Japanese and Chinese food buffets are ubiquitous. Latin ones, though are practically nonexistent in Miami. Really. So when I heard that Old San Juan Restaurant had a lunch spread, of course I wanted to try it out.
Old San Juan is a Puerto Rican restaurant. Or so it says. I have become somewhat familiar with both Puerto Ricans and their food because my girlfriend grew up on the island, and trust me, boricuas would be insulted that their patria is being slandered like this.
The island is very proud of its cuisine and many people can cook an arroz con gandules that'll make your mouth water, so it defies logic that the food at Old San Juan made me spit it out. (I'm not kidding, but we'll get to that later.)
I had first come in during the week, and a waitress told me that I should definitely return on Saturday or Sunday because the buffet would be way better and include pasteles, a Puerto Rican tamal containing pork or chicken. She must have read pigeon all over me, and she was right--I fell for her ploy and returned on a Saturday.
Upon my Saturday visit, I looked over the buffet and took note of the staples that serve as the basis for all Latin cuisine--rice, beans, meats, plantains, and assorted viandas (malanga, calabaza, etc.).
Since it was a buffet, I served a little of each item to sample them all. I first served myself one pastel and one slice of pastelon (a lasagna-type dish made with layers of ground beef and fried sweet plantains instead of pasta). The pastel was weak and about 1/3 the height of an average pastel. It was obvious that they were this thin on purpose -- so that the lack of meat inside wouldn't be so apparent. The pastelon was a complete disaster. It fell apart, spilling its ugly guts across my plate. The only flavor I could single out was old grease. I couldn't eat more than a few bites of either item.
My second plate contained serenata de bacalao, which is basically cold, salted cod fish. The first bite stayed in my mouth for approximately 15 seconds before I had to spit it into a napkin. The fish wasn't fresh or properly prepared, and tasted horrendous. Here I should interject that none of the food looked fresh. Everything had a congealed, crusty look. I then tried the arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon peas), which was pretty decent, but upon reflection I think my positive opinion was due, at least in part, to the fact that I was grateful for the chaser.
My last plate consisted of red beans, some more arroz con gandules, and carne guisada (beef stew). Finally some food that didn't make me want to cry. The carne guisada was actually really good and so were the beans. Excellent, in fact. So, a plate of the meat, rice, and beans, was actually worth the buffet. At least I thought until I received the check.
I had not bothered to ask how much the buffet cost because I figured, especially after looking at the offerings, that a buffet consisting of Latin food would be (at most) $13.95 (and that would still be kinda high for rice, beans, and bananas). When the bill came, I got angry. Each buffet cost $22. And the reason for the server's insistence that I come back during the weekend glared at me from the check -- mandatory gratuity. So, as opposed to getting 15 percent off the weekday buffet at $8.95 per person, she was now getting 15 percent off $22 per person. I asked her if the difference between the weekday buffet and the weekend buffet was just those namby-pamby pasteles and she said yes, but that also drink and dessert were included. So, I basically paid $13 for a Diet Coke and a little slice of crap. You know how much the soda and dessert would have cost me off the a la carte menu? A total of $6.45. So, I basically got conned out of an extra $6 and change, not counting the MANDATORY 15 percent GRATUITY on a lunch BUFFET.
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It is glaringly obvious why Old San Juan Restaurant was tumbleweed empty both times I visited. And don't play cards with the short, bespectacled waitress with the dark hair. You've been warned.
Old San Juan Restaurant
1200 SW 57 Ave., Miami