This past weekend I celebrated my birthday with a trip to Puerto Rico. I stayed at the Gran Meliá, on the northeastern coast about 30 minutes from San Juan. The hotel was beautiful, though the service was extremely lacking, to put it nicely. The good news was, it gave us more of a motive to leave the resort and explore, especially around mealtime. Here are some suggestions, if you're ever in the area:

Luquillo Beach is a gorgeous one-mile stretch of soft sand where the locals go. Its warm, calm waters are great for swimming, and you can rent a lounge chair for $5 a day. Right on the highway near the entrance to the beach is a long row of 60 food kiosks. Many of the locals say that kiosk #2 has the best food of all. Most of them serve the same deep-fried Puerto Rican snacks, including beef-stuffed plantain fritters called piononos that are on the greasy side but worth tasting with a splash of hot sauce. If you're lucky enough to be there when the kiosk that roasts whole pigs is open, stop in. You will know it by the painting outside of a pig on a spit. I was truly disappointed to have been there on a day when this one was closed.

Luckily, later that day I got my pork fix at Isamar Bakery, right on route 3 in Rio Mar, where I tasted the best Cubano sandwich ever (other than my higher-end favorite version at The Spotted Pig in Manhattan). It was porky, cheesy, pickley, juicy and delicious! As a side note, I will say I had a hard time finding anything resembling a salad all weekend.

I went back to the bakery the next morning for breakfast on my way up to the El Yunque rain forest, and had their freshly baked, slightly sweet sobao bread (which they make about every hour, so it's always fresh and never ruined by the humid weather), along with excellent coffee and a dulce de leche-filled pastry. Yum! On the way down from my day of hiking in the lush El Yunque, I stopped in at Las Vegas restaurant (recommended by chef Eric Ripert in the November 2002 issue of F&W) for some garlic shrimp and fried sweet plantains. So really, it was a food-lover's blessing in disguise that the hotel was less than stellar.

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