Thursday, September 26, 2013

Katy's Dumpling House

On our recent return visit to Chicago (the missus and I came to town to have the Next Restaurant's Bocuse d'Or menu - more on that in the next posting), we were happy to be able to meet up with our foodie friends Phil and Karen for lunch. Since they live in our old neighborhood in the south suburbs and we arrived at O'Hare, I wanted to pick a interesting dining venue somewhere in-between, and I remembered that Katy's Dumpling House in Westmont was one joint I'd been wanting to try for quite a while.

Only about 20 minutes from the airport (I think they got stuck with the longer drive), Katy's Westmont location (665 N. Cass Avenue) is in an unremarkable strip mall that also has Indian and Thai food, a veritable cornucopia of Asian cuisine in the western suburbs. The restaurant itself isn't much bigger than your average home's living room (about 6 tables) and has a strong no-frills vibe, the type of place where they might tell you to use the back alley if you had the temerity to inquire about a public restroom. For ordering, diners are directed to the large photos of various Chinese dishes with small English captions posted above the counter (there's also a small markerboard with daily specials off to the side).

I always feel encouraged when I enter a small ethnic restaurant and find that our little cadre is the only non-native group there; that appeared to be the case when we first sat down. My hopes were validated when the server brought out our initial dish (see photo above), a 6-pack of the house's pan-fried pork buns. Nicely browned on the bottom, the buns were soft and spongy on the inside and contained a dollop of nicely-spiced ground pork.

Our server informed us that the only variety of steamed dumpling left that day was the pork and chive mixture, so we also ordered up 10 of those (see photo above). When paired with the chili dipping sauce at each table, the dumplings were almost (but not quite) the equal of their pan-fried cousins.

At first, Phil and I were a little hesitant to order anything shown on the menu as "spicy" (especially given the heavy French feast the missus and I were going to have the next evening), but curiosity got the better of us and we opted to try a bowl of the famous house dan dan noodles (see photo above). We were instantly happy that we did - the big bowl of perfectly chewy noodles arrived at the table with ground pork and mustard greens, all doused in a fantastic red broth that featured just a subtle amount of the tongue-numbing Szechuan spice (although we suspect that the kitchen dialed it way down for us gaijin). As was the case with Sa Ri One a few weeks prior, I was already looking forward to my return visit to Katy's so I could try out some of their other noodle dishes and dumplings...

Sa Ri One

Now that Mrs. Hackknife and I had finally finished exchanging what amounted to lavish dining gift excursions for our 10th wedding anniversary, the actual date of our anniversary had arrived. As you might imagine after two weekends of straight indulgence, we were seeking to do something a little more mundane to celebrate this time. A trusted source at the office recommended what may very well be Tampa's best place to experience Korean cuisine, Sa Ri One (3940 W. Cypress, no website), so this is where we headed on a recent Friday evening while my in-laws were still in town to watch the progeny.

The building where Sa Ri One is located is a little ramshackle and could easily pass for a speakeasy or massage parlor if not for the signs out front advertising Korean cuisine. Trying to convince myself that the restaurant's name must have a profound meaning in the mother tongue and doesn't simply indicate how the diner will feel after eating there ("Sa-Ri-One"...think about it), I headed inside and began poring over the typically-prodigious Asian menu (see photo below):

After flipping through page upon page of choices, the missus and I opted to play it safe (our direct experience with Korean food is pretty limited thus far) and ordered some tried-and-true favorites. First up was the seafood pancake appetizer (hae mul pa joun), which we had been advised to try by Mrs. Hackknife's co-worker:

Arriving at the table much larger (!) that we were expecting, the pancake was filled with tender octopus pieces, scallions, shrimp, and possibly other seafood bits that remained unidentified. Accompanied by a small dish of chili dipping sauce, the pancake's texture fell somewhere between soft/firm and could have easily provided us with a full meal (I should add that the leftovers were quite good).

For our entrees, I picked a platter of delicious bulgogi beef (a widely-ordered dish in Korean restaurants consisting of thin beef slices marinated in a sweet sauce before grilling) that came with steamed rice and six different bowls of pickled sides, including cucumbers, kimchi, sprouts, greens, and a couple of mystery ones:

I probably could have polished off the whole platter of beef myself (which would have been a bad idea) and I also enjoyed most of the pickled sides (hard to pick a favorite). Mrs. Hackknife was more taken with her entree choice, a plate of katsu pork (breaded deep-fried pork slices) that resembled something one is more likely to find in Japanese cuisine:

Finding the pork to be a bit on the dry side, I was happy to stick with my bulgogi beef. Regardless, we were both pleased with the meal as a whole and are anxious for our next visit so we can try some of the less-common dishes...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Padoka Brazilian Bakery

The monstrosity that you see above is an example of how Brazilians eat their hot dogs, at least back in the motherland. This version of the so-called Brazilian hot dog is actually two weiners that have been either boiled or steamed, then split lengthwise and cradled on a French roll along with ketchup, mayo, grated cheese, a smattering of kernel corn, and potatoes two ways (mashed and shoestring, presumably for a little added crunch). From the description, you wouldn't think that it'd work; yet, somehow, it does (boy, does it ever). Where, do you ask, can one find this masterpiece of gluttony outside of Sao Paulo or Recife? Why, Tampa has its very own Brazilian bakery to support the local diaspora, Padoka Bakery (8206 W. Waters, no website) on the northwest side of town. I first noticed Padoka while driving Hackknifette to/from her old preschool every day and vowed to check it out sometime. I am no longer regularly in the neighborhood, but did managed to pop in once to sample a few of the other house specialties, namely coxinha (a fried pastry filled with shredded chicken and vegetables), empada (similar to a chicken pot pie), and pao de queijo (little fried cheese balls that are popular breakfast items), before returning a second time for the storied hot dog.

By the way, the coconut flan isn't bad either, crowned with a trio of rum-soaked prunes to give the mellow custard a boozy boost. I can't say that I'd recommend the cashew fruit juice (which is an acquired taste, seeming to me like apple juice that's gone a bit rancid), but I'd definitely advise everyone in town to stop into Padoka for what's likely the most unique hot dog in the metro area...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Puerto Rico Dining - Day 4

Four our last full day on the island, Mrs. Hackknife and I had decided to go native by renting a car from the airport and heading out into the Puerto Rican countryside for some exploring. Our ultimate destination was the resort town of Dorado, located a mere 30 minutes west of San Juan and site of the evening's highly-anticipated dinner at Mi Casa, Chef Jose Andres's restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach resort. But first, we had other plans in mind, namely to visit some renowned caves in Camuy and the giant radio telescope facility out by Arecibo, another 45-minute drive west beyond Dorado. Traveling to the western part of the island was easier than I'd imagined, with a 4-lane toll road taking the place of the dirt paths overrun with livestock that I had envisioned at one point (yes, I know, it's a U.S. territory). Once off the main highway, the secondary roads to the caves were no worse than motoring down Florida 60 across the middle of the state, giving us a chance to get a brief sample of life in Puerto Rico outside of the big city. At one point, we passed what appeared to be a roadside cafe called Johnny's - I made a note of the location as a potential stopping place for our lunch and managed to convince Mrs. Hackknife to swing back after the cave tour.

This decision turned out to be a shrewd one, as Johnny's (on Puerto Rico 129, somewhere between Arecibo and the Caves de Camuy, no website) was a veritable gold mine of traditional Puerto Rican dishes, the perfect place to try out a bunch of new foods (basically our "No Reservations" moment of the trip). Even better for us, the kind young man running the counter spoke flawless English and was very patient while we peppered him with questions before making our selections.

Featuring both hot and cold dishes, Johnny's menu included some things I recognized (like mofongo and pollo asado) and lots of things that I didn't. Using the cashier's recommendations as our guide, we picked out some morcilla (pork blood sausage with rice), fried breadfruit, something called pastelon (described to us as like lasagna with plantains in place of the noodles), a scoop of crispy yellow rice (browned on the bottom of the pan not unlike paella) with beans, and slices of avocado.

Everything we ate was fantastic, with the pastelon probably being our favorite. This concoction seems to be unique to Puerto Rico/Dominican Republic and is normally made with ground beef (ours had shredded chicken instead), but, just like lasagna, the locals apparently tailor their pastelon recipes to suit their own tastes. Most recipes I could find online include fried plantains, a protein of your choosing, sofrito, eggs, a seasoned MSG salt called sazon, adobo spice, and tomato sauce, plus sometimes cheese, raisins, milk, and/or olives (heart-healthy it's not). Even the breadfruit (a starchy fruit that, while nutritious, I'd heard to be unpalatable) was pretty darn good (of course, it had been fried). Given the opportunity, we'd gladly return to Johnny's someday to sample more swaths of the menu.

Feeling pretty satisfied, Mrs. Hackknife and I spent an hour or so at the nearby radio telescope facility before heading back towards Dorado for dinner. We weren't staying at the Ritz resort (too rich for our blood, we were slumming it up at the Embassy Suites down the road), so we got a little lost seeking it out in the darkness once night fell (there aren't so many street lights in Puerto Rico illuminating the roadways outside of towns). When we finally arrived, we discovered the resort to be magnificent, almost like a Polynesian village set in the middle of a lagoon (I couldn't see the ocean, but I could hear and smell it out there somewhere), with tidy, modern buildings on stilts connected by elegant walkways above the water.

Mi Casa itself has something of a playful look when compared to the rest of the resort, a Japanese steakhouse-meets-the Spanish Inquisition (note the Catalan steer head mounted on the wall). Jose Andres is also known for injecting a bit of whimsy into his cooking style, showcasing traditional Spanish dishes in non-traditional ways (and, in this case, incorporating some ingredients that are indigenous to Puerto Rico). We opted to try the evening's multi-course "Tapas Experience" menu and we were certainly not disappointed.

The first course simply consisted of sliced Jamon Iberico (quite possibly the world's best ham) served with Catalan tomato bread, proving that you can't really improve on a classic combination. I'd had the same tomato bread at Chef Andres's restaurant The Bazaar in Los Angeles (they had two sous-chefs solely dedicated to making tomato bread there) and it was just as good the second time around.

Next up was a variation of the salmon cornet originally made famous by Chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, with a phyllo dough cone filled with green papaya marmalade and Canarejal cheese from Spain, then topped with hazelnut shavings, a great combination of sweet and savory in a single bite.

Course #3 was more of an avant-garde cocktail/palate cleanser, consisting of four little spheres filled with rum, mint, lime, and coconut water resting in a pool of the same liquid inside a green papaya shell. Being a Jose Andres menu, I figured we'd be getting edible spheres at some point (he's an unabashed disciple of Ferran Adria, you know) and this was it.

The spheres were followed by this, um, acrylic gym shoe filled with a very common tapas dish, chicken and bechamel croquettes, that were uncommonly delicious (not sure I quite understand the shoe tie-in, however).

A light and refreshing platter of four local mussels marinated in Sherry dressing and topped with a relish of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and bright yellow foam (saffron?) then arrived at our table. The mussels were briny and delicate, and I wished we had about 20 more of them to nosh on.

More raw seafood followed, this time a beautiful tuna ceviche (tuna mixed with coconut dressing, jicama, cilantro, and serrano peppers) underneath a vibrant green avocado, which sported a crown of crispy quinoa. I've had a lot of ceviches over the years and this was probably both the best-looking and richest version I'd ever encountered.

Course #7 was the chef's take on a deconstructed Caesar salad, albeit different from the one that Graham Elliott made famous. In this dish, romaine lettuce was wrapped in four cylinders of jicama, then two of the cylinders were topped with shaved Parmesan, while the others had the raw egg yolk dressing and anchovies on top, respectively. A lonely pair of croutons perched on the plate next to the jicama rounds. I was happy to let Mrs. Hackknife have the egg yolk cylinder and she was kind enough to let me take the anchovy one. If there ever was a way to encourage people to eat salad in their cars, this dish would clearly be the best means to achieve that.

In homage to the numerous stands in the Puerto Rican town of Guavate selling spit-roasted whole pig (known as "lechon" around these parts), the kitchen next prepared a duo of pork belly slabs topped with pieces of puffed chicharron (pork skin) and chayote squash marinated in mojo (garlic, sour oranges, and olive oil), all served on crunchy fried buns. Yes, these little sandwich flavor bombs were as amazing as they sound.

Believe it or not, after this massive collection of small bites, we still had two MAIN COURSES on our tasting menu, the first of which you see below, a traditional Puerto Rican stew or gumbo (called "asopao") made with local spiny lobster from the holding tank in the middle of the dining room (we could see the servers bringing the pot of cooked lobster out of the kitchen and preparing the final dish at the station next to the tank - I wish they could have done it tableside). The asopao also contained more chayote squash, plus another island relish referred to as "alcaparrado", a mixture of finely chopped olives, garlic, capers, and pimento. As if that weren't enough, a basket of ethereal fried plantain chips accompanied the hearty stew.

The other main course was a plate of braised veal cheeks with shrimp, polenta, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (which I politely declined). The missus and I were both surprised to find that the veal cheeks were a little on the bland side, lacking the flavor punch we'd experienced with this ingredient at other places (B&B Ristorante Las Vegas's beef cheek ravioli, for example, or the mindblowingly rich beef cheek penang curry from the Next Thai menu in Chicago). This was the one and only dish of the evening that left us a little disappointed (of course, the fact that we were both stuffed to the gills at this point might have played a minor role in our discouragement).

We'd noticed sometime around the lobster stew course that the kitchen had fallen behind and had more or less ground to a halt, with most patrons in the dining room looking expectant. This lapse in activity (I'm sure that the kitchen must have been all a-frenzy behind closed doors) seemed to go on for a while - not that it really bothered us (actually, we welcomed the respite), but I felt bad for the other diners, especially those not doing the tasting menu and, thus, waiting for their entrees. Eventually, our server came over to offer us a complimentary glass of dessert wine, a wonderful 2005 Privilegio dei Feudi di San Gregorio from the Campania region of Italy, made from the white grapes Fiano and Falanghina.

This wine was a perfect match for our dessert course, a Spanish flan with Catalan cream, oranges, and passionfruit. Those tricky folks at Fogo de Chao know that their papaya creme dessert helps digest all of that roasted meat preceding it in your tummy, and this tropical-inflected custard served much the same purpose, allowing me to reach an upright position and walk out of the restaurant without much agony when the time came.

As far as value goes, I have to say that this $85 tasting menu is about the best deal you're likely to find in the Western Hemisphere (and you get to experience eclectic versions of regional dishes in a stunning setting for no extra charge). I dream of returning someday to the Ritz Dorado for an actual stay next time (donations happily accepted) and greatly look forward to my next meal at Mi Casa (you can bet we'll be driving back out to Johnny's for lunch, though)...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Puerto Rico Dining - Day 3

Mrs. Hackknife and I had another excursion scheduled on the morning of our third day in Puerto Rico, this time a walking tour (more history than food-focused) through the streets of Old San Juan. Since I can't appreciate history on an empty stomach, we popped into a coffee shop that Paulina and Gustavo had recommended for a quick breakfast. The coffee shop (Cafe Don Ruiz) is situated on the ground floor of the Cuartel de Ballaja, an old military barracks (see photo below) that has now turned into a museum and a dramatic public space for performances like classical music (we saw several groups of musicians practicing outside that morning).

Inside, the coffee house has an abstract modern decor that's very different from its host venue. They offer a modest selection of baked goods to go with what I was told was exceptional coffee (according to the missus). We opted for a pair of scrumptious-looking alfajores (see photo below), a sweet from Argentina consisting of two butter cookies sandwiched together by a layer of dulce de leche (which, apparently, is like catnip to Argentinians), then rolled in coconut and (soemtimes) topped with chocolate.

We also tried another Puerto Rican specialty called quesitos, small baked pastry shells filled with cheese. These were a little dry and not as good as the alfajores.

Following our walking tour (which was conducted by an American expat artist now living full time in San Juan), we continued walking down Calle Sol until we passed a sign for the Mezzanine at St. Germain, featuring a tapas brunch on weekends. Taking the bait, we wandered upstairs (the main restaurant, a French bistro, is on the ground floor) into a small, tastefully-decorated dining salon, where we were served a couple of stiff cocktails (whiskey lemonade and bloody mary) before receiving our tapas selections. First up were plates of brie and prosciutto on baguette and bagel pieces with salmon spread, dill, and horseradish:

Even better was the following pair, a knockout chickpea-and-grain escabeche (escabeche differs from ceviche in that the main ingredients are cooked, not raw, when mixed with the acids) served with crispy chips (Mrs. Hackknife and I fought over the remnants) and tuna tartare on cucumber slices:

Last, but not least, were toasted croissant slices filled with guava jelly and brie (a much better version of the quesitos we had earlier) and sweet/tangy meatballs topped with sesame seeds (reminding me of the burgundy meatballs that my mom sometimes used to make for parties):

With lunch out of the way, we were free to do a little exploration of the city on our own, visiting both the Castillo de San Cristobal (one of the two historic citadels that protected San Juan from marauders) and the local Supermax, not a prison, but a grocery chain in Puerto Rico. I can't convey how much I enjoy going into supermarkets in exotic locales - it's a great way to discover staples in other cultures, like these:

Puerto Ricans are gaga for small, chewy candies containing coconut, pineapple, sesame, or other tropical ingredients. We also saw a lot of the mayo-ketchup dipping sauce in restaurants around town (which, as you might expect, is pretty much the same as Thousand Island dressing) and decided we needed to have some in the Canteen. The green bag of chips that you see was a mixture of fried yuca, plantain, and chicharron (fried pork skin) pieces that put your standard bag of Cool Ranch Doritos to shame. Last, but not least, we were hoping that the progeny would enjoy some local cookies called Ponky (more like little vanilla snack cakes covered in chocolate, made by Colombina, a Colombian-based manufacturer), and we were half-right (Hackknife Jr. voted yes, Hackknifette no). The food item I was happiest about bringing home, however, was a bottle of banana ketchup (not pictured), made with banana pulp instead of tomato (of course, this makes it yellow instead of red) - I'd only eaten it once before (on a burger at Edzo's in Evanston, IL) and hadn't seen it again until now.

By now, we'd done a lot of walking today, so Mrs. Hackknife retired to the shade of the hotel for a couple of hours while I continued to abuse my body with further sightseeing, namely El Morro (the other, larger citadel in town) way out on the point above San Juan. I needed this unctuous passionfruit-pineapple ice cream from a street vendor to restore my strength on the way back:

Dinner that evening was to be at Jose Enrique, the flagship restaurant of a local chef of the same moniker who'd recently gotten some James Beard love. As a result of the press, tables at his small eatery (which did not take reservations) had become notoriously difficult to come by, so we planned to arrive as the doors opened at 6:30. Our tour guides from yesterday (Paulina and Gustavo) had mentioned that the bar across the street from our hotel (El Batey) had been serving cold drinks for about 65 years and was probably the divey-est of dive bars in all of the Caribbean - with a description like that, we had to pop in for a pre-dinner Medalla.

As you can see, they were quite right. At 6pm, there were only a couple of fellow tourists in there drinking with us, but the music was phenomenal and I can easily imagine the place getting a little rowdier sometime beyond midnight. Anyway, getting back to Jose Enrique, this was the scene when we wandered up to the restaurant at 6:30:

Apparently, we weren't the only ones who had the idea of arriving early for dinner. The hostess informed us that we'd have to wait until the second seating for a table, taking my cell number so she could call us. With now some time to kill, the missus and I started to wander the surrounding neighborhood, which was much more residential than Old San Juan (i.e., mostly locals) and began coming alive as the sun arced downward.

We ducked into a nearby coffee shop on the plaza that had turned into a tiny supper club for the evening, complete with lounge singer crooning Puerto Rican favorites and tables full of people that appeared to all know each other. To stave off hunger, we nibbled on some of the house fried goods (empanadas and fritters) before heading back outside. By now, it was getting dark and a number of stalls around the neighborhood's central market had opened their metal doors, revealing little outdoor taverns serving adult beverages and small, simple bar snacks:

People began congregating around the concrete patio, sitting on benches, curbs, and portable chairs to listen to live music and hang out with friends, a scene I imagine is probably repeated on warm Saturday nights in towns all over the tropics where people want to enjoy a break from the daily grind and socialize with their neighbors.

Pleasantly surprised that we'd gotten this unexpected exposure to nightlife in San Juan outside of the tourist centers, my phone rang just as we'd returned to the restaurant for a status update. After almost 2 hours of waiting, a table was finally available for us. The bill of fare for the day was written out on marker boards (no menus here) beginning with appetizers. We were pretty famished at this point, so we selected both the housemade garlic sausage (called longaniza, similar to chorizo, but milder) with tostones and a pair of cangrejo (fresh crab salad held in cups of fried plantain) to start.

These plates were terrific, a fortuitous omen moving forward. Faced with another marker board (this time entrees), I picked a delicious sauteed fish filet (corvina), while Mrs. Hackknife went with JE's version of breaded fried steak (empanado), amped up with a crown of fried egg. Her dish certainly looked delicious, but she actually found it to be a little on the bland side, egg or not.

After a brief mixup with the waitstaff over our dessert course (who, over the din in the restaurant, thought I'd asked for the trifle), the chocolate 3 ways plate arrived at the table, featuring (from left to right) a hard shell chocolate bomb filled with vanilla ice cream, a chocolate brownie a la mode, and a chocolate mousse cup topped with whipped cream.

All told, our meal at Jose Enrique was very good, but maybe just a tad below our (admittedly lofty) expectations. Still, I'd happily stop in again (or, at least, devote another hour or two of wait time) on our next visit to the island...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Puerto Rico Dining - Day 2

The second day of our Puerto Rico adventure started out sunny, warm, and humid, pretty much like every day down there (and, for that matter, in Florida) this time of year. After a quick and light breakfast at the hotel (still feeling the after-effects of our fabulous meal at Pikayo the night before), we wandered over to the nearby Governor's Mansion for a tour of the gardens/grounds. Like our current First Lady, the Governor's wife is proud of her working garden at the facility, where fruits, vegetables, and herbs are grown for both the Mansion's kitchen and some San Juan eateries (see photo below):

Our tour guide let us sample two edible plants that are native to Puerto Rico, recao and quenepa. Recao is an herb that's essentially a milder version of cilantro and is used much the same way. Quenepa is a tree fruit that looks like a small lime and has a large stone in the middle, which is surrounded by a thin layer of pulp that tastes a little like lychee. As far as fruits go, there didn't seem to be much payoff for the effort required to extract the quenepa pulp from its carrying case (and one of our guides later on the trip, a non-native from California, confessed that there really isn't much use for quenepa given that reason); after a courtesy nibble, I waited for the guide to be distracted and tossed the remnants onto the Governor's compost pile conveniently situated in the corner of the garden.

After the mansion, Mrs. Hackknife and I were to meet up with a guide from Spoon Food Tours (a local company I found on TripAdvisor) for a culinary excursion in and around San Juan. I was expecting our tour leader to be Latino (you know, being in Puerto Rico and all), so you can imagine my surprise when I met Paulina, a petite and gregarious blonde from New York City by way of Poland. Along with her driver/local fixer/significant other, Gustavo (who's also from NYC, but has deep roots on the island), the entrepreneurial pair started Spoon Tours in early 2013 as a way of showing visitors some of the lesser-known food gems in their adopted home.

The four of us hopped into the car and headed to our first destination: Loiza, a nearby beach town that had long been isolated from the surrounding metropolitan area and, as a result, is known as a center of traditional culture/cuisine of the indigenous Taino population and migrants from Africa. There are a dizzying collection of roadside food stands along the main drag in Loiza, many of them simply primitive brick fireplaces heating vats of cooking oil for fritters and other fried goodies. Gustavo and Paulina brought us to a venue that's a bit more solidly constructed, Soleil Beach Club, for our first snack.

When they say "beach club", they're not kidding (see photo above). From a terrace table with a postcard view of the shoreline, we cooled down with coconut water served in its original container (the umbrella was added later), followed by a refreshing and delicious grouper ceviche accompanied by crunchy tostones, plantains that are deep fried twice (much like french fries).

Tempting as it was to while away the afternoon listening to the crashing surf, nibbling plantains and downing umbrella drinks, we soon decamped with our guides back to San Juan for our second stop, a bustling seafood restaurant in a more-residential setting called La Cueva del Mar.

Shockingly crowded for an early Friday afternoon (apparently, happy hour begins early here), Gustavo explained that LCDM is known for having supremely fresh seafood offerings, as evidenced by the kitchen cooler visible to patrons passing through the dining room (see photo below).

Having just enjoyed ceviche, we opted for cooked fish this time in the form of empanadillas (small empanadas) stuffed with tasty fillings like conch and washed down with a cold Medalla Light.

Also delicious (if not a bit messy) were some grouper tacos, further enhanced by some of the housemade hot sauces (such as spicy guava).

By this time, our motley group was starting to fill up a little, so our guides decided to end our tour with one final bite, dessert back in Old San Juan at El Picoteco, a well-respected tapas place that also happened to be in our hotel. The missus and I both found El Picoteco's tres leches cake (served along with something that like a chocolate torte) to be significantly better than the version we'd had at El Jibarito the day before.

After dessert, we bid Paulina and Gustavo adios and waddled the few steps back to our room for a little afternoon siesta. Of course, when dinnertime rolled around a couple of hours later, we were ready for the evening meal. We took a chance this time and decided to go off-guidebook, following our hotel's recommendation of wandering down Calle Fortaleza to find whatever suited our fancy. Before too long, the Parrot Club, a brightly-decorated Nuevo Latino restaurant beckoned. Neither of us was terribly hungry yet, so we chose to have one of the house sides of mofongo for an appetizer (see photo below).

This appeared to be the real deal mofongo, made from fried plantain and yucca, then mixed with broth, garlic, olive oil, onions (maybe?), and some kind of pork parts (bacon?), awesomely sublime in both taste and texture. I can clearly see how this would be the favorite comfort food of many Puerto Ricans. Unfortunately, my entree wasn't quite up to snuff. Although definitely looking the part (see photo below), my marinated pork tenderloin was actually pretty bland. Even the savory sides of rice, crunchy veggies, and more plantain couldn't stop me from throwing in the towel early.

As it turns out, this meal ended up being the worst dining misstep (albeit a minor one) of our whole trip, as will be documented by the upcoming postings for Days 3 and 4. Stay tuned...