Monday, December 23, 2013

Eating in Puerto Rico

If you know my father at all, you'll know that half the experience of going anywhere is getting to try the local food. He's definitely not a "foodie" though. He definitely eats his share of chain fast food like an overweight Southern high school girl.

In fact, he thinks the concept of a "foodie" was a clever marketing campaign created by the secret Restaurant Mafia to trick yuppies and hipsters into spending money on food prefaced with excessive adjectives like "organic" and "artisan." But I digress.

The following series of places we ate while in San Juan and Vieques aren't listed in any cohesive manner or for any real reason (other than we went there). We're not even necessarily recommending any of them to future visitors. It's really just in case it's helpful for others to see what some options are.

Mi Casita (Carolina neighborhood in San Juan)
This local restaurant was a cheaper more authentic alternative for breakfast than the morning offerings at The InterContinental San Juan's restaurant. Instead of paying $15 + tip for a hotel omelette, we walked across the street to the small outdoor shopping plaza and stopped in the diner for a quick bite.

As you can see from their plastic laminated menu, they offered alcoholic frozen drinks even at breakfast, though my parents opted for water and ice teas instead. The egg dishes were very simple (eggs with a side of whatever you wanted), but the prices reflected that, so each meal was only $4-7 depending on what you ordered. The decor is modest and while the service wasn't amazing, you were in and out of there relatively quickly (for a non-NYC place), so it was a perfect morning stop before heading out for the day. And yes, they take credit cards.


Convenience Store (Carolina neighborhood in San Juan)
Right next to Mi Casita was a convenience store where they sold most of your basic items (milk, bottled water, chips and other snacks) as well as some more grocery type products, including fresh produce, condiments, and ice cream.

One novel feature was that you could purchase individual bottles of beer just as if you were buying a single Coke or Snapple. A single bottle of Medalla (the local PR beer) was just $1. Obviously, I didn't have any, but my father bought a few bottles for the hotel room.

For those people who wanted a stiffer drink, the convenience store also had a "self serve bar" on the other side of the counter with seating available. The night we stopped by, the seats were all empty, but everyone was pretty drunk loitering outside the store.


Street Food (Isabelle II in Vieques)
The neighborhood of Isabelle II (pronounced Isabelle Segundo), located a short 5 minute drive east of the W Retreat) along the north shore, isn't all that impressive. In fact, I wouldn't encourage anyone to go visit there as there's nothing to see or do. Unlike other "downtown" areas we've traveled to, Isabelle II wasn't set up well to attract tourists. There were a handful of boutique shops (clothing and jewelry), but most of the town was run down and really set up to provide general commercial services to the island residents (such as a post office, a grocery store, etc.) and not much else.

We stopped by their rather large supermarket which had quite a selection of items, including many of the baby supplies (diapers, formula, etc) that we weren't sure were available on Vieques. Next time, we won't have to bring a week's supply of diapers in our checked luggage. As I mentioned, the market had just about anything you could want, especially Goya Seasoning.

Wandering from the supermarket, back along the main road towards the W Resort, we passed by several homeless men calling out names and came to an elderly grandmother type who was selling fried mashed potato based items beside an alley. Of course, my adventurous father wanted to try some street food and asked what was inside. Each dish had a different main meat ingredient (a "protein" as the foodies like to say). He opted for the beef and mashed potato one and was overcharged $2.50 for the pleasure (cash of course). One bite let him know that these items were definitely not freshly made, but he continued to eat and even let me have a few bites. As you may know, I happen to LOVE mashed potatoes. We both agreed it wasn't anything amazing, but it sufficed in allowing us to check off the "Street Food" item on our Vieques To Do List.

Bili (Esperanza in Vieques)

The other town area in Vieques was Esperanza on the southern end of the island. It's more of a beach town set up that you'd find in a backpacker hangout (a street full of bars, restaurants and budget accommodations), but they do have higher end dining options that are more appropriate for travelers on vacation. The two popular fine dining venues are Bili and El Quenepo.

We had a chance to try both during our stay in Vieques. The first was lunch at Bili, a colorful tropical island themed restaurant serving a variety of tasty fish based dishes. It was a very casual restaurant but the service was exceptionally friendly and they had the best homemade hot sauce we've had in a while.

They do have other "proteins" available of course, but we couldn't pass up trying some seafood while staying on an island. My mother had an amazing Mahi Mahi wrap while my grandmother went with a Mahi Mahi salad. Here's a snapshot of her colorful salad. The fish tasted super fresh, even though it wasn't local to Vieques.

El Quenepo (Esperanza in Vieques)
That same day, my parents returned to Esperanza to try El Quenepo (the top ranked restaurant in Vieques) that evening for dinner without my grandmother and me. They didn't have reservations, but at 7PM on a Monday it was only half full so they were seated immediately. The atmosphere is much more "date oriented" than the other restaurants on the street, so it was appropriate not to bring my 2 year old self.

The server was quite thorough in his presentation and delivery, often going overboard to demonstrate the restaurant wasn't your "typical sleepy island restaurant" on the island. They really seemed to try hard to position themselves as if you were in a Manhattan Zagat-list favorite. Unfortunately, my parents found the server's insecurity enthusiasm a bit off putting.

The food itself was quite impressive with its unique and diverse combination of ingredients, given the remoteness of Vieques. My mother had the Cerviche as her entree and my father had their Seafood Mofongo. Both were pretty good, but as my father says, "If I wanted a fancy NYC dinner, I would have stayed in NYC." Truth be told, he wasn't really that hungry, because he had a late afternoon snack...

Chicken King & Ice Cream (Vieques)
Apparently, it's almost impossible to get something to eat between the hours of 1PM-6PM on a Monday. My father had heard great things about this Sol Food (a foodtruck based right outside the Natural Reserve), so he saved room for that and didn't really eat much at Bilis while my mother and grandmother enjoyed their lunch.

But when we saw that Sol Food was closed (there's no real schedule), his stomach was starting to lose its patience. So we drove into Isabelle II hoping that one of the local establishments had some tasty Puerto Rican food for us to try. Unfortunately, every restaurant we walked past was closed. The one that had unlocked doors (Shawnaa's) had a woman sweeping up the floor in an empty restaurant with no food left except Cod and Rice. No thank you. So we continued desperately passing restaurant after restaurant, until we finally found Chicken King & Ice Cream.

Located on Route 201 (one of the larger North-South running roads in the middle of Vieques), you almost pass it, because their sign is pretty small and simple (as you can see above). But fortunately for my father, they were open! The place was exactly what you'd expect - a simple fast food place with a large menu on the wall and photos of your food. My father ordered a 4 piece box with potato wedges for about $7. They accepted credit cards.


Raices (Old San Juan)
When we were back on the mainland (of Puerto Rico), we had another breakfast at Mi Casita and then took the public bus into the Old Town area of San Juan ($0.75 per person for the 30 minute ride). The final stop was right by the Old Town strip of restaurants where we found Raices.

During our stay in Vieques, my parents had gone on a Bioluminescent Bay tour with some other vacations who were San Juan natives. They highly recommended we try Raices while we were in Old Town for a sample of traditional Puerto Rican culture and food. We were not disappointed.

The servers dress in the old style of clothing and let you take photos with them. As you can see, the colorful walls were offset by the simple wooden/thatch furniture.


The menu was full of authentic Puerto Rican food. Being our last full day there, we wanted to sample everything we didn't get a chance to try yet, so we got the appetizer combo called Typical Festival (cod fish fritters, ripe fried plantains stuffed with meat, crab meat turnovers and mashed cassava). To be completely honest, it wasn't that great, because when you fry something so much, it kinda loses its unique flavor. Just ask my father who tried Rocky Mountain Oysters (fried bull testicles) a few months ago in Colorado.

Fortunately, we saved space for our lunch entrees. My grandmother wanted a churrasco steak, and my mother had the $9 fried fish lunch special.  My father's choice, however, stole the show. Called Kan Kan Pork Chops, it was a massive slab of meat with his choice of side (rice and red beans). The best part was that they kept the crispy skin on the pork so you enjoyed a nice diversity of tastes and textures in each bite.

Street Food (Old San Juan) 
And after our indulgent lunch, to wash it all down, my mother searched high and low through the cobble stoned streets of Old Town for her favorite island beverage, a fresh young coconut (note the 2 unnecessary adjectives, you foodies!).

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