If you visit Puerto Rico, the first thing you should know is that the restaurants are basically a series of food trucks (I say this as someone flabbergasted by the food truck revolution. I’d like a nice table and server with my $18 taco, thank you very much.) You might be lured, as we were, by tables in beautiful gardens complete with chirping birds. You might be tricked into believing that a place sitting along the ocean would have delicious fresh seafood. But no. They are all food trucks.
Foodies that we are, this was the biggest disappointment of the Enchanted Island. The first few days were rough. We actually ate at a burger joint that had exceptional fries and a veggie burger, which is not something you’d expect to crave on a vacation. But every time we tried seafood or even chicken, the food came back an overfried, dried-out mess.
Things began to look up when we sampled the local dish, mofongo. Now, I’m not an expert on Puerto Rico, but I’m pretty sure you could get this dish at a gas station and it would still be delicious. Mofongo is old-fashioned comfort food, Caribbean style. The basic premise is that plantains are smashed into a concoction that most closely resembles mashed potatoes. However, the texture is a bit firmer so the plantains are molded in sort of a bundt cake fashion. Within the plantain mold, you can add a variety of meats such as pork or crab (Did you even hear what I said earlier? Stay away from the seafood!). I managed to find a vegetarian mofongo that was topped with beans. I’m not sure why but the dish reminded me of red beans and rice. It was so tasty, especially contrasted with the crap I had been eating. I felt saved!
Walking along the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, you can’t help but notice the Spanish influence. Kevin said the city reminded him of a very clean, freshly painted New Orleans. And he’s definitely right about that. Every few blocks, we also stumbled upon plazas. It only makes sense that if you are questing for food, the first thing you should notice is the architecture. Spanish, my friend, means tapas, and it was at two tapas places that we finally found food to write home about.
The first was right behind our hotel, hidden in plain sight if you will. El Toro Salao, which inexplicably means “the salty bull,” is home of the most amazing passion fruit caprihani I have ever tasted. We actually ate at the restaurant (inside for faster seating) on the night before the race, and had Kevin not dragged me out of the place kicking and screaming, I would have had 15 of them. Below the din of restaurant chatter, a jazz trio (I know this doesn’t make sense, but it was really nice) played haunting renditions of songs I only barely noticed at first. When Kevin asked the name of the song they were playing that I couldn’t name, the band was delighted and said they would play any song Kevin wanted. Between the drinks and the band, we could have stayed here a long time. The food, traditional tapas, wasn’t bad either. The patatas bravas or yummy potatoes (yes, that’s the translation!) were spicy and garlicky, just as I like them, and I devoured a bowl of olives marinated in red wine. I also ordered shrimp tacos refashioned as an appetizer in crunchy wonton skins. The dish was inventive, but again, do not eat seafood, even in nice tapas bars.
Later in the week, we stumbled into a tapas place called El Picoteo, which means to nibble or pick. This tapas place was the best one we’ve visited in all of our travels. From beginning to end, every single thing we ate was delicious. First up, I had Tomates Alinado, a tomato salad whose star was a unique pesto oil that lit up the dish. I dunked everything I could find into this oil—the bread, the tomatoes, my salmon from the next dish. Salmon en Pistachio Chimichurri was a pistachio-encrusted salmon with chimichurri sauce, and we were relieved to find that the fish was actually perfect. I guess you can find good seafood in Puerto Rico if you try hard enough. Another winner was the asparagus, grilled in olive oil. When done properly, these things are better than French fries. Kevin ate a variety of meat things, all of which he raved about: Chorizo Diablo, Spanish chorizo sauteed in brandy with quite a bit of kick, and Pinchos Filete, which were pork kabobs.
In the last two days, we managed to find several espresso bars with delicious pastries. One, La Tortuga, whose logo was a turtle that looked like an igloo, was a recommendation from a shop manager. It helps to ask a local where to eat. Sage advice for even the most seasoned traveler.
Part 3: El Yunque Rainforest Adventure