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Deep Fried Paradise (Puerto Rico 2)

June 2, 2009
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…the epic continues, like a slacker-Bourdain with a disorganized writing schedule…

Waddling out of Lechonera Los Pinos, the prospect of more food seemed unappealing (if not downright gluttonous), so we cruised up the road to Old San Juan, feeling confident our pale Irish complexions, flip flops, and “I [heart] Puerto Rico” airbrushed t-shirts would help us blend in with the locals.

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And so, we did all the things any self-respecting local would do: visited one of the forts, played some roulette at one of the casinos, and bought some souvenirs. My giant foam Uncle Sam hat with the Puerto Rican flag on it really sealed the deal-

-okay, we didn’t have all that stuff; I have much more class, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a novelty hat

Man, I hate you, me.

So, nothing huge from a culinary perspective in Old San Juan. Pizza Huts, Burger Kings, and Subways were on every corner it seemed, sadly. However, did get a decent pint of microbrew at the Old Harbor Brewery…not too shabby, and it had a great smell, just like my house after brewing a batch of beer. If you’re in Old San Juan, I’d say check it out if you can resist the craptacular allure of Burger King.

From there, we moved on to the kioscas of Luquillo. Pretty much, the greatest thing ever (I seem to be throwing that phrase around loosely, huh?). Near the beach and right off the highway, the kioscas are what they sound like: kiosks. Basically, 60-70 concrete huts lined up against each other, some serving traditional street foods; others are more like bars, and others are sit-down restaurants. I thought they looked a little rough at first, but that’s always been my first sign that good nosh is afoot.

The unimpressive-looking kioscas of Luquillo. As often, the “divey” appearance housed great food.

We started our quest here at kiosca #3, La Parilla. Quickly, I realized that some of these places were pretty nice. La Parilla had a really nice atmosphere, a big crowd of sit down diners, a pretty impressive wine list, and a great view of the Caribbean Sea. Best of all, the menu included the holy grail of Puerto Rican cuisine: MOFONGO. To this day, my dreams about a Frenchman shouting the Grand Cru of Burgundy at me while he chases me through vineyards (damn memorization) are interrupted by dreamscapes of me swimming through a cavernous Fort Knox of mofongo, a la Scrooge McDuck’s money bin in DuckTales (tight science to those who picked up on that reference).

One of the nicest places, La Parilla. “La Parilla” is spanish for “The Parilla”.

So, let me break down mofongo, if I can do it without going out to find some immediately. Basically, it’s a dish of plantains, which are starchy cousins of bananas, often served green and without the sweetness of bananas. You’ve walked by them a million times at the Piggly Wiggly, I promise. Anyway, the locals- again depending on our glorious piggy pal- deep fry chunks of the plantain in pork fat. After that, they mash the fried bits with more pork fat and bits of cracklins. Then, it’s stuffed or covered with seafood and topped with a sofrito-based sauce (peppers, garlic, cilantro, sometimes tomato). Absolutely unbelievable. I mean, if mofongo were a 1st round draft pick in an NFL-style food draft, it would be Matt Ryan.

For reference, hard-boiled eggs would be the “Ryan Leaf” of said draft, just in case I show up at your house one day and you want to know what to feed me. Make mofongo, not hard boiled eggs.
There it is: Mofongo con mariscos (seafood). This picture is hanging on my bathroom mirror…

With our bellies yet-again full, I figured we might as well go for our own jugulars, and continue to eat. Most of the kiosks served various fried treats: fried seafood, bacalaoitos (tasty cod fritters), fried plantains, fried fried, extra fried, fries fried in fried fryness. Listen, everything was fried. Occasionally, you’d find a guy selling coconuts. They’d just cut off the top, and you drink away. Very refreshing!

Drinking from a “coco frio”, or cold coconut. With style, I might add.

Heather, tucking into a bacalaoito. Basically, a funnel cake made out of fish. Really good, though.

From there, we somehow managed to lurch our way back to the hotel. The next day, we continued our fitness routine by sitting around at the pool all day. The weather was beautiful, the food continued to live up to its billing on No Reservations, and I was sad to eventually leave (as was my cardiologist; he’s gonna make a killing off of me at this rate). But, this little gem in the Caribbean is only a few hours away, and I really can’t wait to get back.

If you’ve never been, and you’re looking for a real deal of a tropical location that doesn’t require a passport, put Puerto Rico into the mix. The food, the scenery, and the great hospitality of the people won’t disappoint. And, they’re totally not uptight:

Just too weird to leave off. There were stores like this all over the place!

A desperate need for Puerto Rican food, part 1

May 27, 2009
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Recently, I rode the coattails of my event-planning wife and got to slum around in the Caribbean; more notably, in Puerto Rico. Previously, this was all that I knew of PR:

One viewing of the Puerto Rico episode of No Reservations, and I was hooked. I wanted to taste every delicious food around. And, while every cotton-headed ninnymuggins out there tells you to stay on the resort property when in the Caribbean (sorry for the strong language), how can you possibly experience a new place?! Sure, the Starbucks was clean and comfortable at my resort; sure, everyone spoke English and made me- Mister Gringo- feel “comfortable”, but I really wanted to get out and “do as the locals do”.

So, our plan was to head out from Fajardo and go to Guavate/Cayey, exactly where Bourdain stuffed his grateful maw with delicious roast pork, or lechon:

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Surprisingly, we made it there alive. I can’t believe that we weren’t carjacked, kidnapped, murdered, killed by druglords, or sold into slavery. C’mon! It was a regular drive through some beautiful country! Nothing sketchy. You’d think- reading some of these travel review sites- that every country outside of San Francisco is a cesspool of corruption and militant coups: sort of like the country that Schwarzenegger single-handedly destroyed in his most-artistic opus, Commando. Frankly, everyone we met was EXTREMELY friendly; some didn’t speak English, but I tried to pull a little spanish out of my cabeza, and we always seemed to figure it out.

My skills from my modeling career coming back to me on cue.

Tucked away from the Highway a bit was Lechonera Los Pinos. We passed quite a few to get to this one, but it was worth the drive.

My friend- whose English was almost as nonexistent as my Spanish- hacking our lunch off the beautiful roast beast.

Case and point: there was a serious disconnect as I got spanish-speaking stage fright at Lechonera Los Pinos, but somehow, Heather and I ended up with this spread, all for under $15:

Incredible Lechon. Crispy skin and tender meat. Actually, when cooked without smoke (as we know in BBQ shacks), it’s actually more like roast turkey. The big difference is the crispy skin. Oh, the crispy skin.

Some of the best rice & beans I’ve ever had. It’s a shame it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to order them. Yeah, I know the words “arroz” and “frijoles”, but they had like 5 different kinds of each.

Morcilla, a type of blood-sausage, gets its dark color from- yes- blood. I’ve always been told that it’s something I have to try. I did, and man, it’s pretty dang good. Stuffed with rice, garlic, and other great flavors. Seriously (and unlike the chicken feet in a previous post): don’t knock it ’til you try it!

Too much good food to talk about…to be continued…