27 May 2012

Puerto Rico, Part Two: Rum, plus a little more food...

When I was booking the components of our trip I decided on the Hotel Milano as our lodging--it is right in the heart of the restaurant district in Old San Juan, plus an easy walk to the piers and to many of the museums.  The location was ideal, the hotel was quirky but charming, and it gave us a genuine feel of the city.  Our first night we walked around as a general orientation, and ended up having dinner at Triana, a tapas place close to the piers.  We enjoyed it so much we made a return visit.  The food was really nicely done, and the service was friendly but spotty (attentive when someone actually came to the table--the pace was, shall we say, leisurely).  The mojitos were loaded with fresh mint, and strong in that surprising, creeps up on you kind of way.  Here were some of our favorite dishes from two visits:

A really beautiful piece of seared Mahi Mahi, with a guava glaze
Some of those great mojitos...

A rich tripe stew, with chickpeas

One of my favorites: Piquillo peppers stuffed with Morcilla, which is a spicy blood sausage
We "dined around" a lot in Old San Juan, and had some great meals and some not-so-great.  Triana ended up the favorite.  The iconic Parrot Club was probably the most disappointing of our planned restaurant visits, but we did enjoy their signature Parrot Passion cocktail, and my dish of Dorado (which is another name for Mahi) with a plantain crust was good, if not exceptional.

Another favorite worth noting was a special at Restaurant Don Tello, an unusual place right across from the Catano ferry stop.  This was one of the variations on plantain mofongo, this version made with cassava and topped with ropa vieja.  Really good.

Don Tello's was an unplanned visit after we did the Bacardi distillery tour.  We met a charming young woman through the tour and she tipped us off to this place, and we ended up having a memorable lunch.  I love unexpected friends--one of the great benefits of travel.  The distillery tour was a fun way to spend a drizzly afternoon, and if you happen to be in PR and want to do this, definitely do not pay a company for a tour!  The ferry to Catano is a whopping 50 cents each way, the vans that escort you to the distillery are $3, and the tour itself is free.  It is not difficult to negotiate in the least, and you might end up making some new friends.  The Bacardi campus is pretty gorgeous, so it is pleasant place to hang out, take the tour, and have a couple of free drinks.

Casa Bacardi

The "bat building" at the center of it all, where you begin and end your tour
During our visit the regular tour area was under renovation, but that meant that we actually got to view the distillery (apparently the regular tours view simulations).   My favorite aspect of this was actually the sensory experience of walking around immersed in the smell of warm molasses.  Intoxicating.  Our very entertaining guide explained the process of turning raw, "demon rum" into the refined product we know and love.  

The giant blue vats of the distillery
The tour ends up back at the bat building, where you select some free drinks.  We sampled some of their new flavored rums (the peach was excellent), and had a Cuba Libre and a marg, along with a slice of rum cake.  Because, well, we really like rum. 

It's a fun little tour, and Catano is an interesting place to visit.  

I could go on and on and on, but I will leave you with a few random pics of Puerto Rican loveliness.  I also need to add here that beginning tomorrow, May 18th, my site is going to be down for about a week while I finish up a format transfer--look for my new and improved format in a week!

Catano color
City view from Castillo de San Cristobal
Helado vendor, in the town square

The blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan
Thanks for reading,


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24 May 2012

Puerto Rico, Part One: Street Food and El Yunque

Twelve years ago we went on a pre-wedding "honeymoon" to Isle Royale National Park.  The island is accessible only by boat or plane, so we ventured out on the first Ranger III of the season (so it was the two of us and some fish and wildlife guys, wandering around on a huge boat). We spent nine days backpacking around the island.  It was below freezing every night, and we shared the island with wolves, loons, moose, aggressively hungry squirrels, and a handful of other humans.  We ran out of food while miles away from the only store, seriously risked hypothermia, and slept in three-sided shelters or on the ground.  We also saw a spontaneous emergence of winged insects over a little inland pool, went to sleep every night to the howl of the wolves, interacted with all manner of non-human life, and generally had the most amazing experience. 

It was, as they say, epic.

While we have done a lot of traveling in the years since that trip, most of it has involved conferences, cooking events, or family visits.  We felt that it was time for another epic experience.  With that goal in mind, we decided on Puerto Rico, being drawn in by the rain forest, the food, and the history of the island--one that has been marked by colonialism and occupation.  I took roughly 8.2 billion photos while we were there, so narrowing down the pool was pretty tough.  For this chapter, I wanted to show you all some of the street food we ate while on the island, as well as a small snapshot of the stunningly lush rainforest, El Yunque.

Our morning view from Hotel Milano, in Old San Juan
Mofongo is something of the national dish in Puerto Rico, and there are dozens of variations on the basic theme, which is fried green plantains that are mashed with garlic and (typically) pork fat and/or cracklings.  It was the first thing I ordered when we arrived, and this introductory dish was the best I had during the trip--maybe because it was first?  Possibly.  This one was topped with shrimp and a sauce criolla.

We sampled at least a half dozen different mofongos, including versions made with yuca and cassava, some with sauce, some filled...mofongo is a beautiful, variable thing.  I am pretty sure that the two pounds I gained were due to the excessive consumption of mofongo (and, possibly, rum--more on that in another post).  Puerto Rican street food is not what you would call light fare.  For lunch one day we stopped at a row of roadside "kiosks," each displaying a wide variety of deep fried foods, arepas, whole fried fish, sausages...

Morcilla, a spicy blood sausage
Fresh oyster kiosk--there were water birds patrolling this one, acting like pigeons
We ordered a few things to share, and found them to be greasy but tasty.  The seafood rice had shrimp, a mild spice, and bits of chewy conch:

The pastele was our least favorite, as it was both bland and greasy.  I have had much better versions (but this one was cheap!).  The little rectangle in the back is the pastele, which is made like a tamale with a plantain "masa" filled with savory fillings.  We also sampled a plantain "pie" stuffed with ground beef that had a picadillo sweet-sour flavor, and it was tasty.

To work off some of the street food, we spent the better part of a day hiking around in El Yunque (lots of hills, so it burned off some of those plantains).  There is no real way to do justice in photos, but here are a few to give you a glimpse.  To get a more realistic and visceral experience, view these in a very hot room, while misting yourself constantly with warm water.  It was hot, it was humid, it was as if we were in a rain forest or something. 

It was fascinating to see gingers, bird of paradise, and hibiscus growing in the wild, often in large swaths
I have kind of a thing for snails, and these huge guys were everywhere--huge
These guys were beautiful, in an alien kind of way
Just a gorgeous, tropical waterfall
The consistently-slippery trail
That's about all I can cram into this post, but I will be regaling you with picture of rum drinks and architecture in my next post.  Hey, I didn't take all of those pictures for nothing...

Thanks for reading,


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