Mofongo Tasting in Puerto Rico | Food Traveler’s Guide

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Mofongo is like the non-existent snowflake in the Caribbean, with no two being alike.

Every guide book and article on Puerto Rican cuisine raved about the mofongo as a must-try dish. And you definitely should try it. Prior to having it presented in front of me in Loquillo, I had little conception of what it was or how it would taste. Travel books describe it as mashed plantains combined with a meat. With each restaurant presenting a different variation, it’s tough to generalize the dish. The prices were mostly $12-20 for mofongo. Some places we saw charged more. The cost also depends on the meat you select.

Here’s my run down on what you can expect from mofongo.

#4 – La Parrilla

mofongo, puerto rico

  • Luquillo Beach
    Kiosk 2
    Luquillo, Puerto Rico 00773
  • (787) 889-0590

This was our first foray into the world of mofongo. After some misadventures earlier in the trip with restaurants that no longer exist, we found our way to La Parilla after a day at Loquillo beach. There is a string of kiosks offering souvenirs and food. La Parilla, which means the grill, had high reviews and looked to have decent prices. The service was like the weather, warm and inviting. The chicken mofongo wasn’t what we had expected, not bad, just not what our mouths were anticipating. At La Parilla, their interpretation on the staple dish is more like a pork chop suey or Chinese chicken with peppers. It was still tasty, but not the garlic-filled wonderment we had hoped for. The portion was plenty for two people if you get a few appetizers. The plantains tasted more like mashed potatoes or yucca than plantains. We went during the week, so we lucked out to have both the beach and restaurant to ourselves. Their appetizers were OK. Nothing stellar.

Overall, this was our least favorite mofongo. If you’re in the vicinity after a day at the beach, I’d suggest going there. Otherwise, La Parilla is not worth the trip east for their Asian-inspired mofongo.

#3 – Genesis Restaurante

327 Calle Recinto
Old San Juan
453mofongo, san juan, puerto rico

We ended up here on our hunt for Lechon, the other dish touted by all the guide books. Lechon is a roast suckling pig. I didn’t see it on any menus or featured in any dishes. I suspect this may be a local thing more so than tourist sampler. We asked our hotel if they knew where we could get some on our last night and they suggested another spot up the street. When we got to that restaurant, we checked the menu and asked the hostess. She advised us to go to Hennessy’s. Walking east on Recinto Sur while searching for Hennessy’s on my phone proved futile. It turned out the restaurant is called Genesis. Genesis is definitely more of a local spot than the other tourist-leaning locales. Think of your favorite tacqueria vibe. They have two TVs; one had an NBA game and the other Telemundo. The waitress was friendly and spoke english well. I normally use group think to help influence where I dine.

If it’s packed, you probably won’t yack.

There was a table of about 6-8 younger folks in a celebratory mood. A few other tables were occupied with families. The restaurant was more empty than full, but it smelled good. The food took a while to come to our table, but the waitress kept us updated on how much longer it would be. While we were hungry, I would rather food is made fresh instead of fast.

We ordered two pig dishes: smoked pork chops and then asked if we could get mofongo with pork. At first look, the mofongo looked light on pork chunks, but after some forking into it, we discovered more in the plantain mash. Their rustic mash tasted the most pure or authentic versus all the others. The missing factor was a sauce. The mofongo was surrounded by iceberg lettuce and two tomato slices. If there were a gravy, this would have been in the running for the crown.

#2 – Fefo’s

Calle Tanca 203
Old San Juan

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I’ll admit, the photo doesn’t look the best. The green hue and ambiguous milky sauce don’t speak to the flavor of this mofongo. We had wandered around looking for a good spot and saw a lot of closed places. Insider tip: most of the restaurants are toward the south and east of Old San Juan. Fefo’s had a sign for happy hour. Leann and I love a good bargain AND we were hungry, so we sat down near the window looking out on Tanca. This had more of an upscale dive feel, if that is a thing. The happy hour drink special runs all day and is for 5-6 different drinks. We got two margaritas. Mine was with bitter passion fruit and Leann’s a sweeter local fruit.

The sauce made this #2. It was liquid garlic, but soft. The chicken was moist and tender. It looked and tasted like it had been poached in broth. The smashed plantains were tasty and chunky. We closed Fefo’s down before our nightly stroll through the streets.

