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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.