San Juan, Puerto Rico

Who's got four thumbs and went to Puerto Rico for spring break?  Me and Alex!

I pretty much have no reason to take a break from studying and working...but my friends convinced me that in our senior year of college, I should take a nice leisurely spring break.  But rest assured, I'm going right back to doing my school work.  And I owe you guys a bunch of posts afterwards!

A bunch of friends came along with us for our short-and-sweet trip down to San Juan for spring break.  Suffice it to say that I'm perpetually cold now that I'm back in New York and it is no longer 85 degrees, humid, and sunny.  We spent a good amount of time touring Old San Juan, seeing the gorgeous and colorful colonial architecture, and sampling the local cuisine.  We also rented cars and drove out to El Yunque Rainforest for some hiking and burning off calories from the food...which proved necessary.

What is Puerto Rican food like?  To be honest, before our trip, I wasn't really sure myself.  I know and love my Boricuas and Nuyoricans, but I've never had Puerto Rican cuisine before!  I was in for a treat.  Overall, the local cuisine is very rich, flavorful, and...fried.  I ate more than my weight in meat and plantains and rice and beans.  It was great to try such new and exotic foods but if I'd stayed any longer, I would have come home 500 pounds heavier.

DAY 1 (night 1, sort of)
Our first dinner happened after walking down this ridiculously lonely and devoid-of-shops road between our hotel and Old San Juan.  It was about 11pm, and I was in danger of passing out from hunger.  We spotted a gas station with a restaurant next door that had a sign that said "Abierto".  YES, gracias a Dios!  The small restaurant housed a few older men watching a boxing match on flat screen TVs.  We sat down at a table and had an interesting time ordering in Spanglish. Eventually, we had a family style dinner of: rice and beans, pork chop, steak, fried pork (carne fritas), and tostones (fried plantains).  We might never know if the food was really delicious or if we were just so famished that a piece of cardboard would have tasted good.  

Anyway, the food was really good and it was an exciting dining experience.  The rice and beans were a revelation to me, in fact: I normally don't like rice so much, which is particularly sad since I have it every night for dinner.  I also happen to not like beans because I don't like the mushy texture.  But rice and beans in Puerto I'm a convert!  The plain white rice with saucy beans ladled on top was very flavorful.  The pork chop and steak were juicy.  The carne fritas were a bit on the hard-and-dry-and-salty side, but it's kind of hard to dislike anything deep fried and crunchy. The tostones were also interesting - I've never had anything like it before, mashed green plantains breaded and fried into disks.  I think years from now, we will all recall this meal fondly.

Our next meal was at a famous local diner called La Bombonera.  We had heard Andrew Zimmern filmed here, giving it his stamp of approval. We arrived during the busy Sunday lunch shift.  All the food was delicious, essentially.  We learned a thing or two about Puerto Rican food during this meal though:

1) There is a dish that consists of cold fish, served in the escabeche style.  This involves a few fish filets soaked in an oily acidic marinade.  This was not a fan favorite of the visiting Americans.

2) La Bombonera, and all of San Juan, has this incredible quintessential pastry called the mallorca.  It is a buttered flaky roll, pressed in their ubiquitous panini presses, and then dusted with powdered sugar and served warm.  Ohhhh.  Mallorcas.  So good.  Someone had said that after having a mallorca, they could never go back to eating bread without powdered sugar, and before I had a bite of a mallorca I couldn't understand this.

3) A lot of Puerto Rican food is simple.  Arroz y pollo, arroz y habichuelas, sopa y arroz.  No frills, just really flavorful hearty food.

For an afternoon snack, we sought out the famous Barrachina restaurant, where a big (pretty tacky) marble plaque tells the world that the pina colada was born here.  One of my lab managers had recommended this place when I told her I was visiting Puerto Rico.  In fact, she said you can't go to Puerto Rico and not try the pina colada at Barrachina.  I think my mom passed on her genetic disposition towards pina coladas to me, so I was ever so excited to have the Original.  We were not disappointed! The creamy frothy drinks came out with little drink umbrellas skewering a cherry and pineapple chunk.  It's pretty inexplicable what made Barrachina's pina colada so good - maybe the fact that we knew we were having the original - but seriously, guys, IT WAS SO GOOD.

