When I was shooting my TV Show “En La Cocina” on the West Coast, La Isla in Seattle’s Ballard Neighborhood and Old San Juan in Tacoma were some of the first places we showcased. It was interesting, both places had amazing Puerto Rican food. “People here love it. It’s different than Mexican food. We use spices but our food is not spicy. We also have Rum bar that people love,” says Vincent Bravo, manager of the restaurant.
I loved La Isla for its trendy feel in the burgeoning Ballard District in Seattle. Ballard is a super chill, up and coming area that features great restaurants, local shops and an energy like no other in Washington. I love simply walking through Ballard on a rare sunny day, catching the vibe of the locals, walking in and out shops and stopping into various pubs and eateries for a bite to eat and a place to hang out. The fun part of Ballard is most people will actually talk to you.
Just about an hour away in Tacoma (depending on the I-5 traffic) is the Old San Juan. I wouldn’t say the restaurant is in the hood but it’s a bit more gritty than the trend filled streets of Ballard. Driving to the restaurant you notice Mexican Tiendas, used car dealerships and an industrial feel that makes it seem like it might as well be a million miles away from it’s distant cousin La Isla. Lizzy and Carlos Aponte they like it that way though. They serve lot’s of service Members who are stationed at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord near the restaurant. Many of their civilian customers are Puerto Ricans from the Island who haven’t had a restaurant to call their own in ages. Lizzy began making soldiers her authentic Puerto Rican dishes when Carlos was still serving in the military. When Carlos retired he and Lizzy knew they would follow their dreams. And there you go…that’s how The Old San Juan was born. People of all colors, races and from different places come to The Old San Juan says Lizzy. “We have them come from Spokane, Yakima, Olympia…you name it they come. We were so surprised how many Puerto Ricans there are in Washington. But we love serving them.
The special part of both these place is I grew up in a Puerto Rican household. I can remember my Grandmother cooking pasteles, arroz con pollo, arroz gandules and black beans and white rice. It’s just amazing how both these places took me right to her kitchen. There’s nothing like Puerto Rican food in the world. It’s simple yet flavorful. It’s filling but is has a healthy feel. Best of all it’s Americana on a Caribbean Island that we Americans call our own. If you’re ever on the West Coast cruising up I-5 make sure you check both of these place out. I’m sure glad I had a chance.