New Face of Mercado Santurce in San Juan, P.R.

The New York Times
Click here to read the original article

“BUSINESS isn’t what it used to be,” Ramón Tellado Rosa said from behind a pile of bananas at his stall at the Mercado Santurce in the Campo Alegre district of San Juan, P.R. — for decades the place where Sanjuaneros have come for fresh produce.

Mr. Tellado Rosa, 86, blames the fall-off in business on a transformation the area has seen of late, as myriad bars and restaurants have gradually cropped up around the market’s plaza. Now the plaza — La Placita, as it’s known — along with the surrounding area, has been undergoing a fresh wave of popularity as it is rediscovered by a new generation of young professionals.

A short walk but a far cry from the whitewashed high-rises of Condado and the manicured streets of Old San Juan, La Placita is a worn world of wooden Creole porches, brightly colored shop fronts and — most important to the new crowd — cheap beer and cocktails sold in plastic cups.

The Mercado Santurce itself has been active for almost a century. Merchants once would teeter atop heaps of fruit and vegetables with a pair of scales and a fistful of cash. Today the vibe is a little more subdued, but it’s still one of the most atmospheric places in Puerto Rico to forage for local fare, like giant avocados, guineitos (small and very sweet bananas) and mameys.

El Coco de Luis (787-721-7595), a hole-in-the-wall joint nestled in a corner at the front of the market, has locals lining up for the soup of the day or a cup of a brew indigenous to the plaza: whiskey and fresh coconut water.

Across the street, a spot for regular live salsa and a relaxed rum and coke is Taberna los Vázquez (Calle Orbeta, 1348; 787-723-1903), an open corner bar with a fried-food counter for late-night alcapurrias (meat enclosed in grated yautía, a tarolike root vegetable) and sorullitos (deep-fried cornmeal fingers), about $2 a piece.

From the market, head down Calle Dos Hermanos and take a right on Juan Ponce de León for a taste of culture at the MAC, Puerto Rico’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Parada 18; 787-977-4030; with an extensive collection of modern local works exhibited in blissfully air-conditioned rooms.

For a classic Placita dining experience, try the Tasca el Pescador (Calle Dos Hermanos, 178; 787-721-0995). The green polka-dot tablecloths and garish neon lighting may be uninviting, but the handwritten daily fish menu is a no-nonsense bill of freshly caught and simply prepared seafood. The grilled white sea bass is delicious and arrives with mofongo (mashed, fried plantains) or tostones (flattened fried plantains). A meal for two costs about $40.

Since it opened in 2008, Piropos (Calle Iturriaga, 1361; 787-723-5577) has become a go-to spot for dining and drinking, especially on Friday nights. It offers a modest tapas menu that can serve as a satisfying dinner, with options like stuffed peppers, chorizo and churrasco ($8 to $22). The owner, José Martinez, who vividly recalls the squeal of pigs being led to the market in the early mornings of his childhood, agrees that the face of La Placita is changing and thinks his old family neighborhood is now worth investing in. “I think of this area like SoHo in New York,” he said, “though I don’t think it should be limited to just a drinking hole.”

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