#1 – La Estacion

  • Carretera 987 Kilometro 4
    Fajardo, Puerto Rico 00738
  • (787) 863-4481

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Remember my adage about following the line? This was the first restaurant we tried to go to in Fajardo. Navigating Fajardo at night definitely requires GPS. La Estacion is off a two-lane road 987. There will likely be tons of cars outside and you’ll hear the din of a hopping restaurant. They were full to the red snapper gills our first night, so we ended up severely settling for Wendy’s. At a day of flying and driving, you don’t really care where you eat, just that you do.

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Not to be deterred, we asked our hotel to make us a reservation after our Bio luminescence kayak adventure. What we failed to realize was we would be soaking wet, so we opted not to smell like mangroves while eating dinner. After a shower and dry clothes, we hit the road for La Estacion (the station). Their parking area wasn’t as full as our first night, but still lots of people. The restaurant was reminiscent of some of Chicago’s hot spots with a cocktail list and kitschy-tiki bar decor.

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We ordered some apps and skirt steak mofongo. The server asked me how we wanted it cooked. I said medium rare and he responded with “medium.” We did this dance once more before he explained that getting skirt steak medium rare would be very chewy. I hadn’t intended on a verbal dance with the waiter, but after sipping our cocktails and munching small apps our mofongo with skirt steak arrived and my irritation passed. Maybe it was working up a huge appetite kayaking, or the steak or the cocktails, or maybe their mofongo was just that good. This was also the day we had our first mofongo near Loquillo. The steak was well-seasoned and the mofongo came in a wooden cup that looked like a molcajete. The cup was deceptively deep. Their plantains and yucca combo also had minced garlic. The steak created the sauce and the plantain mash was moist versus the others we had that were somewhat dry.

This was one of those dishes where as soon as it hits your tongue you look at your dinner partner and say “dios mio.”

Why You Need to Haggle On Your Trip

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Being on hold for the majority of two hours was not on my itinerary for this trip. Starting the day with fresh coconut water and pineapple, wasn’t officially, but it was a welcomed breakfast.

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Following the theme of this trip, today started with a few knuckleballs. I have started to reluctantly await each day’s plot twist, a la Scrooge and his spirits in A Christmas Carol, whether it’s a restaurant that’s closed or a ferry that filled before we could get our tickets.

Today was transition day from Fajardo to Old San Juan. That meant checking out, returning the rental car and checking in at our new hotel. On our way to the airport we stopped to get fresh fruit from the coco frio man. Not knowing Spanish well enough to barter or attempting to, we got hosed on the cost of the fruit. To save some toll money we took the 3 all the way to the airport instead of getting on 66. That saved at least $7. The first two legs were relatively smooth, minus creating my own roundabout trying to find a gas station before returning the junk bucket.

IMG_6244 Continue reading Why You Need to Haggle On Your Trip

Become a Travel Expert in Two Weeks

Always find the view.

All it takes is one trip to be perceived as a travel expert.

Prior to this adventure my only international travel explorations were Canada and Mexico. I have been back in the states for five days. In that time I have been asked for advice on upcoming trips by friends and coworkers, including my VP. I suspect his budget may be a bit different from mine.

I am guilty of asking everyone and anyone I have ever met for their advice before I left. Beyond anything else, I hate waste. Wasted words, time, energy or money. I wanted to travel efficiently. And who better to ask than someone who has already been where I was going?

While catching up with some of my well-traveled coworkers this week, one asked me what I would have done differently. I wish I’d taken a formal tour of the Vatican and Colosseum. The manager promptly replied, “I told you so.” I will take this opportunity to repeat his advice. If you are going to the Vatican or the Colosseum, get a tour guide.

Be careful if/when you return. Some people will ask you about your trip. Others will hate you for having left the office, especially if they had to cover your work. This may be why Caesar was really killed. Brutus got jealous that Julius was gallivanting around like he ran the empire.

The Vatican is overwhelming. Wandering around aimlessly is fatiguing and frustrating. I ended up not enjoying the Vatican Museum as much as I hoped I would. I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

If you are a history buff and remember everything from World History in high school, you are my enemy. But, you will be well prepared for visiting the sites in Roma.

