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Latin America & Caribbean Trip Report

San Juan, PR Trip Report May/June 2011

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San Juan, PR Trip Report May/June 2011

gkm23 | Jun 6, 2011 03:31 PM

So this is my first time posting on here, but the great trip reports I saw on here prior to my trip helped guide us quite a bit, so I figured I'd add my own (probably not quite as good) trip report from the last minute trip I just returned home from:

MONDAY
Ropa Vieja - Got in around the early afternoon, but had been up since 3:45 am, so this was going to be dinner for us. We wanted something more low key, inexpensive, and authentic, but didn't want to stray too far from the main Condado strip at this point, so that likely was going to be difficult. Asked the concierge for recommendations, and she told us either Yerba Buena to the left of the hotel or Ropa Vieja to the right. Chose Ropa Vieja because I liked the sound of it. We got there and it was empty except for one other couple (this was an odd dining hour after all). Prices a little more than what we wanted to spend at the time, but not atypical for location/restaurant type. They specialize (naturally) in ropa vieja, which I love in general, so I got the mofongo with ropa vieja, while my wife got the sweet plantain stuffed with ropa vieja. Mofongo was expectedly heavy and quite oily, but delicious nonetheless (the better of the two mofongos I had while here). Same with the sweet plantain, though to say it came covered with cheese would be a drastic understatement. It formed a small mountain after my wife scraped it all off. Service was good (as it should be, since it wasn't busy). All in all, an above average meal at a restaurant I previously hadn't heard much about.

Yerba Buena - Decided that night to stop by here for dessert. Sat outside since there was a band playing inside and we hadn't paid to get in. Could still hear the band clearly outside and weather was pretty nice at that point, so it was quite nice. Did not get seated in one of the rocking booths, much to my wife's disappointment. Ordered the quattro leches (cocunut milk = milk #4), which was good, if not overwhelmingly so. Apparently known for their mojitos, though I don't know if that's just to draw in the tourists. Either way, in my novice opinion they were great and loaded with mint (if you like that). Better than most that I've had in the States. One thing to note is that service was excruciatingly slow. We came to learn that service in general on the island is, well, different than home, but this was really bad. Took longer to get the dessert than it took some places to get us our entrees and didn't see the waiter much besides that. Oh well, overall a fun place for dessert/drinks, especially on a Monday night with the band playing.

TUESDAY
La Bombonera - Seems to be one of the major food attractions in Old San Juan. Not too busy (one of the advantages of going during low season), though when we got there, they were out of mallorcas. We were sitting at the counter, and this fact was not explained particularly well to us or the couple next to us. We figured out exactly what was going on and got a fruit salad and 2 coffees. Fruit salad was fresh and came in a pineapple shell with slices of pineapple cut out to be pulled out and eaten. Coffee was above average. The mallorcas were done and we ordered 2 with ham and cheese. The guy at the counter came over a couple minutes later holding a mallorca with ham, cheese, and egg and told us there was no bacon so would this be ok. Umm...sure. He was a little pushy and communication wasn't simple, so I wasn't going to push it with the egg vs no egg thing. In the end, the mallorca was pure buttery deliciousness, though we both agreed we would probably prefer it as just the pastry itself, and none of the filling.

Aguaviva - After a bit of walking around and trying to decide where to go to dinner, we went with this, as we figured it might be a bit different than all of the heavy fried foods, and I had heard a lot of great things. It was a fairly early dinner (right around 6 pm) so not too busy. I ordered a mango mojito, don't remember what the wife ordered to drink though. Good, though not as good as Yerba Buena's. Server brought out bread and chips and mentioned that they were out of lobster. Kind of disappointing, as 3 of the 8 seafood entrees contained lobster, which was being substituted with the less exciting shrimp. Bread and chips were delicious, however, especially the chips covered with a sweet/salty/spicy spice mix. I opted for the grilled salmon, wife got the mero con lobster (shrimp) guiso, which is described as "pan seared grouper, lobster stew, truffle mojo, latino corn cachapa." I thought my entree was above average, and especially liked the sweet touch the candied tomato marmalade gave it. Wife liked her grouper, which was prepared nicely, though we both agreed the sauce that covered it was much more Italian tasting than expected. In general not the dish we expected from the description. I have to say that service here was probably the best we had the whole trip. Overall, based on everything I had heard, I was a little disappointed. Dinner was perfectly good, but considering the many mentions I've seen of it as one of San Juan's top restaurants, it didn't quite match up with many of the best restaurants here in Nashville.

