A Month in Puerto Rico Part III: Food and the Road to Memories
In this post:
The summer is almost over and so many things have happened. I don’t know if you follow the news, there had been, in my home island, pacific revolutions—I’d say big parties to effect revolutions, if such a thing is possible,—another hurricane near miss, big changes in the wider world, the middle world, the intimate world. Everything changes so fast but many things stay the same. What I wanted to talk about is probably out of context right now, as if a thousand years had passed since my last post, but I feel compelled to write it because not writing it feels like leaving a story forever without its proper ending. So here it is.
Most of my five weeks in Puerto Rico were spent at home, due to circumstances that I have already explained, but when AwHus came and joined me for a week, we arranged with the rest of the family so that we could have some days for ourselves. We stayed in a most horrible hotel in Dorado which offered substandard service and accommodations for an exorbitant price, a dirty, small and crowded swimming pool, and unswimable, dirty and artificial beach in a country of abundant beautiful beaches, and the most awful and over priced food I have ever experienced in my home country. Don’t stay there if you can avoid it. I hate it so much that I am not going to mention the place by name but, if you are curious, the link at the end of the post (crappy hotel) to find out where NOT to stay while in Puerto Rico. After that, it is your choice.
Food, though, food. That week we ate quite a lot of nice food but I am just going to point out the things that I found truly remarkable.
One of our first meals was at a restaurant called Happy Crab in the entrance of the town of Dorado, just before you arrive at the bridge over La Plata river. I had been there before and liked it, and AwHus had never been so I took him there. We took the snow crab legs, a Caesar’s salad, and juey dormío a la Charlie which came on a bed of mofongo, we also took an order of arroz manposteao which was quiet remarkable. There are two things that you must know about dinning out in Puerto Rico: it is generally a bit too salty but delicious, and service can be one day fantastic and in the same place the next day rather poor, that is, uneven. For Happy Crab, the service was a bit slow, considering that the restaurant was practically empty when we went, but otherwise good. The food was abundant an excellent, except for a pitiful Caesar’s salad wannabe, which was a plate of iceberg lettuce with two pieces of a sad, unripe tomato, and an over abundance of soggy and extremely salty croutons. However, if you are more proteinivorous and mofongivorous and stay away from salads, you will not be disappointed with this restaurant. Especially by the amount of food. AwHus and I ate our fill, and we took the rest to the hotel were we shared it with two more people and they were also satisfied. Overall, I really liked it and I will be going back in the future.
Juey dormío a la Charlie, also, to the left, snow crab legs.
Desecheo seen from "el Parque de Colón" in Aguadilla.
Sunset in Dorado, Puerto Rico.
Costline in Aguadilla; the gazebo in the upper right corner is "el Mirador."
The next day we got together with my younger brother, my sister, and my niece looking for a nice place to have dinner in Dorado. The horrible hotel was out of the question, and finally we decided to show AwHus one of the best pizza places that you could find in the North coast of Puerto Rico, Pirilo Pizza Rústica. The pizzas are remarkable and abundant, and they have an impressive collection of bottled beers. The restaurant itself is a recreation of a typical Puerto Rican Hacienda, full of painted wood and charm. They have an excellent rúcula salad, reinterpretations of traditional Puerto Rican fritters that are not to be missed, but stay away from the eggplant parmigiana which is the one atrocious thing in an otherwise fabulous eatery. I regret I didn’t take any pictures but they have a very nice website, so if you are interested make sure you check the link.
Note: all links mentioned are at the end of the post in the references and resources section.
Parque de Colón, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
If you are near the town of Hatillo you need to try this great restaurant.
Amazing apetizers; it didn't occur to me to take a picture until they were almost completely gone.
The fried fish stuffed with mofongo and shrimp.
Most of the short stories in my book ‘Lizard-Monkeys and Other Stories’ are set in real places in Puerto Rico, and I was keen on showing some of those places to AwHus, especially the south west coast were ‘Christmas of the Chupacabras’ takes place. Late one morning, I instructed him to take the same drive that Guillo and Damaris take at the beginning of the story to go to the town of Lajas. We made it only as far as Aguadilla, (about half of the way), but nostalgia was truly stroking the strings of my heart. Which is to say, I could not stop talking about the past and pointing the fast-foods that we used to eat in when I drove around the island with my brothers and cousins, remembering the little anecdotes of our free-roaming days, pointing the things that remained the same and the things that had dramatically changed, and telling him from which of the towns we were driving by my college friends were. He drove and I chatted away and served as his private local guide.
We were somewhere between the towns of Isabella and Quebradillas when I yelled “Quick! Pull over!” and AwHus did just that. I had seen some mango trees by the side of the road and I asked him to back up closer to them. Then I step out of the car and walked to the place were the mangoes were lying down by the curve, other cars whizzed past in the road, and pick the best three or four that I could find. I asked AwHus to pop the trunk and put the mangoes in there, all the time laughing and exhilarated as if I had just dig pirate treasure out of a deserted beach. Then I got back in the car and we drove on but I experienced a happiness that I could not explain, my genetic memories of descending from hunter-gatherers must have been awakened, for such joy to be stimulated in such a simple way.