The Colosseum is doable sans tour guide, but if you get one of the tours offered you gain access to restricted areas like the third level and onto the main floor. The tour was about 10-15 euros and lasts an hour. In our haste, we ascended the stairs after getting through the gate and marveled at the spectacle of the monstrous arena. After an hour walking around mouth agape we headed for the exit and saw the signs for the guided tours. At that point we didn’t want to spend another hour walking around the Colosseum.

Traveling is one giant upsell. You buy a museum pass, then you get there and a tour is offered for another 10 euros. Or an audio guide for 7. You begin to forget you already paid to access the site or museum.

Tip: Read as much as you can pre-trip. Stock up on history texts. If you’re like me and don’t have a ton of time to read (fall asleep on page 2), there are tons of podcasts and lectures you can stream.

Aside from those two sites, I wouldn’t have done anything differently on the trip. That’s a bold statement from me. I am extremely critical, especially of myself. One time I parked in the wrong parking garage for a company party. The garage cost $30, instead of the valet that was pre-arranged and cost $12. I still haven’t forgiven myself for that.

Most people enjoy talking about two things: themselves and their travels. So, be curious. Ask them questions. What did they love that they didn’t think they would? What would they have done differently? Where do they wish they had time to go? What was underwhelming? What’s the transit system like?

Those are all questions I asked anyone willing to talk to me. The answers helped me shape the time in each city and agenda. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have traveled the globe. My cousin studied in Rome for a semester. Another friend spent a significant amount of time in Italy. I didn’t get a ton of advice on Paris, but supplemented personal advice with travel books and Paris’ tourism site. I was also extremely lucky to have someone with similar cultural interests and curiosity joining me on the trip.

Ultimately, if you are a planner, you’ll do your legwork before take-off. If you like to wing things and live each day as it comes, you will also have a great time. The biggest advice I could give if you are traveling with someone is to make sure you know what type of person your companion is. If I had gone on the trip with someone who wasn’t a planner and relied on me for everything, I would have been resentful and burnt out.

Traveling is tremendously rewarding but also tiring. I haven’t tallied up all the museums and sites we saw or the mileage covered, but this may be the first trip where I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Aside from getting on the flight back to Chicago.

A Day with Monet

window, monet, jardin, giverny

As the rain falls this morning in Chicago, it is difficult to believe that seven days ago I was looking out the hotel window at the mist making everything it touched glisten in Paris.

Wednesday was supposed to be the best day weather-wise during our stint in Paris. The plan was to seize the good weather day and visit Giverny, the home and jardin of Claude Monet.

We landed in Paris on Monday and were greeted not with a warm accolade, but with a gray, drizzly day. The next day was more of the same with temperatures in the low 60s.

The forecast promised Wednesday being warmer and sunnier until Tuesday night when the fickle European winds shifted. We discussed visiting Giverny another day, but opted to go anyway.

Giverny is an hour to the northwest of Paris. There are regional trains that make the voyage. You are supposed to buy the tickets in advance versus on board. I say supposed to because we purchased ours, which are reasonably expensive (about 30 euros RT), got on board only to never have the tickets checked. This was the third time we had purchased train tickets which went unchecked.

Tip: Use train time as nap time. Make sure to set an alarm for when you should be arriving.

The train stops in Vernon. From there you exit and can take a shuttle bus (4 euros each way), rent a bike or walk an hour. It was raining and we were light on time, so we paid the 8 euros for the RT bus. If it had been nicer we may have walked. The bus winds its way through the streets and over a bridge before burping out the tourists. The parking lot was filled with other tourist buses. Beyond the parking lot is a lush open field. There are paths toward the house and an Impressionist museum.

Meandering through old homes and quaint tourist shops, we found our way to the main attraction. We purchased the Paris Museum Pass, but discovered Monet’s house and garden are not included in the list of venues. To the back of the line we went. Admission is 9-10 euros. You can buy tickets in advance and save yourself time waiting in line.

Once through the gift shop you enter the garden. THE jardin. It takes a few moments to realize you are in Monet’s garden. You see some pretty flowers. The garden is a large grid, with rows and rows of vibrant blues, greens, purples, yellows, reds. Every color you could put on a painter’s palette. As I walked deeper into the flowers and trellises, I began to appreciate and accept the magnitude of where I was.

Starting and stalling to avoid photoboming someone else’s photo, I made my way toward the lily pond. You go through a tunnel and come up steps to see the pond replete with water lilies.