WEDNESDAY
Plaza del Mercado - Started the day by walking from the hotel to the market in Santurce, about a 10 minute walk from the Marriott Stellaris. Too early to eat at Tasca el Pescador, which I had heard numerous wonderful things about, so we stopped by the little stand inside the covered market for empanadillas and a smoothie (don't remember the spanish name). I got a beef empanadilla and she got a chicken. Not freshly fried but both still delicious. One of the very friendly customers at the counter drinking his smoothie knew English, so he helped us with the ordering of our smoothie. We ended up with a large papaya and passionfruit (parcha) smoothie, which was enough for 1 1/2 large cups for each of us and incredibly delicious. Easily the best of the 3 smoothies I had on the island, and probably the best I've ever had (though I must admit I don't drink them that often, and most of the time it's from the Smoothie King).

Tasca el Pescador - At around 1 pm we were getting hungry and it had been raining all morning since getting back. We debated between Bebo's and Tasca el Pescador, and since we really wanted the latter and it was nice out, we walked back to the marketplace. We decided to share either the paella or whole fried red snapper, and figured to go with the latter since the lack of lobster steered us away from it at Aguaviva. Listed as "market price" on the menu and as we soon found out, probably something we should have clarified before agreeing to order. Of the two men taking orders, only the younger one spoke English, so when the older waiter took our order, this might've been difficult anyway. As far as the fish was concerned, unlike Aguaviva it definitely lived up to the expectations. My wife was excited because it was the first time someone brought out the fish to show here in a few years. We ended up devouring the whole thing (minus most of the head/eyes, which we probably would've needed her parents for), as it was incredibly fresh and delicious, and had a nicely spiced coating. The beans and rice on the side were actually quite good as well. Then we got the bill, which is where we realized our mistake earlier. $49 for the fish, which was a large one, but considering the whole red snapper with lobster and mofongo at Aguaviva was only $32, this seemed a little on the overly pricey side to me. From reviews I had read before, people had gotten the same meal for ~$25, so maybe market price is up now or the fish are all larger than usual, but I would recommend clarifying how much it is before ordering. It was a delicious fish, but I think in retrospect , since this was just meant to be lunch, we would have opted for one of the less pricey options on the menu.

La Vista - My wife wasn't really planning on getting dinner since lunch was so large, but after spending some time at the pool that night, 9 pm rolled around and I was starving. We stepped outside to head to Yerba Buena and lo and behold, despite being beautiful out 15 minutes earlier, it was downpouring. We opted not to go back up and get the umbrella and just decided to stop by one of the hotel restaurants (which I'm pretty sure was called La Vista). She ordered a soup. It was okay, nothing spectacular. I ordered the feijoada, the "national dish of Brazil" which I've had once before at a Brazilian place in the neighborhood I used to live in in Boston. It was $18 and contained "braised pork" so I guess I was expecting a more meaty take on the one I had previously had. Instead what I received looked mostly like a typical feijoada (with orange and collard greens on the side), but was basically turtle beans with two big bones containing no meat on them. It tasted good, but was basically an $18 dinner of beans and rice. Passionfruit flan for dessert was similarly okay, but unspectacular. This was the other place where service was downright bad. Our waitress had all of 2 tables to attend to in a relatively empty restaurant, yet my water remained unfilled for the whole time after I finished it. We also had to remind her for our bread. Heard the table next to us comment on the poor service as well.

