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Discovering Two Sides to San Juan

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Needing an escape from the cold and chaos of NYC, I recently booked an impulsive long weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico. All I wanted was a relatively cheap vacation someplace warm and supercasual, where I could relax with a good book, eat fresh seafood and sip a mojito on the beach. What I didn't realize was that I'd unknowingly booked my trip for San Sebastian Festival weekend (Puerto Rico's version of Mardi Gras), and that I would run into a crew of NYC magazine editors in town for a guys’ weekend who would invite me to join them for a night out. The result: A taste of both sides of Puerto Rico—the wild and glam, and the quiet and laid-back.

High-Style Fun
We dined in style at Picayo, rock-star chef Wilo Benet's white-tablecloth restaurant in the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Modern art and funky, feathered lamps make the dining room feel like a private gallery, and Benet’s food is artfully plated, showcasing global riffs on traditional Puerto Rican ingredients. We indulged in a perfectly executed tasting menu that included a superflavorful lollipop of truffle-oil-spiked beef carpaccio and Parmesan cheese, crackling-studded risotto and, of course, crisp, salty tostones.

After dinner we went out to the superposh, South Beach–meets–Vegas hotel La Concha, in San Juan’s hip Condado neighborhood. A $220 million revamp transformed the lobby into a 24-hour thumping disco, and the outside is a maze of pools, hot tubs and tented cabanas.

Affordable Relaxation
My hotel, Hosteria del Mar, a great-value beachfront bed and breakfast hidden away in San Juan's residential Ocean Park neighborhood, was the antithesis of La Concha. Rooms are simple but spacious, the staff is friendly but the bar does serve an excellent mojito.

I got to taste the other spectrum of Wilo Benet's culinary talents at his newly opened wood-fired rotisserie spot, Varita, inside Condado Plaza hotel. The casual space—a modern take on a country lechonera—serves a value-minded menu of all things wood-fired. Fifteen dollars can get you a thin-crust pulled pork–and–Amarillo pizza or rotisserie-fired pork belly and a side of ripe plantain fritters. Benet’s even serving his own wine, made with grapes harvested in Spain.

Lechon roasting on Varita's turbo-powered rotisserie.

© Varita
Lechon roasting on Varita's turbo-powered rotisserie.

 

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

Already looking forward to next year (June 19-21, 2015)? Relive your favorite moments from the culinary world's most sensational weekend in the Rocky Mountains.