When I first stepped foot in Puerto Rico, the island screamed independence. The national flag hung tall. It felt as if this beautiful island recognized it’s apart of the United States, but refused to let go of it’s own rich history. Each area I visited, in some way, shape or form made an ode to the country’s pride. Puerto Rico felt like the sun sign in the zodiac and I couldn’t wait to bask in it’s rays to discover the new experiences I would embark on.
8 days in Puerto Rico isn’t enough. There’s so much to do. Every local we met named new hidden gems that opened up more possibilities to learn why people fall in love with this country over and over again. We called an Uber to Castillo San Cristobal in Viejo San Juan, only minutes away from Old San Juan. Castillo San Cristobal is a massive fort built over 150 years ago to protect El Morro and the city from land attacks by rivals England (1598) and Holland (1625). Designed by Irish-born Chief Engineer Thomas O’Daly, Castillo San Cristobal is the biggest European fortification in the Americas. There’s also Castillo San Felipe del Morro “El Morro”, another national historic site and fort that was built to protect San Juan Bay’s deep harbor from attack by sea. We didn’t get to El Morro, but definitely see either or if you can. As we walked through Castillo San Cristobal, from the cracks in the buildings, to the dry moats, every section of the fort told a story.
Castillo San Cristobal lead us to multi-colored buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, authentic puerto rican cuisine on each block and perfect backdrops for photo ops on every corner. Meet Old San Juan. My friend and I hopped from La Bodega Del Viejo (Cuban-Rican cuisine) to grabbing tapas accompanied by white sparkling sangria at Triana Tapas & Flamenco. That sangria had us stumbling throughout the rest of the city - because damn, it was strong. Highly recommended.
Leaving Puerto Rico without trying some authentic Puerto Rican coffee from Cuatro Sombras had to happen. Thank God it did. That was the best cold brew I’ve ever had - I like my coffee as dark as the bean and as strong as good bourbon. My friend Mylan had the ginger and hibiscus tea and the ambiance of the cafe’s back patio decorated with hanging lights, tomato red chairs, vines and tropical green life climbing every corner of the cafe instantly became our canvas. The richness in Spanish influences can’t go unnoticed.
Isla Verde, east of Santruce and an urban oasis home to beaches, resorts, nightlife, bars and the perfect intersection between tourists and locals. There were two out of the 89997387 on my itinerary I had my eye on - Zest and Mist Rooftop Bar + Kitchen. Both happened to be in the San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel where my friend and I stayed. That following day, we went downstairs for dinner at Zest. Side note, if you decide to stay at San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel, breakfast is served daily here as well. Look for a waiter named Omar, because who doesn’t love a little humor with a side of scrambled eggs? He’s hilarious and his warm energy is like a shot of espresso to kick start your day.
First thing you notice when entering Zest is the ambiance. A myriad of deep hues of blue ripple like the ocean’s waves, elaborate paintings behind moss covered walls, deep house music streaming throughout unseen speakers and wide windows looking right out at Isla Verde beach, only steps away from the hotel. A perfect dose of sereness like a spa but as buoyant as a lounge. As crazy as this sounds, you become one with the aesthetic.
First things first: Popcorn Soup, Bajo La Sombra
Before coming to Zest, I checked out the Yelp reviews and everyone raved about the popcorn soup. So it was no surprise this was the first thing my friend and I ordered. Valerie - San Juan Water and Beach Club Food & Beverage Director greeted us at our table and described the contrast of the hot, thick, creamy soup accompanied by the cold truffle butter. The saltiness of the soup and the sweetness of the popcorn was the perfect yin to its yang. No spoons needed. You sip the soup from the glass. When Valerie came back to see how we liked the soup, both glasses were empty. She smiled and we knew we made the right choice. Don’t leave Zest without getting this as a starter. Trust me.
First thing I ask before I order a drink, “How’s your Bourbon?” So when our waitress suggested the Bajo La Sombra, I knew it would be good. A perfect mix of Bulleit Bourbon, fresh passion fruit juice, pineapple juice, agave and coriander. It was the right amount of sweet and the bourbon didn’t overpower the tropical flavors.
