We kicked off a week-long southern Caribbean cruise by spending a night in San Juan, Puerto Rico beforehand. Looking to try some authentic Puerto Rican food, we received a variety of recommendations, including one, Ajillo Mojilli, that has apparently closed permanently. Ultimately, we ended up with reservations at Ropa Vieja, said to be a mix of Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine. From the map, it “seemed” like a few short blocks from our hotel so we decided to walk it.
Perhaps that was not the wisest choice in a flouncy skirt and heels — it was quite gusty outside and we quickly learned the blocks are not numbered the same on each side. So, what we thought would be a nice, leisurely five minute walk turned into 30 minutes of blindly tripping over cobblestones and — literally — running into other tourists since I couldn’t push the hair out of my face as both hands were glued to the sides of my skirt!
Finally we arrived and this cute neighborhood joint was already hopping around 6pm. Judging by all the people milling outside and the bulk of the tables already filled inside, it seems we made the right choice.
Since we were in Puerto Rico at a Cuban style restaurant, it only made sense to start the night off with a round of mojitos while we took at stab and narrowing down our growing list of menu choices.
Unable to choose just one appetizer, we ordered the Variedad de la Casa (the House Sampler $13.95) which included a taste of some of Ropa Vieja’s specialties. It came with Bolitos de Risotto (Risotto Fritters), Frituras de Malanga (Taro Fritters), Mofonguitos Relleno de Ropa Vieja (Plantain Fritters Filled with Shredded Flank Steak) and and skirt steak marinated in herbs (trying to find out the official name of this item on the platter).
With dinner, we asked for a recommendation on a full-bodied, earthy Spanish wine that would pair well with our mains. The server suggested the 2005 Herederos del Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva. It is basically a Tempranillo (90%) and comes from grapevines 15+ years in age. As this was a Rioja reserve, it means the wine was aged in the barrel three years prior to bottling. One of the characteristics of Tempranillo grapes from Rioja is the dusty or earthy flavor –an element I love in Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley’s Rutherford area. Overall, a pretty respectable wine with soft tannins and just enough body not to get lost in the rich mains we were ordering.
The main courses we chose to compliment the wine were recommended as house specialties as well. Brett ordered the Cabrito Fresco Guisado (El Mejor del Mundo), which was Fresh Stewed Goat Meat (Best in the World) for $21.95. I’ve had bites of goat meat before in various Mexican dishes and the goat’s strong taste was always a turn off. This dish was surprisingly mild flavor, perhaps a result of the meat being stewed. While I am not sure it’s truly the best in the world since I have very little to compare it to, it was definitely a dish I could have eaten myself.
I opted for the traditional Churrasco al Mojo Crudo de Recao, which was a grilled Angus skirt steak topped with Puerto Rican herbs in olive oil ($23.95). The steak had a really nice char and smoky flavor that was cut by the softness of the olive oil and freshness of the herbs. The steak was served with plantains and white rice. The only problem with this dish was the size — after the big appetizer platter, I had trouble finishing even half of it. I probably could’ve forced myself to finish the last part of the steak, but I had been eyeing the dessert menu from the start — they had Guava creme brulee! This would definitely be a first!
We ended up ordering two creme brulees — the first was the Creme Brulee de Guanyaba (the Guava) and the second was the Creme Brulee de Chocolate (for Chocolate lovers). Not the best two to combine the flavors when sharing, but each dessert was wonderful when eaten by itself. The creme brulees were both perfectly cooked and just the right amount of caramelized sugar on top. Sometimes, flavored creme brulees don’t seem to be cooked correctly and the tops are never “burned” sufficiently. I’m not sure if it’s a breakdown in the ingredients chosen or just a lack of cooking experience, but it can really be hit or miss at times. Needless to say, these were amazing and seeing the bright pink color on the guava one was worth it alone!
In trying to track down a website when writing this post, I noticed considerable disparity on many online reviews of Ropa Vieja. Many complaints revolved around service and I just want to note we have no issues despite how busy they were with large parties. This restaurant was constantly busy and we observed the owners/managers working to realign tables and work to get people seated as quickly as possible. I highly recommend going early and getting a reservation….especially if you are in town around cruise ship arrivals/departures. Some of the online complaints regarding food quality involved items that were not remotely local cuisine and I think it’s like anywhere else — to avoid disappointment, go with what the restaurant specializes in versus playing it safe with pasta or a hamburger.
1025 Ashford Ave
Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico