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...

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