THURSDAY
Ceviche Hunt (Kiosk #38) - We went out to El Yunque and then the bioluminescence bay in Fajardo this day, so after a quick breakfast at Starbucks (won't talk about, of course, but actually rather liked their mallorca), we were pretty hungry getting out of the rainforest around 3 pm. Had heard a lot about Luquillo Beach's famous kiosks both on here and from one of my mother's co-workers (a native of the island), so we stopped here on the way back. Being low season and a very rainy afternoon, many of the kiosks were pretty empty, so it was difficult to judge what was popular and not. Ended up going with Ceviche Hut because I was pretty sure I saw it mentioned on these boards while reading up on the kiosks the night before. The restaurant itself was rather nice and a little cleaner and "fancier" looking than many of the surrounding kiosks. I'm sure on a nice sunny day during high season (and maybe even low season) it has a nice atmosphere. I was in the mood for mofongo again, so I got the beef one. My wife opted for the beef with chimichurri (I know, Peruvian restaurant and neither of us got Peruvian food..but I had read that the mofongo was good here). My wife liked her chimichurri and the taste I had was good. She especially seemed to enjoy the little salad on the side, in which the vegetables were pickled, saying it was like certain chinese dishes she had growing up. The Chinese note is actually probably a good segway to my meal, as it seemed to be some sort of Puerto Rican/take-out Chinese-American dish. The plantain part itself was very good, with a slight crunchiness to it, and less oily than Ropa Vieja's. The topping, however, I was less of a fan of. It consisted of slices of beef, celery, and bell pepper in a brown sauce. It reminded both of us of something you get from a bad Chinese take-out restaurant here in the States or from a frozen dinner, salty, mucousy, and MSG-filled. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be, but it just didn't seem to fit. Ended up eating quite a bit since I was hungy, and as I mentioned, the plantain was good, but I don't think I would choose this particular kiosk again, and if I did, I would get something other than mofongo. Service was friendly, fast enough, and they do take credit cards (or at least Visa).

FRIDAY
Caficultura - Our best food day started at the this wonderful coffee house toward the end of Calle San Francisco, not far from the bus stop in Old San Juan. Sitting in here, in many ways it felt like I could've been in any of the coffee houses I know and love/have loved in Boston or Detroit or Nashville, etc, only with a Puerto Rican twist, and with someone taking our order at the table instead of at the counter. Water is brought out in a large wine bottle and set on the table, which is a nice touch. We both ordered the mallorca with guava butter and a large cafe con leche. Mallorca was good and buttery, and looked more like a panini than the typical mallorca. Coffee was outstanding, easily the best we had on the island, and came with a little bowl of what appeared to be turbinado sugar. Similar to what I had seen other people mention on these boards, I would say that while both are good, for mallorcas, La Bombonera is better, and for coffee, Caficultura is better. For me, Caficultura wins overall for the food/drink/service/atmosphere combination.

Varita - As this was going to be the last meal of our trip to Puerto Rico, I really wanted to try something from one of San Juan's big chefs, and my wife was disappointed we hadn't visited a lechonera, so we opted Varita, a Wilo Benet "concept" that appeared promising based on reviews and the whole wood grilling thing. And while it's certainly not a traditional roadside lechonera and you're not going to be getting the lechon with the crispy pork skin, I had heard good things about the pork here. We started off with an appetizer of ripe plantain, "piononitos", chipotle mayo, which was basically 6 little balls of crispy fried sweet plantain filled with ground beef. Very good, though the plantain was definitely the predominant flavor. For dinner we both opted for the pulled pork with house BBQ and a side of mamposteao. Let's start with the sauce, which was brought out actually before we got the appetizer. There were two sauces, one a hot sauce, which reminded me of a garlicky, very spicy caesar dressing, only way better than that sounds. The other was the mango barbeque sauce. We both agreed that the barbeque sauce was not as good as the hot sauce (which my wife would still like the recipe for), though I think she was more underwhelmed by the sauce, which I still found quite delicious. The mamposteao, a combination of (trying to remember here) rice cooked with chicken stock, beans, plantains, and bacon was delicious as a side and probably could be a main dish itself. As for the pork, I have to say it may be the best pulled pork I've had. Definitely different than southern barbeque style pulled pork, as this has less smokiness and more saltiness, but it was slow cooked to the point of being incredibly juicy and tender, with fat basically melting off the meat. For dessert we got the trio of mini cheese flans, which like dinner were delicious, though less memorable. Service was good, though the waiter didn't seem to be extremely interested in us. I do have to mention that the woman at the table next to us had her drink knocked over, spilling brown liquid all over the small table next to the one they were sitting at and within instants two people were there hurriedly cleaning everything up. In what seemed to be 30 seconds after the spill occurred, everything was cleaned to the point you would never even know it happened...it was like a NASCAR pit crew. All in all a great meal to end the trip on, and easily the best main meal we had the whole trip.

Hopefully this helps future people, and sorry if it was too long. In general, a good trip for food, if not the best food I've had any a trip to a city that's not my own. Didn't get to try Budatai, Pikayo, Marmalade, Laurel, La Casita Blanca, the non-Aguaviva OOF! restaurants, or any of the others I've seen mentioned quite a bit, so I'm sure we missed out a bit, but maybe next time.

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