Keep it Luquillo – Wednesday Wandering

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Whenever snow is predicted, I scroll to my photo album “Warmer Places.” Increasingly I turn to my photos from Puerto Rico. With five inches of snow predicted to fall in Chicago, let’s jet for Luquillo beach, just outside of Fajardo.

Every article we read advised to get to the ferry office a few hours before it opened to guarantee a spot on the boat to Culebra, considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Our hotel echoed the advice. Despite all those warnings, I couldn’t fathom we would have to give more lead time for a boat than for our flight to Puerto Rico.

Leann and I looked at the ferry schedule, discussed what time we should wake up to arrive at the ticket office. The boats leave every two hours, which throttles how many people can enjoy them at a time. The ticket office opened at 7AM and I thought an hour would be plenty of time. For the record, Leann suggested we go earlier. We got directions from the hotel staff and opted to walk instead of driving the half mile. Continue reading Keep it Luquillo – Wednesday Wandering

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

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  • 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
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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.”

Fish Don’t Go to Heaven (and other advice from Fajardo)

Loquillo

“Sometimes certain things happen…” Denise trailed off before pausing, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands to the sky. She works in the mornings at the front desk of the hotel where we are staying. “Everything happens for a reason, you know? That’s what I believe.”

My girlfriend and I got up early to purchase tickets for the ferry to Culebra, an island said to have one of the best beaches in the world. We were advised to be there at 6AM for the 9AM ferry. That seemed ridiculous, so we walked there from our hotel and were in line by 7. It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel and we figured we’d save the $5 on parking. While Leann waited in line, I went to the nearby post office to attempt to pickup or MIA sunscreen and contact solution. En route a man waved me toward him. I asked where the post office was and he pointed up the street before asking me if I could give him a dollar for the ferry. I said I didn’t have cash and walked into the post office, which didn’t have an attendant for another hour.

Back in line with Leann, the line inched forward. There were three windows to buy tickets; one for Culebra, Vieques and cargo. Everyone was in line for the best beach in the world. The family of four in front of us purchased their tickets. Then the woman waved at us, shook her head and signaled to another man who announced that the 9:30 ferry to Culebra was sold out. That was our plan for the morning. The ferry to the other island was available, but they weren’t known for being one of the best. We decided to check the post office again and regroup. Continue reading Fish Don’t Go to Heaven (and other advice from Fajardo)

191 to 3: dia dos en fajardo

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“191!” he shouted as we walked in opposite directions.

We started today with directions from our hotel, along with a highlighted map, to el yunque. I put the rainforest into the Google maps app and away we went.

Fun fact about the roads near Fajardo: the main interstate is circular. The 191 circumscribes the rainforest. We discovered this after we took the 3 south through flooded back roads with cows, stray dogs and chickens, all sorts including spotted ones and ones that look like Foghorn Leghorn.

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GPS said we had arrived. We hadn’t. We drove up 191, which wound its way up and up past vibrantly colorful homes and more dogs who were unable to provide us directions. One looked like Baxter from Anchorman; he also spoke Spanish.

We drove up a few kilometers and doubted we were in the right place. We drove down past the dogs and Pantone wheel of homes. Consulting the map on the phone, we couldn’t see any other route taking the 3 to 191 would lead to El Yunque. So, back up and up we drove. At this point the dogs were so irritated by our disrupting their naps, one was stretched out in the street begging us to end his days. Driving. Farther up the 191 we were about to give up when we saw a sign indicating we had arrived in the rainforest! There was no welcome center like our map indicated and three other cars. Not positive signs for a major tourist destination. We walked around and confirmed we weren’t in the verdad spot. On our way out we asked two men walking their dogs if they spoke English and how to get to the visitor center. One man told us the path was closed due to rain, but we had to take the 191 toward Luquillo/Fajardo.

We thanked him profusely and walked back toward our white hatchback speckled with what used to be bugs. “191!” He shouted.

Were it not for our “scenic” driving we wouldn’t have heard the birds, experienced the nearly desolate grounds and seen this.

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2,077 Miles from Chicago

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There’s something comforting about a neighborhood Walmart. Some scenic turns through the area surrounding Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport allowed us to see chickens strutting in the narrow streets, with cars parked however the owner felt convenient. The wandering cats are in need of Purina. I opted against attempting to play fetch con los gatos.

The roads immediately leading from the airport to Fajardo were a bit circuitous and GPS wasn’t immensely helpful, beyond triggering my fight of floor it reactions. Our rental car is a Mitsubishi hatchback, light on features and horsepower. Eventually we wound our way to the interstate and made it to the hotel.

In an effort to be efficient, my girlfriend mailed our fluids (contact solution, bug spray, sunscreen) two weeks ago. The thought was we wouldn’t have to wait for checked bags. The USPS, being occupied with delivering Christmas cards, has yet to deliver our package. So, with a dinner recommendation from the front desk we adventured out to get dinner and contact solution.

Our first stop was the restaurant. It was full and the host told two women in front of us they were closed. We hopped back into the hatch and drove toward the Walgreens. We spotted a familiar, glowing sign.

WAL-MART
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I have often lamented my irritations with Walmart’s clientele back home. Oddly, after a day of flying, driving, and being hungry, the familiar store brought a weird amount of comfort. Everyone may be speaking Spanish, but I know these aisles. Following up the trip to Wendy’s drive-thru may not have been authentic Puerto Rican comida, but I stopped caring about that as soon as I could feel the hangry coming on.

Tonight, we ate Wendy’s on the hotel bed and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. As the locals say, esta bueno.

I’m reminded today of the mindset that we hear about in all those TED talks. We learn more about ourselves, not through introspection, but by testing our boundaries and extending our comfort zone. At no point did I feel horribly unsafe; the surroundings are just different. And my Español is nowhere near my remedial French.

I also recalled that little bit of mom wisdom when turning out the lights tonight. I may be six feet tall and finish my burritos at Chipotle, but always pack a nightlight. I always forget something when traveling.

Tomorrow is a new day. We shake off the previous day and embark on trekking the only rainforest in the U.S., el yunque.

Hasta mañana.

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