I slowly panned right to left, taking it all in. I was in Monet’s paintings. THIS is what he looked at and painted countless times. The rain started to increase, creating ripples in the pond, blurring the previous crispness of the leaves and lilies. The visitors opened their multi-colored umbrellas, which now resembled the array of flowers that preceded the pond.

We lingered here for a while absorbing the serenity of the water garden., listening to the sound of the frogs. For the past week and a half we had been running around from museum to ancient site. We had taken time to relax and enjoy each of the previous cities, but for me, the garden was an oasis to recharge. We sat for a bit on a bench that was kept dry by the overhanging tree.

Eventually we slowly strolled our way back to the tunnel, through the garden and into Monet’s house. A man at the door gave us a plastic bag for our lightly dripping umbrella and told us “no pictures.”

To the left of the entrance is a room of paintings, then Monet’s studio with large, open windows looking out on the garden. I still can’t fully fathom that I was standing in the room where Monet painted impressionist masterpieces, revered to be one of the masters of art.

His bedroom is upstairs, directly over his studio. It also has large windows that look out onto the garden. The house isn’t that large. It’s no Versailles. Back down the stairs and through the kitchen before exiting. Naturally, I snapped a pic of the kitchen on our way out. I wonder if Monet would’ve liked my cooking. Or if Monet was a cook.

The gift shop has an array of Monet offerings, everything from books to bobble heads to prints and calendars.

We found our way back to the shuttle bus, then train station and Paris. Our next stop was Musée de l’Orangerie. This is covered by the Paris Museum Pass and is home to “Les Nymphéas.” These are amazing and I highly recommend this 1-2 itinerary if you are interested in impressionism.

We started the day seeing the flowers and garden that inspired Monet. Then followed it up with seeing his panoramic lily paintings housed at l’Orangerie.

As I look out the window to my backyard, I don’t see a vast, colorful garden or a water lily pond like Monet’s. Instead I see a patch of pale green grass that stands a little taller because the lawn mower ran out of gas last night. But if I close my eyes, the sound of the light rain takes me back to that rainy day in Giverny with Monet.

Do you hear the bells?

“Leann. Your phone is going off.”

“Huh?” She said groggily. “That’s not my phone.”

This morning, our last in Venice before flying to the city of lights, started with the familiar sound of bells faintly chiming. I mistook them for the alarm set on the phone and woke up my regazza. It wasn’t her alarm, but the real bells. It was 7am. Our water taxi out of Venice departed at 6:50.

After a Home Alone moment, we jumped into the clothes we had set out for today, hurriedly ransacked the room (like Venetians and their gold booty), and charged down the stairs and out into the misty morning. I managed to twist my ankle on the last stair.

Taking a boat to a plane seems like the Kanye thing to do. The boat/cabbie was bumping hits like “baby come back.” He was one Adele song away from making me ask if he wanted to talk about the breakup.

The previous day in Venice was lackluster. We wandered around the city, shuffling behind tourist groups and couples. The canal is pretty and the abundance of bridges is a neat feature. The absence of crazed drivers on Vespas was a welcomed respite. If Venice were in Redfin it would easily receive a walker score of 100. There are water taxis and your feet. Those are your transport choices.

The ongoing struggle with Venice, and the other Italian cities, was where to eat. I don’t often eat out so having to choose where to eat twice a day is taxing, especially when Chipotle isn’t an option. Most of our time was spent wandering the streets looking at menus.

Venice has its perks and can serve as a delineator for what type of traveler you are.

Do you like to make lists?
Are you a fast walker?
Do you like going with the flow? (Or “flowing with the go” as my friend Marissa learned from an author of a book by that name)
Do you walk around a new city seeing it through your iPad?

Venice is well suited for those looking to unwind or those ok with not having plans. One of the challenges is finding a particular address or place. The streets wind like a massive rat maze, replete with cheese shops. During our first dinner in Venice, I spotted a mouse scurrying out of the darkness around the corner. In that moment I commiserated with that mouse. For the majority of my time on the island, I was darting around looking for sustenance.

After the Murano incident and our general meandering, we decided to try one last time to find a particular restaurant. It had been rated highly on yelp and was in Cannaregio, an area my boss recommended as being a hot spot for the remaining locals. I asked our concierge, who had a penchant for whispering, if he could call the restaurant to make sure it was open. He gladly assisted us and informed us we had until 9. That gave us 60 minutes to find our way. Pressure cooker.

