Vieques island a must!
- Abracadabra- Great for brunch in Santurce
- DeFelice- affordable restaurant good food, in Guaynabo
- Santaella- Upscale creative restaurant in the heart of La Placita de Santurce. This is the best (and most expensive) cocktail bar on the island.
- Trois cent onze- Upscale classic French in Old San Juan
- Mi Casa at the Ritz- world renowned chef Jose Andres 12 course meal. This is a whole different world from the tourist crap in San Juan / Condado.
- The English Rose- Bed and breakfast upscale unique experience
- Jose Enrique- Quality, well known Puerto Rican chef in La Placita
- Bangkok and Bombay- great Indian/Thai food, located in Santurce
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