This is a sensational place. I wish I had gone when I was hungry. Our hotel offered a complimentary continental breakfast which consisted of (1) a bowl of oatmeal, (2) a plate of fruit, (3) yogurt and fruit, (4) 4 pastries. Each. That’s a lot of food, so I skipped the yogurt. Still, there I was at Princesa Gastrobar, not really hungry even though it was on the late side for lunch.
What a shame. The food at Princesa is very good. Very good, and if I’d been at all hungry I would have ordered an appetizer, probably the ceviche. But first, let’s establish the setting. It’s set on Avenue la Princesa at the base of Old San Juan, a short walk downhill from the Cathedral, and a reasonable walk from the cruise ships. If you’re in Old San Juan, and you will be, you have no excuse not to go there.
And it is a lovely space. It’s roomy, deeply shaded but open to the air on the Avenue side. It’s recessed from the street, and marked by wood and abundant greenery, including several trees growing up through the ceiling. It’s exactly what you want after walking for hours around Old San Juan all morning.
Princesa specializes in traditional cuisine, and some dishes are based in part on a 19th century Puerto Rican cookbook; but they have a fresh menu and very contemporary offerings as well. And the Bar has more rums and rum drinks than the law allows. I did not indulge, it being lunch and with more sights to see. I did opt for a beer, and here our waiter, Emerson Rivera, proved his worth. I was thinking of a Magna or Medalla, but Emerson suggested a local craft IPA.
Bless him. It was delicious. He also suggested that I order La Andaluza, a traditional stew of pulled veal and beef in a tomato-based broth, with sweet peas and onions and peppers.
Outstanding. The richness of beef and veal were perfectly offset by the vegetables and some green olives. It came with with fried green plantains and some wonderful rice.
The fried plantains were thin and crispy, free of excess oil, and a great accompaniment to the stew — and a vehicle for the hot sauces, about which more anon.
Nancy bravely ordered a salad with shrimp – which was much bigger than it appears here (and had more shrimp before I finally got my phone out).
I say bravely because Puerto Rico is not, in my very limited experience, salad country. Here in DC, salads are ubiquitous, and a focus of dining for way too many people. Everyone eats salad, even me, if the salad offers steak and blue cheese or lots of anchovies. Puerto Rico is more carbohydrate-centered. Think plantains 53 ways. Nancy’s salad was excellent — fresh greens and fresh shrimp, and plenty of both. And, again thanks to Emerson, they left out the croutons per Nancy’s direction.
Back to the hot sauces.
I asked Emerson for some hot sauce, memories of Orozco’s hot sauce dancing in my head. He glided away and returned quickly with a bottle of hot sauce. He left and returned with two more. He explained that the first, a lemon hot sauce, was best with fish, and that the two others, one with tamarind and the other with avocado, were better for the La Andaluz. He was correct. All had a similar level of heat, but each had a very distinct taste. I can see the lemon with fish, and if/when I return, I’ll order fish. I much preferred the avocado with the plaintain fritters and the rice, but a touch of the tamarind was nice with the meat.
Go to Princesa. See if you can get one of Emerson Rivera’s tables. Actually, go for happy hour and dinner, so you can get his advice on the rum drinks, and let me know.
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