Uncharacteristically, I successfully navigated our way to the area (the top part of the fish). We eventually spotted the restaurant and sat down outside for our last supper. Leann chose tortellini in a cream sauce with prosciutto. I went Jesus style. Linguine alla pescatoro.

The dinner was good and our most substantial amount of food. Leading up to that dinner we had eaten: yogurt, croissant, mini sandwiches, two nectarines and a creme-filled donut. The food came out Taco Bell drive-thru fast. Maybe I’m just going though taco withdrawal. It’s been 10 days since I’ve had Mexican food.

The evening was the perfect temperature for pants and a tshirt. The food was fresh, good and fairly priced. We lingered finishing our half liter of vino rosso. Then we wandered into the maze one last time. Eventually we found our way to piazza San Marco to shake off the rose and laser pen salesmen, and to take in the orchestral sounds one last night.

Venice was a reminder to relax. You’re on vacation and there’s nowhere you have to be. Enjoy wandering. Enjoy stumbling on a scenic view. Enjoy the charm or reconstructed Byzantine architecture. Just enjoy being alive.

All too soon I’ll have to return to the real world of scheduled conference calls, navigating the streets I know and the suburban sprawl I call home. But for now, I’ll bid Venezia arrivederci and grazie mille for the reminder to enjoy being a tourist. 20140526-172052-62452856.jpg20140526-172053-62453289.jpg20140526-172052-62452533.jpg

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Day trippin' to Murano

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Venice doesn’t offer a ton of attractions for travelers in their 20s. This is the last year I can identify as being in that age bracket so I should use it while I still can.

Coming after Roma and Firenze, Venezia was a choppy gondola ride of emotions. Rome is epic and has more potential itinerary items than you can list. Florence had a more relaxed pace, but still offered extensive cultural and sightseeing locales.

After half a day in Venice I felt I had seen all I needed to. Venice is aptly described as an old world theme park.

In 24 hours I saw four people crying.

The island comes complete with a Hard Rock Cafe and Disney store, if you should miss the comforts of commercialism. The largest irritant was that nearly no one speaks Italian to you. After day one, I had my fill of Venice.

This morning, in an effort to do something off the guidebook, we ventured out at 5am to see the sunrise. The streets were empty. It was refreshing to not be stuck behind tourist mobs. The emptiness allowed us to appreciate the beauty of the city as the sun rose.

After stopping to see San Marco Basilica, we decided to head to Murano to see glass blowing. We attempted to see a demo near the basilica but the shop only offered tours for groups or if you physically had rick Steve’s book. I tried claiming we left it at the hotel, but the man told us to go get the book and we could see the demo. One problem: that book is back at the library we got it. In the United States. Of America.

Off we went to Murano. The hour plus boat ride took us to another quiet, not über touristy island. I multitasked and fell asleep on the boat. We ran into one problem once at Murano. All the shops close at 4, with none offering demos. It was 4:10. Walking to all the closing shops reminded me of Miss Swan from MadTV.

The only meal consumed today was breakfast; then we grabbed nectarines and had mini sandwiches we made from cold cuts at breakfast. We looked for a place to eat on Murano but all the food appeared to be reheated pizza. We snagged a donut and €3 bottle of water before catching the water taxi back to Venice.
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Could we salvage the stint in Venice and end on a high note? Check back tomorrow for the dramatic conclusion of Andrew’s Euro-Venture.

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Levata del sole a Venezia

Venice

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Play this while reading: I’ll follow the sun

As the day draws to a close in the states a new one is starting in Venice. To my friends back home I offer these pictures to inspire your tomorrow dreams.

I’ve had a goal for a long time to see the sunrise and sunset on an island. Venice offers the perfect opportunity to see both in a day. Thankfully my bladder woke me at 5:04 local time. Daylight was starting to creep through the transparent white draperies as I checked my phone to see when sunrise was. I had 20 minutes to hustle to the sun.

I woke up Leann to ask if she’d like to join. Groggily, she agreed.

“And we can get donuts.” I added.

“Why didn’t you lead with that?!” She replied.

We wandered around and I snagged these shots. The streets were empty, save the runners and dog walkers. A few women opened their window shutters as we walked along the water. One couple was getting gelato.

On our return trip, the garbage men and gondoliers prepared for another day of tourists.

I hope you have a great day ahead.

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