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Dateline: San Juan, Part I

09.24.2009

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Aquamarine seas, palm trees and sunshine; it doesn’t really get any better, in my book, at least. There’s something intoxicating about the tropics, like the way a banana becomes part of a savory meal, the way the salt air and humidity make a beer taste that much better, the way a straw makes drinking out of a coconut seem civilized. Puerto Rico did not disappoint on those fronts.

We did a lot some days and a whole lot of nothing on others. Still, I left feeling that I must return to Puerto Rico. I have a feeling there’s a lot that I still need to see.

A few thoughts: While Old San Juan is charming, I got the distinct feeling that the city in general is trying mighty hard to become South Beach. Places push their prices sky high, blare house music, drape everything in white and compare themselves to The Delano. To fall into this would be a shame. While I love South Beach, Puerto Rico is no South Beach and I wish they’d try to forge their own identity rather than become copycats. The result ends up looking like a fake Louis Vitton bag: kind of desperate and cheap.

I’m also at a loss when it comes to the service in Puerto Rico. Whether at a restaurant serving comida tipica or an upscale place with menus in English, the waiters were the same: they’d come and take your order, bring your food and then disappear. Getting a check or paying a bill were nearly impossible and probably doubled the amount of time I would have spent in any establishment. This wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if I’d had some kind of drink in front of me, but sitting at an empty table, with an empty glass, trying to flag down a waiter is simply no fun. It also makes the dine and dash a tempting prospect…

Notables: Eating well in Puerto Rico is easy. Eating healthily… not so much. It seems the Puerto Ricans like to fry everything- fish, tacos, plantains. You name it, you can probably find it fried. Even seemingly good foods like rice and beans are cooked in ways to increase their calorie content- a technique that harks back to the days when people had to subsist on the basics. Rice is typically cooked with lard, while beans come stewed with some kind of pork fat.

We ended up at a strip of food stalls in Loquillo one day, about an hour east of San Juan, but I was so hungry I forgot to take pictures. There must have been 50 places, all lined up on the beach, all selling chicharron, mofongo, fried fish and yellow rice. While the comida tipica was tasty, I can’t figure out how these places survive when they seem to all sell the same thing.

the chic decor at Tangerine

the chic decor at Tangerine

The Delight:

San Juan Water & Beach Club in Isla Verde. Yes, this place falls into the category of establishments trying too hard to be South Beach. But the lovely ocean views, waterfalls in the elevator and not too pretentious service made it work: this place is chic, fun and definitely worth a visit. We started our evening at Wet, the rooftop bar which afforded a lovely 360-degree view and a too-cool-for-school atmosphere. This would be a great place to come on a date, or to start a rowdy evening with friends. (One complaint: they don’t have a cocktail menu. What upscale nightlife establishment doesn’t have its own cocktail menu?)

We then had dinner at Tangerine, the restaurant downstairs that emphasized ambience with blue lights, a waterfall behind the bar and white everything. While appearance is good, what sets this place apart is the fact that the food was tasty and original.

We started with a trio of ceviches: ginger tuna, topped with candied ginger; coconut snapper; and tangerine salmon. Each was distinct and unlike any ceviche I’ve ever had: the snapper was subtly sweet, the tuna had a bit of bite and the salmon emphasized sour.

Next, we had a paella with red snapper. It was a lovely execution, not at all greasy, which can be the case with paella. The rice was accented generously with carrot, zucchini and red pepper, as well as large, gorgeous chunks of snapper.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the steak with green chile sauce. To be frank, I didn’t have high hopes for this one, but we didn’t think two tapas-sized dishes would be enough to eat (though in the end, two would have been fine). Chunks of tender beef sautéed in a red-wine, chile and caper sauce, and served with house fried plantain chips, this dish was succulent, savory and impossible not to love. While our previous two dishes had been good, this one set the bar even higher.

The Regret: Driving back to San Juan from Loquillo on Saturday I passed a sign for chicharron de conejo. I was intrigued. Chicharron are typically fried pieces of pork skin and conejo is rabbit… fried rabbit skin? Alas, I kept driving, and now I haven’t been able to stop wondering what I missed out on.

 Coming tomorrow: The Disappointment, The Surprise

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