Did you miss me? I know, I know. An entire week to go without insightful and compelling opinions about the world of food and restaurants is just too much! I promise, I’ll try not to do it againJ. But alas, I had a good excuse: I was much too busy doing this….
|Snorkeling in crystal clear water.|
|Zipping down a water slide off the back of a sail boat|
And even a little of this…
|Sipping fresh coconut water with my own personal photographer/eating partner|
…in sunny Puerto Rico (read with a Latino accent and be sure to roll the Rs). Jealous? Yeah, sorry.
But fear not! I was also doing plenty of this…
|Reading menus in hopes of discovering deliciousness|
Ok, so the real scoop is this: Puerto Rican food is nothing like what I expected it to be. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. A flavor profile similar to that of the neighboring Caribbean islands, possibly? Lots of tropical fruit and fresh fish, perhaps? Maybe they eat a ton of ceviche like they do in Costa Rica. Or the similarities could be closer to the cuisine of Cuba. I think it’s safe to say that I was pretty much wrong on all accounts. There were no tacos, no ceviche, no tropical fruit salsas, or cilantro (or any fresh herb, for that matter). There was no bright acids from fresh limes, or spiciness from local chilies. Mostly what we found was simple, plain and simply plain.
|Rice and Beans and Fried Stuff|
|Cummon! Gimme some real grill marks and fresh veggies!!|
Overall, I’d say that Puerto Ricans eat a lot of heavy, fried, and fast food. What?! I know. I was totally shocked. Where is all the perfectly prepared fresh fish? This is an island, after all. And what about the abundance of tropical fruits I imagined there to be; mango, papaya, guava, pineapple, coconut, banana, avocado? Can’t this place grow stuff non-stop? Unfortunately for me, what I found was a lot of fried meat, fried potatoes, fried cheese, and fried dough containing one or more of the afore mentioned ingredients. One expected ingredient that is served with practically everything else is plantain. Often, these too, were fried. Pounded and fried. Or mashed and fried.
|Fritura Appetizer with Mayo Dipping Sauce. (Note the fried plantains.)|
Speaking of mashed, fried plantains, we ordered the traditional mofongo a couple of times. It’s a tall wooden bowl, lined with the mashed plantains and filled with fish or meat. Honestly, these could have been a couple of our best dishes of the trip, and they weren’t even close to shake-your-Latin-booty impressive. Our first experience with it was on our first night when we were excited to dine at an ‘authentic’ PR restaurant. We ordered it filled with charrusco, or skirt steak. It was very simple and straight forward, but fine. I think we expected to find bright, lively, fresh flavors, which only led to our disappointment when we found instead, rather heavy, dull, one-dimensional flavors.
|Mofongo with Skirt Steak. (Note the fried plantain.)|
The second time was at a restaurant that we happened upon while driving back from a bioluminescent bay (which was totally awesome, btw). We were drawn to it by the smell of BBQ pork and the impressive number of cars lined up on the street out front. Like I always say, if there’s a line for food, you should probably get in it. Turns out, the La Estacione is owned by a couple from Brooklyn. Not surprising when we took a look around and found efficiency, good service, ambiance, and what seemed like an actual business (unlike many of the other restos we dined at during our week on this relaxed island). Here, the Manhattan resto vet decided to put a little twist on the otherwise extremely simple, almost boring, traditional mofongo. He spiked the plantains with plenty of butter and garlic (unfortunately, giving me the sense of poorly done garlic bread). But this time we chose a filling of sautéed shrimp, Mahi Mahi and cherry tomatoes, which was quite delicious. Even more wonderful, however, were the smoked pork ribs with guava BBQ sauce. Smoky, sweet, tender and just the right amount of fattiness came together for some truly delicious BBQ, by anyone’s standards. In this, La Estacione really scored.
|Mofongo with Shrimp. (Note the fried plantain.)|
|Delicious BBQ Ribs and Chicken. (Note the smashed, fried plantains.)|
Dispite the seeming shortage of fresh fish on the island, we did manage to order it another time or two. Once was at Parrilla, an ocean front shack among shacks lining Liquillo beach. Our whole Red Snapper was pretty tasty, if not enhanced by some salty, buttery rice that luckily absorbed the drippings of the fish in which it had been cooked. Its other accompaniment was less pleasing, though completely typical from what we observed. But beggars can’t be choosers and, at this point, we were nearly desperate for a vegetable. So we accepted the only kind they seemed to have on the island, that is, those that had previously been in a plastic bag in the freezer. They ended up next to our fish, cooked to death and mealy, covered in butter. Ugh.
|Tasty Fish, Mushy Veg.|
At a certain point, we decided to eat at a non-Puerto Rican restaurant, just because we were a little tired of being disappointed and wanted some good food. A place called Dragonfly was our attempt. It came highly recommended by a couple of people including a concierge and a surf instructor. It’s a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant and the menu didn’t look bad from its display box out front. At least it was something creative, with more than one non-fried component on a plate. It turned out to be good compared to what the rest of Old San Juan had to offer, but by no means was it great. The steamed buns on the slider trio were heavy and dense, the pork dumplings tasted like something we came up with in ‘Asian class’ in culinary school and the sautéed spinach was covered in ‘peanut sauce,’ aka, diluted creamy skippy (once again, something that I wish had been disclosed on the menu). The cocktails were tasty, well made and represented the island vibe, however, so we were happy to enjoy a couple of those. In all, it was not a total loss.
|Nice ambiance and cocktails|
I think our dining experiences in PR can be summed up by the statement of one gentleman tending the bar at what we hoped would be a great beachfront restaurant/bar. After having some difficulty navigating a rather repetitive menu, we solicited his advise. What should we order on this sunny, hot day at the beach? Our criteria: light, seafood and not fried. He stopped mid-breath, and as he turned his back to us to walk away, shot over his shoulder, “Everything here is fried.”