Gluten-Free in Puerto Rico

Well thank you to the Boston Police, Feds, etc. for catching / killing those terrorists.  You have about a week before the good people of Massachusetts stop smiling at you, forget about your amazing feat and start giving you the finger again.  Use it wisely.  Get as many free rounds or phone numbers from co-eds and hotties as you can.  Anyway, A few weeks ago, Husband and I traveled to Puerto Rico for a wedding.  We headed down prior to the big day to explore the city.

I made sure to travel with my handy-dandy gluten-free app from Celiac Travel, which translates information about gluten intolerance into a variety of languages.  Even still, I was apprehensive about how well my gluten allergy would be understood.  Not speaking Spanish, I couldn’t answer any additional questions, unless the server spoke English. Husband understands some Spanish, while I do not speak a word (except for gato, I always know the word for cat). Image

Overall, the servers I encountered really wanted to accommodate my needs and tried their best to understand.

We stayed in Old San Juan.  Old San Juan is beautiful and very historic with lots of interesting architecture, great colors and neighborhood gatos.  We generally felt safe walking around except for when another tourist came up to us on a dark street and starting asking us for money for a cab to get to his father at the docks, which were like 2 blocks away.  Clearly he wanted the money for something else.

If you like beach going, I would recommend the other side of San Juan, where the beach resorts are.  The hotel we stayed at in Old San Juan had a deal with La Concha, so we headed there one day to enjoy the amazing beaches.  If we ever go back, we would totally stay at La Concha if we could afford to, it was stunning.  We ate at one of the restaurants at the property.

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The meal was tasty.  I had eggs, bacon and potatoes, as did Husband.  Thank god they just left a whole pot of coffee on the table, because service on the island seems to be on the slower side.  This was something we encountered at all the restaurants we ate at and the New York Times even commented on the same thing (see 36 hours in San Juan).

We stayed at the Hotel El Convento, which is a beautiful boutique hotel with a courtyard in the middle.  We managed to get a great deal on our stay, which was made even better by the free wine and cheese happy hour each night as well as coffee, tea, bottled water and fruit available all the time.  The whole staff there was fabulous and very accommodating, helping us to find car rentals, restaurants, etc.

We ate at the tapas bar and El Convento’s main restaurant a few times for various meals.  The staff at the hotel had good to great English, so between my little card and their language skills, I felt confident that they understood my gluten allergy well enough to communicate it to the kitchen staff.

The tapas bar was good.  I liked the wine selection, relaxed atmosphere and the quality of the food.  I just had some roasted vegetables, but they were tasty. In the main restaurant, we had both breakfast and dinner.  The venue was actually very versatile.  In the morning, the atmosphere was relaxed with the sun filtering in through the trees with birds chirping.   In the evening, it was more romantic and they kept the lighting very dim.  Breakfast was basically bacon and eggs, which was totally fine, nothing special.  The dinner was excellent (I had scallops, husband had steak).

We also ate at the Café Puerto Rico down the street.  The restaurant was lively and homey.  The prices were very reasonable. The server there understood my allergy very well and was able to point out several items I could have.  He was very knowledgeable and bubbly and his English was perfect.  We started with a chorizo with red wine sauce and green plantains.  It was a huge portion, but I still had room for the mofungo, a local specialty, which was tasty.

On the same plaza, were two other restaurants we dined at: Café Berlin and Caficultura.  Caficultura was far superior.  The atmosphere was lively.  The décor was cute, the place was clean.  The coffee was great.  I also thought that the servers there really understood my needs and made solid recommendations.  Again, it was just eggs, but with potatoes, salsa and really good guacamole.

Café Berlin, frankly, sucked.  I was so amped too, because they boast a gluten-free menu outside.  Inside, it was dirty and dingy.  The server could not have cared less about my allergy, he just kind of grunted when I mentioned it.  It took at least 10 minutes for someone to take our order and another 10 for our drinks and then at least 30 minutes for our breakfast to show up.  Considering we had ordered eggs and potatoes, I was irritated by the delay.  After that, it took ages to flag the server down and even more time to get the check.  Don’t even bother.

In addition to exploring Old San Juan (I loved walking along the water front outside the forts along the Westside), we also traveled out to see El Yunque, the only rainforest in North America.  El Yunque was absolutely stunning.  I found the scenery along the way to be beautiful, but I was struck by the profusion of fast food restaurants along the roads.  Every restaurant was a McDonalds, KFC or Dunkin’ Donuts.  I told my husband while his people brought smallpox to the Native Americans, my people have bestowed the gift of diabetes on the people of Puerto Rico.

El Yunque is amazing and totally worth the trip. We tried to go the Bio Bay, but since we hadn’t planned well enough (cough, cough, Husband) for our trip outside the city, we didn’t get on any tours.  As we drove around, it became very apparent that managing my allergy would be difficult because most of the option were fast food restaurants.  I ended up going to Walgreens and getting a variety of snacks.  My snack options were more limited than a Walgreens in the US, but that is to be expected, it is a small island.  I ended up with orange juice, potato chips and candy bars.  I could not find anything like a Lärabar or a single serving size of Greek yogurt.

If you go, remember a few things:

1. Get the Celiac Travel app and/or make a laminated card with information about your allergy, especially if you do not speak Spanish.  Almost everyone is San Juan speaks English and speaks it very well, but it does make it easier to explain and ensure there is no misunderstanding.

2. If you are very sensitive, do not order anything fried: they will not have a separate fryer.  Even if you are able to eat things fried in the same fryer as gluten items, the oil being changed regularly is very important.  If the oil is old and therefore has more gluten, you will receive dark items from the fryer.  If the items are golden brown or light, the oil likely has less gluten in it.

3. If you have particular snacks you like, bring them with you.  This is a small island and snack options are generally more limited.

4. The safest bet for breakfast is scrambled eggs and bacon with potatoes.  I was limited to that every day for breakfast, but it was easiest for the servers to direct me to that and for me to feel comfortable that it was a truly gluten-free meal.

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2 thoughts on “Gluten-Free in Puerto Rico

  1. Thank you for writing this excellent post. We are traveling to Puerto Rico in a few weeks, and I have been getting nervous about dealing with my wheat/rice allergies. I am definitely going to print a card and try some of the restaurants you suggested! Thanks again, Ally.

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