Shared Plates: Spicy Tuna, Pork Belly Sliders
All dishes at Zest are shared plates and perfect portions for two or more - depending on how hungry you are. My friend and I decided to go with the spicy tuna tartare (avocado mayo, tostones) and the pork belly sliders (guava BBQ, chayote slaw). I’m not a fan of tartare of any sort, so the spicy tuna was my least favorite. But if tartare is your thing, I say give it a try. The tostones (double fried plantain slices) were thin and perfectly crisp. We dipped them in the avocado mayo for extra flavor. Next up were the pork sliders. What caught our eye was the guava BBQ. The tropical tanginess of the sauce was pretty good and Zest didn’t shy away from the portion sizes of the thick cut pork belly. I wish there was more crisp to the outer layer of the pork belly to contrast the softness of the inner layer with a crunch, but overall the portion sizes were perfect. Not too little and not too much.
Más bebidas: Legacia, El Morenito
More drinks please! And that we did. We asked our waitress what were the most popular cocktails ordered at Zest. Legacia and El Morenito were top two. Both very unique in their own way, but unbelievably delicious. Legacia consisted of ron zacapa, ciroc coconut, cherry bitters, pineapple foam and estera de coco. A large frozen ice ball of coconut milk on the top layer and coconut water on the outer layer sat right in the middle of our drink. Just sitting pretty in the midst of the pineapple foam wasn’t its purpose. As the ball of ice melted, extra hints of coconut flavors were added as you sip. Johnny Walker Black label whiskey, licor 43, lime/lemon juice, brown sugar and mint leaves made up the El Morenito. Hands down my favorite drink of the night. Think of it as a deeper brewed version of a mojito. The deep tones of the whiskey, brown sugar ending in the refreshing flavors of the lemon, lime and mint were the perfect marriage. Highly recommended. Next time, I’m ordering another round.
Catch of the Day: Red Snapper
My friend has been raving about red snapper throughout our trip. The universe was on our side because it was the catch of the day. Without hesitation, we ordered it. Our waitress Valerie “Vicky” described the red snapper as crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside and can be shared. Tender chunks of fish were slathered in lemon juice and very flavorful - no extra seasoning needed. This was our favorite dish of the night. Make sure you ask for the red snapper :)
After long days on the beach with locals, colorful frozen cocktails from El Alambique, perfecting our mixology skills at Casa Bacardi, galavanting down La Placita de Santurce and the list goes on, we were beat. By Sunday, heading to brunch at Mist Rooftop Bar + Kitchen was the perfect way to decompress.
Brunch Me Down: Mist Royal Cocktail, Salmon Benedicto, Mallorca Waffle w/ Guava Butter
First thing you notice when you walk up to Mist rooftop is the view. We had all of Isla Verde at our feet. Mist lives up to its much hyped about views and it was conveniently only a few floors above our hotel room. Mist is a rooftop by day and a lounge by night. They have daily happy hour specials including $5 select drinks and $10 burgers. There’s also a pool on the rooftop so you get the best of both worlds. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into Daneisha - one of the waitresses at Mist. Her bright smile and bubbly personality matched our anticipation to try some brunch options. We all laughed seeing our excitement naming all of the places we discovered around Puerto Rico didn’t phase her. She’s a native and she’s seen it all. She shared some of her favorite spots where most locals hangout and we added them to our list. Those are the experiences I cherish most.
For brunch, Daneisha suggested we get the Salmon Benedicto, house made Mallorca waffles with crispy chicken and the Mist Royal cocktail.
Ask for a side of guava butter. The crunch from the chicken, smoothness of the butter and sweetness from the chicken batter was the perfect concoction. The mallorca waffles are also sweet. Trade in the syrup for the guava butter and you’ll be glad you did. As much as I love salmon and eggs, the chicken and mallorca waffles with guava butter won my heart. The portion sizes at Mist are hefty, so choose dishes based on your hunger level.
Puerto Rico started to feel like home. Living day by day with no regrets but one, we didn’t try the Mofongo. Next time.
A huge thank you to Carlos, Valerie “Vicky”, Omar, Enol, Daneisha, Valerie and the rest of the San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel team! Thank you for your hospitality and making us feel at home. See you again soon! Salud.
*ZEST AND MIST ROOFTOP BAR + KITCHEN PROVIDED ALL FOOD COMPLIMENTARY. ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.