Finally, for dinner, we checked out this placed called El Jibarito...though when we arrived, the wait for a table turned out to be 40 minutes.  It was worth it, though.  I had chicken Creole with trifongo...and we all had fun saying loudly to each other "YUCA MOFONGO" very vulgarly because we are really mature college students (not).  This dish was such a guilty pleasure: the chicken Creole was cut into bits and swimming in a salty sauce and the deep-fried mound of trifongo (green plantain, sweet plantain, and yuca mashed up) had a drizzle of melted butter on top.  Here, I began to see the pattern of deep-fried foods with a heavy dose of salt and spices. Personally, my tastes have changed from really loving salty foods to being slightly intolerant: if I have anything vaguely salty, I will be guzzling gallons of water right after, so having Puerto Rican cuisine was a tad difficult for me and my bladder...but nonetheless, delicious.  Certainly guilt-inducing though...I felt the cholesterol and saturated fats coursing through my blood vessels.

The next morning, I found a coffee shop on our little tourist map called Cuatro Sombras.  I was pretty much in love with the place as soon as we arrived, which explains why we visited again.  The green shuttered doors were open to the street and let the cool breeze casually blow through the cafe. Lacy lanterns hung above a nook with wooden benches and wicker stools. Their coffee was delicious, and the ambiance even better.

For lunch, we went to another diner that Alex had visited on a previous trip to Puerto Rico called Cafe Mallorca.  I got a plain ham and cheese sandwich, but Alex got a ham and cheese sandwich - get this - made with a mallorca!  Basically a ham and cheese sandwich dusted with powdered sugar.

Our major sightseeing event of the day was to visit the Bacardi Rum Distillery (fist pump).  After a short ferry ride and cab ride to Catano, we arrived at the massive complex of the Bacardi factory.  We took a brief tour and learned about their innovative rum distillation methods, but let's be honest, everyone was waiting for the end, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  

Everyone (over 21) receives two tickets to redeem free drinks at the Bacardi Bat Bar, rum and all.  I was surprised to see all the flavors of rum that Bacardi makes: besides its Superior and aged rums, they also have Rock Coconut, plain Coconut, Melon, Apple, Peach, Dragon Berry, Arctic Grape, Torched Cherry, Raspberry, and Lemon.  The bar staff mixes you a little cup of rum and whatever juice you choose.  I had a pina colada-styled one (Rock Coconut with pineapple juice) and a Peach with passionfruit.  Talk about a good day.

Our adventures on this day brought us to another district of Puerto Rico. Yup, we went to the rainforest! After an arduous hike through la selva, we drove to a bordering town called Luquillo to try out their famous (infamous?) kiosks.  Kiosks?  It's kind of hard to wrap your mind around it, but the kiosks are semi-restaurant-ish food stalls that mostly sell fried finger foods.  Their glass cases display empanadas, balls of fried dough, fried potatoes, plantains, sandwiches, meats, and other...unique...things to eat.  I settled for a ball of fried mashed potatoes with chicken inside and a crab empanada.  I wasn't a fan of the potato-chicken thing, but the crab empanada was surprisingly good!!  The crab filling was sweet and crabby and the empanada crust was buttery and flaky.  Having my little empanada while staring out at the beaches of Luquillo, too, was not a bad way to end the afternoon.

It was really hot.  We were dying for something sweet and cold to freshen up while we stomped the streets of Old San Juan.  Luckily we ran into a guy selling piraguas (shaved ice) and gave him a lot of business.  In his little cart, he had a block of ice and shaved it with a metal conical scraper.  The block of ice was surrounded by bottles of syrup of a multitude of colors and flavors.  I ended up getting a pina colada-influenced piragua: coconut and pineapple syrup on ice.  It was soooo sweet, but interestingly creamy and not at all the texture that I expected from syrup and ice.

Our final meal was at La Bombonera again.  I ordered a Cuban sandwich, which was a delicious chunk of roast pork, pickles, mustard, and Swiss cheese squashed between two slices of a chewy, crunchy baguette. It was delicious: juicy meat, tangy pickles, spicy mustard, and creamy cheese.  It was also just nice sitting around the table with my friends, wrapping up our whirlwind Puerto Rican adventures, looking forward to posting photos on Facebook and waiting for layers of skin to peel off from sunburn.

I really had so much fun in Puerto Rico.  It was a welcome break from the fast-paced city life and our senior year of college.  I loved the warm weather, sunny blue skies, and carefreeness.  I'm telling you, Puerto Rico is where it's at.