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...

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