There’s been nary a plate put before me beneath the Caribbean sun to which I haven’t indulged in with the fervor of an inmate’s last meal – octopus, squid, whelk, shark, goat, eel, alligator, conch, iguana, turtle, fowl, crustaceans of all sorts – and whether they’re baked, fried, sautéed, boiled, blanched, raw or still crawling, matters little to me. As long as I can wash it back with a cold Corona, Carib, Red Stripe, or Medalla, I’m all in. I am entirely in my element here.
Trust me on this one, folks, I come from a long line of Italians who are not of the particularly squeamish variety, and with no disrespect intended, I was popping back periwinkles & eel nuggets and horrifying prospective long-term relationships at holiday dinners while Mr. Zimmern was still in culinary school learning to make a roux. While most Roman Catholics practiced the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, I enjoyed the Feast of Seven Screaming Girlfriends.
In truth, I’m a huge fan of Andrew Zimmern, I love what he does, but I'm not after his schtick. I have my own niche right here. Still, if there’s one thing in we have in common besides our manly girth, it’s the zeal for which we approach for the odd and unusual food experience. Hence, my gastric love of the Caribbean where there always lurks the opportunity for that odd indulgence.
One of my favorite islands in the Caribbean is Puerto Rico. Perhaps that’s because being raised in northern New Jersey where there’s a high Latino population, it’s culturally familiar to me while still remaining tropically exotic. Still, however familiar, once you scratch beneath the surface of that acquaintance, you'll expose a culturally complex people deeply steeped in their historic traditions. And that's what I enjoy most.
Natives of Puerto Rico refer to their island as Boriqua or Boriquen which derives from the Taino word, "Boriken", meaning, “Land of the Valient Lord”.
Tainos, the indigenous aboriginal population, were the island's original occupants. When Spanish colonization came about in the late 15th-century, there also came an introduction of beef, pork, chicken and rice to compliment the diet of the island's original occupants which at that point, consisted mainly of corn, tropical fruit and seafood.
Sadly, as is usually the case when two drastically different cultures collide, those Tainos who were not forced into slavery by the Spaniards, were eventually wiped out by infectious diseases brought over from Europe.
Today, the food of Puerto Rico draws heavily upon its native Caribbean past, as well as Spanish and African influences. It's called, “comida criolla”, and although it is similar to Latin American cooking, it is mostly based on seafood, native seasonings and tropical fruits.
My most recent trip to Puerto Rico took me to Old San Juan, and I must relate how much I enjoy the "walled city". In fact, San Juan itself, just may be my favorite Caribbean city. It is lively, cultural, historic, colorful and always full of surprises. It also has a quite the vibrant mobile food scene that I intended to take full advantage of and zeroed in as the starting point of my latest gastronomic journey.
There are piers, casinos and hotels along this strip, as well as banks, restaurants and souvenir shops.
There are an array of street merchants hawking their wares - everything from handmade jewelry, sunglasses and imitation Coach bags. At any given time there could be a reproduction age of sail ship such as the Bounty or the Amistad in port to enjoy.
But this doesn't mean this area is without its charm. Stately horse-drawn carriages carry tourists to quieter destinations. Locals take their lunch in shady waterside parks while tempering the midday heat with cool ocean breezes; pigeons circle with tense patience awaiting the opportunity to seize upon a crumb.
This is my eight or ninth visit to the island and although it would be easy to get caught up in all the excitement, I know exactly where I'm headed. I love to sight-see, but there will be time for that later. Right now, Foodidude is all business. I briskly pass the piers, casinos, hotels, banks, shops, venders, street merchants, horse-drawn carriages with barely a second glance. I'm a man on a mission.
The park's epicenter is dotted with friendly venders proudly displaying their bright and shiny hand-made wares; offering passer-bys wide-toothed smiles with an air of sincerity. But that's not why I am here. I haven't come for baubles ~ I've come for the plethora of mobile food venders mere yards away.
After several greetings of "Buenos dias,", I ambled towards Calle Commercio which borders the park to the north and it is literally a street food paradise. Lined up end-to-end along the length of the street, colorful food carts and trucks offer every type of authentic Puerto Rican delights you can imagine. Keyword being, "authentic".
In truth, there are a few carts here and there which offer standard American street fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, but that's not what this scene is about. This is all about authentic Puerto Rican comfort foods being dished out to the local populace on the go, as well as those tourists seeking something other than what they can get at home or simply outside their comfort zone.
