San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, is historic, mysterious and alluring. There is plenty to keep you occupied on this Caribbean nirvana. Casinos dot the landscape waiting to take your money. The Bacardi factory will beckon you with free samples. El Castillo San Felipe del Morro ("El Morro") with its famous garitas, is a must have photo opportunity. Exotic wildlife awaits you an hour outside of town at El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System.
Located across from of the cruise ship terminal is the general aviation Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport / Isla Grande Airport (SIG - TJIG). Isla Grande Flying School, located on the north side of the field, is ready to check out any US aviator. Their rental fleet of Cessna 152s and numerous variations of Cessna 172s are perfect for seeing the island from the air. The north River or the south Tango transitions will easily take you through the neighboring Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport’s (SJU – TJSJ) Charlie airspace.
A few miles north of the airfield is Old San Juan. This 465-year-old neighborhood was originally a citadel. It’s a charming 7-square-block residential and commercial district filled with restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings. The Plaza de San José, located at the end of Calle San Sebastián, is the cultural, spiritual and literal center of life in Old San Juan. The cobblestone streets surrounding the Plaza are known for flourishing nightspots and authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. As Poorna Shetty wrote in On the trail of Hunter S Thompson in Puerto Rico from The Guardian, “There is something about Old San Juan that makes drinking rum at 11 a.m. seem a perfectly acceptable activity.”
Across from the Plaza de San José is El Patio de Sam. This restaurant and bar is an institution. It’s been playing host to boricuas, tourists, expats, the famous and infamous since 1945. It’s the type of place that one would expect to see Hunter S. Thompson, Allan Ginsburg or Jimmy Buffet holding court. The outdoor space has tables that overlook the historic bronze statue of Spanish conquistador Juan Poncé de León, the first Governor of Puerto Rico, and the gothic Iglesia de San José. The interior is a maze of oddly shaped rooms including an indoor courtyard featuring an atrium skylight and local artwork.
Grab a beer, a mojito or a margarita and delve into the restaurant’s appetizer section. El Patio de Sam’s fryer sees its share of use. There are several standouts among the dozen or so choices. The Croquets de Bacalao ($8.95) are breaded and fried quenelles of potato and salt cod. They’re suitably salty, slightly fishy and extremely creamy. These crisp little morsels melt in your mouth. The Bolitas de Queso ($8.95) are velvety smooth and perfectly matched with a tart and sweet guava sauce. Chicharrones de Pollo ($10.95) are the island version of fried chicken that resembles cracklings. These small crunchy pieces of chicken, with skin and fat included, will send your cholesterol level through the roof. Take an extra statin, they’re worth it.
The various configurations of the half-pound burger ($10.95) are one reason to come to this paradise. In 2012, Travel and Leisure Magazine rightfully named El Patio de Sam one of the top five hamburger places in the U.S. Yes, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Their burgers are a handful. We can talk about burger to bun ratios, meat texture and structural integrity. But a good burger boils down to taste and flavor. Sam’s burgers are juicy, hearty and tastes of beef. The best burger – not quite. A very good burger – you bet.
If a hamburger won’t satisfy, the Mofongo Relleno ($14.95 for chicken, $24.95 for seafood) is to die for. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish of boiled or fried plantains that are mashed, shaped and stuffed with stewed seafood or poultry. El Patio de Sam’s chicken version is in a creamy, garlicky and slightly spicy creole sauce. Mofongo is a Caribbean staple. Everyone in Puerto Rico has their own version and this incarnation is sweet, salty, savory, filling and delicious.
Puerto Rican cooking is a unique tasty blend of Spanish, African, Taíno and American influences. This place is an island and despite or because of its diversity, seafood simply prepared should be a major consideration when dining. Fried Chillo Entero ($21.95) is a quickly fried whole red snapper with tostones (fried plantains) and lime. Sam’s is extremely fresh and tastes of the sea. It’s succulent, tender and remarkably refreshing.
Large portions, an extremely friendly staff, cold beer, freshly squeezed juice in the drinks, live music nightly and true Puerto Rican fare make El Patios de Sam a must stop when on the island.
El Patio de Sam
Calle San Sebastián 102
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901
Across from the Iglesia de San José, Old San Juan
Phone: (787) 723-1149
Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight
Live Music: Saturday 8 p.m. to midnight & Sunday 3 to 6 p.m.
Happy Hour: Monday-Friday 5 to 7 p.m.