Reading is a constantly changing city.
Abandoned factories tell the story of the once-thriving industrial era. Bumpy crossings serve as reminders of the days when railroads were king. And we’re just a generation removed from when Reading was the outlet capital of the world.
The brand names are gone, but the Outlet District continues to evolve, with small independent stores and restaurants to cater to locals, not out-of-state bus trips.
And among the empty buildings are thriving businesses, like the Old San Juan Cafe.
Old San Juan Cafe is located along North Ninth Street in the heart of the Outlet District. There is no off-street parking for the Cafe, so we grabbed a space across the street under the shadow of one of the old outlet buildings. Signs for long-forgotten stores like the Designer Bags Outlet and Cape Craftsmen still adorn the abandoned building.
Another sign advertised, “TOP OF THE ROC, An American Dining House.”
Though the outlet is silent, the street still bustles with activity, highlighted by the seemingly endless stream of customers coming and going through Old San Juan.
Neither Julie nor I had any idea what to expect going into Old San Juan for the first time. The interior was bright, with simple, but beautiful murals covering the walls.
They depicted scenes from Puerto Rico — one side the vibrant beaches, the other a small hut in rural farmland.
In front of us was the order counter, where a steady line had developed and would remain throughout our dinner.
Steam plates behind the counter were filled with delicious looking goods. Our biggest concern was a potential language barrier, with us not knowing what we were looking at on the other side of the glass.
We were thankful that the woman behind the counter not only spoke English, but was patient enough with us to give us the full rundown of everything available, from the tripe to the sonocho to beef stew.
The two of us each picked out an entree and paid at the register before grabbing a table. I think we were both surprised to find so much seating inside the narrow building, ample room to have housed everyone who came in for takeout during our brief stay.
I have eaten at a number of Latin American restaurants for Berks County Eats, but never one that exclusively serves Puerto Rican dishes and was excited to try my roast pork (pernil).
When we were at the counter, there was only a sliver of pork left so the woman who was helping us went back and grabbed a fresh batch from the kitchen. It was outstanding.
The meat was so tender, slow-cooked to fall off the bone (most of the meats appeared to be bone-in). It was hard to pinpoint exactly what made it so good. There was no sauce, and no one flavor that stood out. It seemed so simple, but it was among the best pork that I have tried.
All of the entrees are served with a side of rice and beans. The white rice is placed on the plate with the entree while the beans were served in a cup on the side.
I was surprised to find that potatoes are featured in Puerto Rican style beans. The small cubes had been sitting in the sauce for so long that they now looked like sweet potatoes, taking on the same orange hue as the sauce.
Mixed together with the rice, it was an excellent side. It wasn’t spicy as far as heat, but there was enough spices mixed in to give it a great flavor.
Julie opted for one of the saucier entrees, the stewed chicken. The juice had soaked through the chicken skin to the bone, ensuring flavorful and tender bites throughout.
She had a thigh and a leg and cleaned the meat off of both, savoring every bite.
In addition to the meat and sides, our meals were served with a choice of salad. For me, it was a simple lettuce and tomato.
For Julie, it was potato salad, one of the best that she has ever tried. It was extra creamy, with a flavorful potato (not a simple baking potato) as the base. She also enjoyed the addition of the green peppers to the mix, something she’s never found in any other potato salad.
Though we really didn’t need any more food, both of us have a weakness for plantains so we got a small plate with five pieces of the fried fruit. Though they would have made a nice end to the meal, neither of us could wait to eat them so they were gone long before the rest of our food.
While we both finished off our meats, we ended up taking home quite a bit of rice and beans, as well as about half of her cup of potato salad.
One of the great things about a place like Old San Juan is that not having waiters and waitresses allows them to charge lower prices. Our total dinner bill was less than $20.
This trip was the first time that Julie had been to the Outlet District since she was a child, when her grandmother used to take her on shopping trips. It brought back a flood of memories for her.
Future memories in the neighborhood won’t be made in large shopping centers. They’ll be made in little places like Old San Juan Cafe.
Food: Very Good
Price: Very Reasonable
Old San Juan Cafe
808 N. 9th St
Reading, PA 19604