On this, as well as previous visits to San Juan, I found the Piraguas pushcarts to be, by far, the most numerous. They are colorfully painted and they are found everywhere throughout the city.
So what is a Piragua you ask? Think upside down snow cone.
The piragua is served in many flavors, some you'd expect and some... well, not quite. Some of the more common flavors are grape (uva), raspberry (frambuesa), lemon (limon), cherry (cereza), strawberry (fresa) and pineapple (pina). And then there are those that although less common, you shrug and think, "well that could actually work," such as crema (cream) and coconut (coco). And then comes the flavors that as a mainland American, you just cannot fathom even being considered a refreshing dessert; flavors like Tamarindo (taramind) or Anjonjoli (sesame seed).
Well, of course I had to uphold the lofty expectations I set for myself, so it's probably quite obvious to you by now which category I opted for. I decided to veer off the beaten path and chose Anis (anise). I figured I like annisette, sambuca and licorice, so how bad could it be?
Well, it was cold. And it was also, uh, it was... um, did I mention it was cold?
Actually, it wasn't bad. It's definitely an acquired taste in terms of sweet treats, but not bad. It would not be my first choice for dessert, nor even my one hundredth choice, but it had to be somewhat more refreshing than sesame seed I assure you. But that was enough playtime. Now it was time to get down to serious business.
There are so many mobile kitchens here with so many choices, colors and odd names, I would have to believe it would border on sensory overload to the those here for the first time. I could absolutely understand how the casual traveler could be intimidated by such a plethora of foreign choices and fast chatter. And that would be a shame because here's where you get a real taste of the island.
So here's a couple of tips to ensure you never shy away and miss out on any of these authentic goodies:
First, always gravitate towards the truck with the most customers, locals preferably. Why? Because that's a barometer of who offers the best food.
Secondly, don't be scared to ask what something is. And that's the great thing about Puerto Rico - almost everybody speaks English!
I followed my own advice and approached a frog-green truck called "Native Snacks" and stepped in a long line.
Since most everything in the window was deep-fried, I decided on buying a number of items and having a small taste of each.
I was well familiar with most of the offerings and walked right up to the window to order. Since I actually paid attention to Herb Cohen back in high school Spanish, I ordered in my best "Boriquen" tongue.
Next up on the deep-fried fest was an Accapuria, which next to Pasteles, are my all-time favorite Puerto Rican food. They look like a corn dog without the stick, but are actually mashed plantains (and often, yucca), which are colored with achiote, and wrapped around spicy ground beef and of course, once again ~ deep-fried.
I then ordered a Sorullito, which is basically a Puerto Rican corn fritter, as well as a Beef Empanada.
With a bottle of water, the entire artery-clogging feast cost me about ten bucks and I retreated to the shade of the park amidst the watchful eyes of a couple of dozen hungry pigeons.
I sat on a wrought-iron bench and tore open the brown paper bags holding my tasty treats. One look inside and I was glad I decided to strictly adhere to my "five miles before coffee" routine each morning. But if there's something that smells better than this Puerto Rican fried feast, I've yet to find it.
I took but a bite of each... well, except for the accapuria - I tore through that like a drunken sailor on shore leave. I must say I know exactly why the locals enjoy Native Snacks. It'll never be mistaken for a Jenny Craig delivery van, but it's Puerto Rican street food at its tastiest.
I threw a couple of morsels to the local pigeon population, wiped my hands clean, and drew a long, cool gulp of water. I tossed the bottle into my backpack, adjusted my hat and decided to climb the scenic city streets towards the 16th-century fortress, El Morro. En route, I hoped to scope out a possible lunch destination and a spot to enjoy a libation or two.
The buildings are of Spanish design with wrought-iron verandas reminiscent of New Orleans; while the cool pastels and bougainvillea elicit visions of Bermuda.
There is always something to see when you enter the heights of the city. Parks filled with mimes and street actors. Street musicians with accordions. Children cooling off in fountains. Beautiful cathedrals.
And the cats. The cats are everywhere. It seems as if one sits in each and every doorway.
I made a hard right and continued down a few side streets taking in the beauty of this part of the city.
At one point I spotted a guy about my age strumming a guitar. I approached, sat on the curb, and watched him play. I threw a buck in his tip jar and we began to talk; trading aging musician war stories in broken Spanglish.
I found his name was Alex and he played me something with a calypso feel. He handed me the beat up acoustic and in return, I played him Blackbird off the Beatles' White Album.
