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Puerto Rican Inspiration

Simply made delicious food

By Meghan Ruth Speakerman, 3:28PM, Mon. Sep. 17, 2012

Puerto Rico is one of those places that is near impossible to leave when it comes time to return to the real world. The very bilingual island is home to a melting pot of colors and cultures and is welcoming, especially in sleepy, small towns like the one we stayed in.


Passion fruit juice and coco frio at Quick Lunch food trailer. (The Don Q Coconut Rum is just outside the picture, you know this.)
Rincon is a surfing mecca and is smaller than San Marcos. The town is tucked in the hills on the beach at the dividing line for the Caribbean and Pacific, marked by a lighthouse acting as an equator between the two oceans. We visited in the offseason, so we saw very little of the famous waves and notorious sunsets.

From the moment we arrived in San Juan my camera-happy self was clicking away, trying to look as touristy as possible, I suppose. The main thing my camera pointed at was the food – the fabulous, fabulous food. I was eager about the entire trip, but I couldn't have anticipated how much fun I would have with the grub.

For starters, we stayed at an old-school local surfer's house with star fruit, avocado, key lime, mango, and breadfruit trees in the yard.


The homeowner looked like a Puerto Rican Jack Sparrow. It was pretty awesome. His kids are three years apart but share the same birthday: my birthday. They were a cool family. (I digress.)

In walking distance from our bunker was the little Puntas Cafe – the only store and food within miles. They served American breakfast items that were nothing special, but the coffee was to die for. I hate admitting this, but it was machine coffee; Nescafe. We didn't see much drip coffee on the island, mostly espresso-type coffee drinks.

The most popular dishes seemed to be empanadas, pinchos (meat skewers), and mofongo. Damn near everything was killer, but as expected, I definitely had some items I disliked. I got a lukewarm chicken empanada at a late-night pizza stand that was pretty gross – soggy ground chicken and nothing more. I'm glad it wasn't my first impression because every other chicken empanada I encountered was out of this world and nothing like the ones I've had back home. Puerto Rico's empanadas are much bigger, crispier, and flakier; they seem to be made with more love. They're gooey, cheesy, and plain addictive.

At a fun beachfront bar we frequented called Tamboo, we had a seared tuna dish that was entirely too salty. It seemed to have been soaked in a brine or dry rubbed with salt, then served in a soy sauce bath. I wasn't a fan. Our friend who grew up in Puerto Rico said a lot of food there tends to be on the salty side.


(We'll get all the bad news out of the way first.)


Gross looking, liquid-soaked bag doughnuts.

I had a gelatinous bread pudding that was pretty dense and not at all tasty.


Other than a few bumps in the road, I was in foodie heaven.

Empanadas


The empanada that started it all. I got it outside San Juan at a little hot dog stand. It was just cheese and was very boring. I failed miserably by not getting the chicken.


My brother got the chicken and it was so delicious.


Rabbit and crab empanadas from Cambija Bar and Grill. I tasted a hint of cumin in the rabbit. It was slightly gamey and had a warm, sweet spice quality. The crab had potato in it which I thought was an interesting combo. Twas good.


We likened our beloved guava queso empanadas to Thanksgiving in an empanada.

Comfort Food


Harbor Restaurant's shrimp mofongo – the best thing I had on the entire island. This is Puerto Rico's version of comfort food. Mashed plantains perfectly molded into an upside-down bowl full of shrimp; it was ecstasy in a broth.


These cheese balls from Harbor Restaurant were to die for! The sexy, doughy center was like a savory cheese beignet.


Casa munchies – island cheese (as my friend from Puerto Rico called it), salami, and saltines.


I didn't enjoy the chicken empanada from Surf Pizza, nor was I awed by the pies, but this bad boy killed. Mashed potato ball filled with beef potato hash. So good!


Our first tostones (mashed and fried green plantains) of the trip came from one of our favorite places, La Cambija Bar and Grill; a tiny, streetside pincho stand that served alcohol. These tostones were the best I had because they were full of garlic. The chimichurri-like sauce was delicious. A very typical sauce in Puerto Rico is basically Thousand Island sans the relish. They serve it with a lot of things, including tostones.


The best pincho on the island came from Cambija Bar and Grill. The grouper meat was fatty and delicious, the breading was light and crispy, and the aioli was a perfect complement. My friend got the marlin pincho and it didn't even compare.

Fruitful Island


Rambutan – crazy fruit. It tastes like really sweet honeydew and has a firm, slimy meatlike texture. It's easily comparable to lychee.

Rambutan cut in half


Canepas – another crazy fruit. Locals climb high trees for these to sell them for $1 a bunch. They're fun. My favorite part was biting the skin to satisfyingly pop them in half for the fruit inside. They taste like cantaloupe but more so like a grape. My oldest brother compared their flavor to mustang grapes. The slimy, hairy texture is wild, and they're very tannic.


Puerto Rican kids munch on this fruit all day – guama. It's like sucking on a sweet, moist cotton ball. It's strange but very good.


Creamy, buttery, delicious avocados.


Cheese fruit – exactly as bizarre as it sounds.

Drinky Poos


Malta India malt soda – a definite first for me. I liked it because it wasn't crazy-sweet. It was malty and tasted like maple syrup. It had an anticipated mild beer taste as well.


Medalla, the Lone Star of Puerto Rico. It was a light Mexican-style beer. I typically don't like Mexican beers, and I didn't like the very limey flavor of this one. My brothers, on the other hand, drank the shit out of it.


The Natural Coco was the best cocktail I had the entire trip. It was Don Q Coconut Rum and coconut water. Don Q is a quality rum distilled in Puerto Rico and the locals are quite proud of it. Every table top, shirt, and banner is emblazoned with "Don Q."

For the conclusion of our trip, our friend and travel guide made us a home-cooked meal with a recipe that has been in his family for years. He described Pastelon as a Puerto Rican lasagna made with sweet plantains rather than noodles. He was very secretive about his recipe in fear I would tell the world his family's secrets. He looked uncomfortable as my brother and I watched him cook. I can say that the meal was simple, with ground beef sauteed in garlic and vinegar. The sweet plantains cut the saltiness of the meat and cheese. It was rib-stickin' good, and with red beans, rice, and creamy rich avocados from the yard, it was a great way to end our vacation.


Pastelon dinner

So how exactly does my vacation relate to Austin? It elongated my list of frequented restaurants, and without breaking the bank, it diversified my young pallet. My hope is that my experience and pictures inspire you in your next meal, be it homemade or from a local restaurant.

Check out the Caribbean section of our Restaurant Guide to see where you can find Puerto Rican dishes like Mofongo and caribbean classics like plantain and yucca chips. La Habana is a definite favorite. Another tip – Fiesta Mart has many (if not all) the exotic flora seen in the pictures above.

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