Mofongo is one of the national dishes of Puerto Rico, usually prepared as a sizable cake of smashed savory plantains, mixed with garlic. The dish has West African origins, but today is known as a quintessentially Caribbean meal. So, when we arrived in Puerto Rico we knew we had to sample our fair share.
1600 Calle Loiza
San Juan, Puerto Rico
While in Puerto Rico we stayed in Old San Juan, but our exploration to find some authentic Puerto Rican cuisine led us into the San Juan neighborhood of Condado, an upper-middle class residential district with some ritzy nightclubs and shopping. Bebo’s, however, was anything but. The expansive, sparse interior looked more like a high school cafeteria than a restaurant, with bunches of tables packed in together inside a simple rectangular room. The only decoration was a TV on one wall showing a Caribbean-league baseball game between two of the Panamanian squads. But we came for the food, not the ambiance, and things didn’t start off too well in that department. M, always a lover of mango-was excited to learn they made fresh mango smoothies – but disheartened when they told us they had “run out of it” for the night. This would be a constant theme, as during the course of the evening they would tell us they had run out of goat, mango, a number of their daily specials, as well as mojitos – which in rum-obsessed Puerto Rico is nothing short of a cardinal sin.
We had to have dinner, though, so M settled on chicken-stuffed mofongo, garnished with tomatoes, all for $9. It was good and quite filling, but the flavors were a little over-mixed for his taste. The garlic, plantains, and chicken all seemed to run together, with no one flavor really emerging from they fray. To offset this he ordered a fresh pineapple smoothie (since they were out of mango), which was great, but it really wasn’t enough to make up for the mofongo’s blandness.
L had a lechon asado (roast pork) sandwich with swiss cheese, which came on a nice crusty roll. The roasted pork was flavorful, but a little dry and the garnishes of lettuce and tomato were all wilted. All in all, the sandwich was above-average and the price was right at $5.95. Of the main dishes at the course, the mofongo and pork sandwich were the relative winners, with negative reviews coming in on the tamarind BBQ chicken (“too sweet”) and the pork knuckle (“too bland and fatty”). However the highlight of the table were the salty plantain chips. Curiously, these came garnished with French dressing.
We were sadly disappointed by Bebo’s. Even though it was full of locals, the lackluster food did not impress us. And it certainly wasn’t enough to make up for the inconsistent service and the fact that they had run out of nearly everything by the start of the [early] dinner service. But not deterred, we searched for another local mofongo-making haunt.
La Fonda del Jibarito
280 Calle Sol
San Juan, Puerto Rico
When local after local recommends a place, you know the food has to be good. Before we left for Puerto Rico, a few of our sanjuanero friends implored us to go to this place, and when we finally got there to take a gander at the menu, a woman stopped us and said, “You have to go here! My family and I come here every Friday.” Can’t get a much better recommendation than that. When we came back that evening for dinner, we were treated to one of our finest (and cheapest!) meals on the island. El Jibarito’s decor was in stark contrast to many of the other Old San Juan restaurants we had visited over the past few days: simple and unpretentious. Old photos of famous Puerto Rican musicians graced the far wall, while the small bar and rotating dessert fridge filled up the other side. Photocopies of the handwritten menu served as our ordering guides, leading us to two conclusions: they change their menu often, and they put more thought and effort into their food than the decor.
We were right.
M had the $9 “chicken in a pot” (which came on a plate), a perfectly-cooked chicken leg and breast garnished with grilled onions and green peppers. The dish came with two free sides, a small standard green salad and some of the excellent grilled sweet plantains that the Caribbean is famous for. The chicken was perfectly-done, falling off the bone the instant you touched it with a fork. It wasn’t that spicy, however, so we got some salsa picante for the table. I (M) in particular was happy to find out they didn’t water it down for the Americans – the salsa was as hot and spicy as they could make it, which went just perfectly on the chicken. The flavor combo of the spicy chicken, peppers, and the sweet plantains all flowed together well, each complimenting the other just enough to maintain the coherence of the meal, but also the independence of each aspect of the dish.
L had grilled garlic shrimp with mofongo. The shrimp were super-fresh and jumbo sized. The dish came with five and that was more than enough to make a meal. They came smothered in the classic Aji-li Mojili (garlic and chili sauce) which was excellent, and the perfect complement to the shrimp. The side salad that came standard with all entrees was a one-off and consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce. Again, we encountered French dressing, already on the table in a Wishbone bottle. However, the mofongo at El Jibarito is the star. It is garlicky, rich and came neatly shaped in a little tower, like flan. By the time my entree came out the mofongo was getting a little cold, but it was so good I did not mind much. To finish off the meal we ordered some of the house-made Tres Leches (which had unfortunately run out), so we opted for a miniature cherry-topped cheesecake – a simple and tasty treat. By the end of the night, we and our group were satiated and happy. El Jibarito is the real deal. We can see why people come here night after night.