Above: The Condado neighbourhood of Puerto Rico (CJ Photo)
By Alexander Britell
SAN JUAN — I didn’t plan on being here, with the Buddha and the duck croquetas.
I’m having dinner joined by a small Buddha statue, eating duck croquettes on a sleek black bartop on the second floor of a modern commercial building on Ashford Avenue.
This isn’t a full meal —I’m here for a snack.
I didn’t plan it — but after dinner at the recently-opened Yantar restaurant nearby, another crisp, contemporary eatery, I was inspired.
I had heard about Chef Roberto Trevino’s Budatai, and that it was close. So I let the night continue.
It’s the mark of a great place, or a great neighbourhood, that it isn’t just great to explore — it makes you want to explore it — to learn it.
Earlier in the day, I had spent the afternoon at Cafe del Angel, a local hangout, exploring Puerto Rico’s Ron del Barrilito, a bold rum that’s a little stronger than what you typically find in the region.
Above: egg rolls at Roberto Treviño’s Bar Gitano
It’s on the same avenue, but it’s a world away.
This is Condado.
This corner of San Juan is many things, all at the same time: it is a laid-back beach town; a surfing retreat; a walkable art-deco museum; a shopping hub. And, perhaps most importantly, a culinary destination that is at the cutting edge of Caribbean cuisine.
It’s the food that really jumps out — on the eminently walkable Ashford Avenue it’s hard to go a block without finding a wonderful restaurant — and the Yantars and the Budatais are joined by local joints with great bacalaito.
Chef Xiomara Marquez is at the centre of it.
She’s the one leading the way at Yantar, embarking on what she calls a fusion of Spain and Puerto Rico.
She’s also seen the change here in Condado, admitting that even five years ago it wouldn’t have been ready for a restaurant like Yantar.
Now, this neighbourhood is the “centre of Puerto Rico for food,” she tells me.
That’s happened for a variety of reasons, but give much of the credit to Chef Roberto Treviño, who’s built a mini food empire in the neighbourhood, led by Budatai, the Spanish tapas eatery Bar Gitano and the Argentine-accented El Barril, all within walking distance of one another.
Above: Condado’s surf makes it a haven for surfers and bodyboarders
And it’s a different city in daylight — when the surfers and bodyboarders emerge, reminding you that you’re in a neighbourhood of many identities.
Above: Flamenco performed at Bar Gitano
“Condado is unique because it’s laid back,” says Brock Sorenson of Condado’s Puerto Rico Sotheby’s International Realty. “It’s more of a beach community, mixed in with tourism. There’s a lot of local people that have lived here since the 1970s, the 1980s. It’s a beach community. It’s pretty laid back, and people hang out and chill out and you get a who’s who of pretty much everybody worldwide.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Hans-Georg Roehrbein, the general manager of the San Juan Marriott, one of the neighbourhood’s leading hotels.
Roehrbein is a native of Germany, but he’s right at home in Condado’s worldly confines.
Above: the popular Red Coral Lounge at the San Juan Marriott
“Condado is a vibrant “all inclusive” walk everywhere neighborhood – the place you shop for local specialties, pick up last minute items at the 24-hour Walgreens, go out for drinks and dinner and salsa dancing afterwards, say hello to a local while he is jogging or walking the dog, while feeling the vibes of San Juan,” he tells me.
The moral of the story? It’s a cosmopolitan place. It is an international place — Caribbean, yes, but modern, too. And those two things are not mutually exclusive.
There is Cafe de Angel but there is also Yantar, side by side, fine imported Spanish wine and Ron del Barrilito.
Sure, sitting at Budatai, I almost forgot I was in the Caribbean.
Because it’s not the Caribbean — it’s what the Caribbean can be.