Orozco’s Restaurant – San Juan, Puerto Rico

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by Ed Lau on September 11, 2011

I always prefer to eat whatever the locals do when I’m traveling. There isn’t much point to eating food I can get at home so no matter what it is, I’ll give it a try. This has resulted in some really awesome experiences like in Italy, Japan, and France but other places haven’t fared as well. Because Puerto Rico is more or less some kind of United States territory, you don’t have to look far to find the usual American chains everywhere. It’s tempting to go with food that’s familiar with flavors you know you’ll enjoy but where’s the fun in that? I made it a point to find myself some sort of local restaurant and find out what food in Puerto Rico tastes like…since I had no idea what sorts of food were native to Puerto Rico.

Looking for a restaurant in an unfamiliar city can be quite a daunting task. I usually ask hotel staff (although that’s quite hit or miss as well) or a taxi driver but I rather just take note of busy places I come across and check out menus as I walk around. Since I was in quite a touristy area of San Juan with resort hotels and beaches in every direction, most of the restaurants nearby catered to a foreign crowd. I managed to find more Chinese, Japanese and Italian restaurants than anything that could be considered local. However, the one that I did find was endlessly busy, sometimes with a solid line out the door each of the four days that I was in Puerto Rico before my cruise so I thought it was worth a shot. With all those people inside, it can’t be terrible, can it?

Orozco’s Restaurant is located at 1126 Ashford Avenue in Condado, Puerto Rico, between a large cluster of resorts along the beach and small local shops. Yes, it’s quite a touristy location but still, many of the folks inside didn’t look like they’re from out of town and the menu featured some of the dishes I found on the internet after looking up what sort of food I should expect from this country. The atmosphere at Orozco’s is full of lively salsa music, baseball and subtitled popular Hollywood movies like Fast and Furious. There are daily happy hour specials on drinks as well as live music on the weekends. The wait staff was enthusiastic and friendly…but after that, it all went downhill.

I saw something on mofongo on nearly every menu in town…even some quasi-Chinese restaurants in the area. Mofongo is mashed plantains, which are then formed with a mold, deep-fried and then stuffed. On our waiter’s recommendation, I chose the roast pork ($10.95).

The wait was an excruciating hour and change. It wasn’t just the time wasted either. While Orozco’s has air conditioning, it isn’t very good since they leave the door open and the 35 degree heat outside trickles in, making the room gets quite warm. I would later find out this was par for the course and that everything in Puerto Rico just moves at a slower pace. I don’t think I waited less than 30 minutes for food at any restaurant and even at fast food places, you do a lot more standing around than in Canada or the US. I can deal with this with some other things but not at a restaurant. Why? Because if that’s the case, you have to go out to eat before you’re hungry or else it won’t get here until your stomach seriously grumbles and hates you. That’s just silly. Yes, the restaurant was full but it seemed like every table was tapping their feet waiting for their meal. Gordon Ramsay would’ve exploded.

When it did arrive, my mofongo didn’t look very appetizing. While they’re not going to get many points for presentation, I really could care less if it tastes delicious. Some of my favorite foods in the world aren’t exactly works of art. However, in this case, it looks the way it tastes. The plantains weren’t quite…finished. Not only do they manage to be chewy, which is as weird as complaining about chewy mashed potatoes, but they lack seasoning and tasted more like I should be laying down tiles with it rather than putting it in my mouth.
The pork didn’t seem very roasted at all and the only flavor that came through was salt. Making a killer roast pork doesn’t take much…a simple marinade or rub and some time in the oven and you’ve already got a decent product that stands up even if you make it in the morning. This was just terrible. Along with the awful fried plantain mash, this was probably one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. After a few bites, I just had zero desire to eat any more of this. Since I barely touched it, I packed the rest intending to give it to one of the homeless guys outside. Who knows…maybe it’s delicious and I’m crazy but they were nowhere to be found when I left. Seems like they read my mind and even they didn’t want any part of this mofongo. I don’t know if I would enjoy this dish if it was made better with better ingredients but I do know that this was a terrible example of it. So terrible, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t bother trying it again unless it wasn’t my money.

Another dish at the table was the churrasco, which is a grilled 12-ounce skirt steak. For $14.95, it comes with two sides, which include rice and beans, fried potatoes, and fried plantains. Like the mofongo, this was also all kinds of awful. Medium rare means a pink center but this was more of a blue rare, which really doesn’t work with this cut of beef or with a steak this thin. The outside is seared well but past a thin layer, it was straight up raw.

Now I believe that if it isn’t at least slightly bloody, you’re murdering your steak and I enjoy the odd blue rare steak if it’s done well but this was just a result of poor cooking. I had no idea beef could be this flavorless. It wasn’t marinated at all and all kinds of chewy. It didn’t taste particularly fresh either. I later would hear that this restaurant was closed for a few days as a result of a refrigerator problem. I don’t know if that’s true but that would explain why nothing tasted very fresh but at the same time, none of us got food poisoning either.

The lone positive to come from Orozco’s is that they had cans of a decent local (I assume) light beer called Medalla for $2.00 each. It’s not spectacular but for two bucks, it’s nice and refreshing. Still, when I consider I could just go next door to a convenience store, get a six-pack and never have to visit this restaurant…I’d go with that option instead.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Orozco’s either had a REALLY off-night or that the traffic is a result of the many people they send into the surrounding streets handing out menus to tourists that don’t know better like me. I didn’t get sick but even though I was starving going in and had to wait an hour for my food, I had no appetite afterwards. Orozco’s has all the appearances of a great local place to eat but nothing during my visit gave me any reason to ever go there again. I’d sooner eat at the Burger King or Dunkin’ Donuts on the same block than experience this place again.

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