San Juan keeps surprising us. Two urban finds we recently discovered are the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR), a museum dedicated to the island’s visual arts and Finca Cialitos, a historic area café devoted to serving Puerto Rican coffee picked according to standards the owner learned at his grandfather’s farm.
The 130,000-square foot museum opened in 2000 in Santurce, a San Juan district typically off the tourist trail. Come to the MAPR for the galleries, the sculpture garden and to dine at Laurel, the trendy restaurant operated by chef owner Mario Pagán.
The MAPR’s collection of 1100 works dates from the 17th to the 21st centuries. The revised permanent exhibit, installed in August 2012, provides a perspective on Puerto Rican art by detailing Mexican, American and European influences and also by showcasing paintings and prints that reflect the island’s politics, geography and culture.
Viewing the works in this context offers new insight. To the traditional portrait of the Spanish governor’s daughters, noted 18th century painter José Campeche adds the island touches of a pineapple and a maraca. Francisco Oller, a 19th century artist, positions soursops, an island fruit, at the center of his still life.
In the poster gallery, circa 1950-1970, see how island silkscreen artists manipulate design and color to convey educational messages and movie themes, and later, political commentary. In a 1994 mixed media installation No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop, Pepón Osario stages a New York City shop whose hub cap lined walls, pool table, and mural size “tattoo” of roses encircled with “Perdóname Madre” (Excuse me, Mother) convey machismo mixed with mawkishness.
The 2.5 acre sculpture garden is a serene spot with a pond and waterfall. Contemporary pieces bloom amid the bamboo, ferns, and palms. For children, the MAPR offers activARTE, a colorful, interactive space where kids can draw and paint. At select times, the museum hosts family programs.
Unlike many museum restaurants, Laurel serves tasty fare. Iron Chef participant Mario Pagán labels his food the “new Caribbean cuisine,” one that adds fresh, native ingredients to international items. We recommend the sirloin steak served with a sweet plantain mousse and red wine reduction.
For another authentic island taste, stop by Finca Cialitos, 150 San Justo, Old San Juan. To serve a truly Puerto Rican cup of coffee, owner Joaquin Pastor selects only certain beans, hand-picked from his grandfather’s farm and from the fields of a few other local growers.
Pastor roasts the beans in the back of his shop. “We do not use flavors—vanilla, hazelnut—to hide the defects of the coffee,” says Pastor. “Puerto Rican coffee has traces of chocolate. In a balanced roast you can taste a little bit of chocolate.”
The coffee, like the day of island finds, is delicious.