As I said before, el Chupacabras y la ruta extraterrestre flew out of our purpose, and we made it only as far as the town of Aguadilla. The boardwalk in el Parque de Colón had been destroyed by hurricane María, and its sad broken boards sat by the shore as if they were the splintered bones of some ancient marine creature, but the rest of the shore was lively, full of people and sunshine, and the sea was as serene and crystalline as I remembered it. We didn’t go to el Mirador, but I took pictures of it from down by the beach and pointed the structure to AwHus. After a couple of hours we turned back, and come dinner time, we found ourselves in the town of Hatillo.
Mango cheesecake at Del Campo al Norte Restaurant in Hatillo, Puerto Rico.
Flan de queso at Del Campo al Norte Restaurant in Hatillo, Puerto Rico.
Hatillo is a small town in the north coast of Puerto Rico, just past the bigger city of Arecibo if you are driving down from San Juan, which seemed to have experienced a touristic revival since the last time I drove by maybe a couple of years ago. It used to have very few things beyond the parador El Buen Café but all around it, and in both sides of the main road, shops and restaurants had popped up. On our drive to Aguadilla we have seen a couple of interesting restaurants and decided to stop there on out way back to Toa Alta. Of the several choices; we decided to stop in a charming new structure near the beach, called Del Campo al Norte, and I am glad we did. As appetiser we took a plate of fritters which were just amazing, and for the main course we shared a fried fish served with roasted vegetables on top of a bed of mofongo, and garnished with garlic shrimp. It was delicious and abundant, but the most remarkable thing was dessert. AwHus had a mango cheesecake that was simply scrumptious, but the highest mark belonged to the incredibly creamy and tasty cheese flan that I chose. Service and atmosphere were extremely good and we left with a box containing the rest of the fish and mofongo which my dad appreciated very well later that evening.
Another sunset, this time in La Guancha, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Walking around Ponce.
Parque de Bombas de Ponce.
In downtown Ponce, Chef's Creations restaurant.
Chuletón de cerdo con risotto de gandules. OMG!
Tacos; good but trust me, go with el chuletón.
Sitting in the flatlands of the South coast of Puerto Rico, the city of Ponce, has nicknames such as la ciudad señorial (the lordly city) and la perla del sur (the pearl of the south). It is a charming medium-sized city (by Puerto Rican standards) dotted with old colonial mansions, small and big museums, and the last entry on my post of remarkable food. We arrived there on a different day in which the splendid weather prompted me again to follow my nostalgia, and it was there, in Ponce, where AwHus and I had the most amazing dish of this month in Puerto Rico. The top post goes to the restaurant Chef’s Creations, and the dish was an amazing reinterpretation of traditional Puerto Rican food: chuletón de cerdo con risoto de gandules. It’s difficult to explain but just look at the pictures and imagine the flavors. We went at the end of the lunch service and the food took a while to arrive but it was worth the wait. The staff was friendly and, as we were the last clients there for lunch, we had a long chat with the chef who came out to ask about the meal and our general impression of the restaurant. They have a wood fire grill and oven, a terrace, and a decor full of charm. I can’t wait to go back.
Driving around in Ponce, I tried to convince AwHus to pull over again to pick mangoes by the roadside but he declined and I had to be satisfied with the lingering joy of the ones we picked a few days before near Quebradillas. We ended the day taking a walk in la Guancha and watching the sun set and listening to the waves with our feet on the sand, before saying goodbye to Ponce and driving back to the north of the island.
Fried fish tacos in Cayo Caribe, San Patricio.
Grilled fish in a bed of mash potatoes with vegetables and a balsamic reduction, The Cheesecake Factory, Plaza Las Américas.
This is almost an afterthought and it doesn’t fit chronologically on my narrative but I had to tell you because if you possibly can, you should try. My first ten days in Puerto Rico or so, I stayed at home but when I went out with my sister and my niece and we had the most amazing fish tacos in a restaurant called Cayo Caribe. They have more than one location, we went to the one near San Patricio Plaza; the food was amazing, their tropical fruit hot sauces are just the right amount of heat and fruitiness, and the service was really good. Next time I am going to try some of the seafood; I heard it is also amazing.
And if you are in the Cheesecake Factory in Plaza Las Américas, ask your server if they have fresh fish, usually Dorado and usually not in the regular menu. My server suggested that when I visited with my brother and I’m so glad I listened to her. I regret that I forgot her name but at least we left a good tip.
I ate so many other good things but those will remain my secret for now, anyway, I have told you about the very best for this trip.
In part IV, I will tell how my month in Puerto Rico ended and about my feelings and thoughts on leaving the island once more, which is never easy, even when I know that I would certainly go back soon.
References and Resources:
- Find out where NOT TO STAY while in Puerto Rico. Follow link to crappy hotel.
- Happy Crab, Dorado, Puerto Rico.
- Amazing pizzeria in Dorado, Pirilo Pizza Rústica.
- Do you want more of the flavors, scents, and culture of Puerto Rico? Get my book, Lizard-Monkeys and Other Stories.
- Magnificent restaurant, Del Campo al Norte, Hatillo, Puerto Rico.
- Home of the most amazing dish of this trip, Chef's Creations in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
- The most amazing fish tacos, Cayo Caribe, San Patricio.
- In Plaza Las Américas, The Cheesecake Factory, address.
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