Ugh, you guys. I have been putting this review off. Even as I’m writing this sentence, I have clicked back and forth between Facebook and Gmail three times. As hard as I try, I cannot seem to sink my teeth into it. Which is pretty indicative of my experience at Old San Juan.
I have to start by saying that unlike my experience at Good Girl Dinette, I had absolutely no point-of-reference for my meal at Old San Juan. This was my first experience with Puerto Rican cuisine so I was excited and determined to try something authentically Puerto Rican.
Old San Juan had its grand opening 2 days prior to when we went. To say that the service was friendly would be putting it very lightly. A large sign in the parking lot read “Free Valet Parking” and the parking attendant greeted us with a big smile and ecstatic “¡Bienvenidos!” As we walked through the door, servers, hosts, and managers all welcomed us and thanked us for coming. The restaurant was mostly empty save a large party of about 8 people and a few booths. The walls were lime green and evoked a certain Caribbean charm that I assumed was some kind of authentic.
We started with the appetizer sampler plate which included taro chips, fried cod, plantain chips, corn fritter, ham croquet, steak skewer, chicken skewer, and some kind of crab-stuffed empanada kind of thing. Everything tasted fine, although the skewers were overcooked, but so much so that I wasn’t sure if they were supposed to be that way or not.
Upon the owner’s recommendation, I ordered the Mofongo Relleno Churrasco, which the menu described as “Puerto Rico’s Classic Dish of Mashed Green Plantain with Garlic Sauce with Pork Chicharron topped with Skirt Steak slices and onions.”
When the dish comes out it has an impressive sort of look: a dome of indiscriminate ingredients with two large plantain chips protruding from the top like a modern food sculpture of some sort. The server put the plate in front of me and says, “Be careful, the plate is very hot.” I usually like it when they say this at restaurants because it usually means that the food is also very hot. But it was not. The plate was indeed hot, but the food was kind of tepid?
The plantain base of the mofongo was dry and tasteless, the steak on top was chewy, overcooked, and also tasteless, and the garlic oil with cilantro and peppers that was supposed to give all the dishes a “kick” (according to the owner) was also watery and tasteless. We asked for a few sides of the red salsa to add a little flavor to our meal, which only made everything taste like red salsa. There was no kick. Nothing was sweet or savory or salty or sour or umami or ANYTHING.
Was I missing something? Maybe my palate wasn’t sophisticated enough? I started to have that panic that I sometimes get when I don’t enjoy a film that everyone recommends – “Maybe I am not sophisticated or worldly enough to understand this? Is there an inside joke that I don’t get because I haven’t done the proper research or had the proper life experience to fully appreciate this?”
So I asked Stu, “How is it?” and without hesitation he says “Bland.”
So I kept eating in hopes that maybe I would discover some kind of latent taste that you don’t get right away, but it hits you a lot later, and you sort of go “Ahhh, that’s what it tastes like!”. And all the while the server keeps checking in on us, but not the one obligatory “How’s everything tasting?” that most servers do. She just sort of hovers around and looking at us with great anticipation. One time, she even does a little dance next to our table and then dances away. I realize that we are her only table, so when she wasn’t “checking on us,” she was just sort of standing around near the bar. So the service was very, very attentive. Like kind of creepy attentive.
At the end of the meal the chef comes out and stands at our table and asks us how we liked our meal. We very politely tell him that we’ve never had Puerto Rican cuisine before and then divert the conversation by asking him about how the opening week was going. He spoke very passionately about the restaurant and the hugeness of that undertaking, and of how he had lots of plans including a weekly pig roast (!). And I felt very conflicted because I thought his food was gross and bland, but he was so nice and well-intentioned. He wasn’t trying to serve me gross, bland food, but, somehow, our tastes did not align, and I felt bad about it.
I think I kept putting off this review because I kept thinking that maybe something would dawn on me and I would be somehow enlightened by my experience at Old San Juan. I was also afraid that I made a mistake, and that the food was good, but that I didn’t get it. But I guess what made this review hard to write, was the same reason that it made the food hard to eat. Everything about the food felt tiresome and disjointed. And even though everything was well intentioned: the service, the food, the chef, none of that good intention came through in the food or experience. There was obviously a lot of effort that was put into the food and the restaurant, but all that blunt effort became a little exhausting and extremely overcooked. So I guess, if this review felt tedious, rambling, and joyless, then perhaps I have clearly described my experience of Old San Juan to you.