I got perhaps two blocks when I noticed a picturesque cafe in perhaps, a century-old building with a couple of tables set out front. I gave it a casual glance and actually walked by it... that is, until I noticed the Mojito sign. Three steps backward and in I went.
I saddled up to the wooden bar which oozed history and ordered myself a mojito. The white rum, lime and pulverized mint leaf was just the elixir for a mid-afternoon break. I took it to a table on the street and while sipping it beneath the umbrella's shade, I became lost in wistful exuberance. I gazed at the aging, splintered sidewalks and wondered how many times Ponce De Leon passed the very spot I now rested in. I'm like that - I get lost in the moment quite easily, particularly when alcohol is involved.
Time to go, I drew the last few droplets of rum and chewed a bit of the mint. I stood quickly and immediately felt the drink go to my head in the afternoon heat. I actually think I heard myself giggle, and pressed onward.
As I approached San Cristobal, my eye caught a movement to my right. I pulled off my shades and caught a glimpse of a rather large iguana.
I neared it, and it moved away. And I got closer and it moved still farther. And suddenly, I broke into a run chasing a scurrying iguana through the parking lot.
In these instances, I rely on my gut instinct. Bright and shiny doesn't always make it the best. I learned that last year with the little gem I found in the rear of a bazaar in the form of Tropical Taste Restaurant.
I avoid the restaurants aimed at the tourist trade at all costs and I never hesitate to ask how a certain dish is prepared. I look for menus written in Spanish first, with English translations to follow as opposed to the reverse.
When traveling, I search out the most authentic atmosphere and food preparation possible, and my "foodar" for just the right place is usually spot on.
On this evening, I was keeping my eyes open, perusing menus outside of each doorway; not sure what I was looking for, but figured I'd know it when it struck me.
I came upon a street cafe with four tables outside. There really wasn't much of a dinner crowd yet as things don't really get popping in San Juan until the sun goes down.
She leaned towards me and offered, "if you'd like to see a menu or want another beer, just let me know, okay?"
I thanked her and returned to my beer.
I sat there as relaxed as can be, watching the world go by in tanned waves that ebbed and flowed. I glanced at the cafe's name - Genesis Restaurant - not a particularly Hispanic name, but "good enough for a cold one," I thought.
That Corona when down quick and I asked the young lady for another while noticing a menu which hung between the doors. I got up to read it. She poured me a fresh cerveza and once again took her place at the doorway. She must've noticed the portion of the menu I was fixated on as she glanced my way and asked, "Are you a fan of Mofongo?"
"Yep. One of my favorites," I answered.
"Then you should really try the one stuffed with crab."
Without so much as batting a eyelid, I responded, "Oh, you mean the Mofongo relleno de jueyes?"
I laughed to myself at how un-Hispanic this young girl sounded and thought about how out of her element she seemed to be.
"Well, I do have a bit of an interest in food," I replied. "You're not a local, are you?"
"No, I'm not," she answered. "I'm actually from Chicago. My boyfriend works at a hospital in San Juan and I'm doing this while I put myself through school."
I thought about the irony of it for a second and just had to ask, "Do you eat a lot of the local food?"
"Well, not a lot of it," she smirked.
"Okay," I prompted, "Do you eat the mofongo stuffed with crab?"
"Oh yeah!" she responded with a glimmer of excitement, "It's one of my favorites."
I laughed and said, "Well, alright then. Let me have an order of the Mofongo relleno de jueyes... uh, mofongo with crab, I mean."
I figured if that dish was good enough for a young girl from Chicago who was most likely a picky eater and definitely not into Puerto Rican food, it was good enough for me to give it a shot.
Now for those who do not know, Mofongo is fried plantains mashed in a mortar and pestle and blended with broth, garlic, olive oil and sometimes even bacon, then formed into a mound in the shape of an upside down soup bowl.
I absolutely love mofongo, and my hunch was once again spot on, as the Mofongo Relleno de Jueyes offered up by the Genesis Restaurant, was absolutely superb. The sky was beginning to darken, I gave my jaws (as well as my intestinal tract) quite the workout, and another Foodidude day was coming to an end.
So all in all, my first day in the Caribbean was a huge success.
My foodie expectations were exceeded on all counts, and once again, I met a cast of characters I'll add to my mental scrapbook.
And to celebrate my caloric binge, I decided to end the night with a brisk walk uphill to El Morro.
To be continued...