Let’s Eat Puerto Rico

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A funny thing happened when I got back from Barcelona. I received an e-mail that basically said, “Dear Adam: would you like to come to Puerto Rico? We’re having a Wine & Food Festival and will fly you out, put you up and treat you to lots of authentic Puerto Rican food. We just hope you’ll write about it. What do you say?”

Frankly, I didn’t know what to say. What were the ethical implications here? What would my readers think if I took a free trip? Would the benefits of sharing my experience outweigh the cost to my integrity? Do I even have any integrity? What are the responsibilities of a food blogger?

Before I could think myself into a tizzy, the P.R. P.R. person (get that?) happened to mention one other thing that made me toss all ethical concerns aside and say “yes.” What was it?

“Matt Armendariz from MattBites will also be on the trip.”

I’ve been a huge fan of Matt’s for a long, long time. His site is one of the most beautiful food blogs around and his photography is so exquisite, my computer screen starts to quiver and cry whenever I load it up. It’s that good.

So I said “yes,” as weird as that was, and a few days later (this all happened very fast) I was on a plane to Puerto Rico.

Now it felt a little bit like “The Incredibles” where some mysterious entity flies Mr. Incredible to a remote island to do battle with a giant killing machine; who, exactly, was paying for this trip? What if I showed up and it was like “Eyes Wide Shut” and the hotel wasn’t a hotel but someone’s sex dungeon, and I’d be chained to a wall and made to sing sonatas while someone flogged my ankles? The more and more I dwelled on it, the more frightened I became.

But then everything became clear once I got off the plane and someone was there holding a sign that said my name. This trip was sponsored and paid for by the Marriott San Juan–a hotel on the water with a big casino in it. I was dubious at first–how great could it be?–but then I got to my room and saw this:

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Yes, my room was so close to the ocean, I could’ve reached down and grabbed a fish for an afternoon snack. It was the most breathtaking view I’ve ever had in a hotel ever. Here it is at night:

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As you can see, I didn’t have much to complain about.

The next morning, the press group–which consisted of writers from Orbitz and Conde Naste and Homemaker–was taken on a three hour bicycle tour of the island. Matt hadn’t arrived yet (smart guy!) but I was there and, reader, believe me: I got more exercise in those three hours than I’ve gotten in the past three years. Look how manly and athletic I look astride my bicycle:

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But you’re not interested in bicycle tours, you’re interested in food, right? Well our tour led us straight to a market smack dab in the middle of San Juan.

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I was so sweaty and delirious that when our tour leader presented us with a batida–an icy, refreshing banana milkshake (I think batida means milkshake)–it was the most satisfying, refreshing, replenishing thing I could’ve imagined drinking at that moment:

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We also tried this strange fruit, which you peeled and then sucked on–it had a hard pit at its center and tasted bright and zingy. I forget its name!

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After our bicycle tour, which is something I’d recommend to anyone who’s slightly adventurous and mildly athletic, we arrived for lunch at Raices–a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant with waitresses in traditional Puerto Rican garb:

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Waiting there was none other than Mr. MattBites himself, Matt Armendariz. We greeted each other enthusiastically and began talking enthusiastically about food blogging, our food blogger friends, and all other kinds of subject matter that held no interest for our fellow travelers.

But soon it was time to order and our tour leader, Jody, suggested we try Mofongo: a classic Puerto Rican dish made from mashed unripe plantains, cooked with garlic and other spices, and served with some kind of protein: in my case, grilled steak.

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Man, was this good. It was heavy, no doubt about it, but really satisfying and flavorful: it’s not sweet at all, like the plantains you might be used to; it’s quite savory, almost like thicker, more vegetal mashed potatoes. It was hard to stop eating.

We also shared rice and beans, which is very common in Puerto Rico:

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That night, we were taken to the Puerto Rico Wine & Food Festival–one of the main reasons Matt and I were invited. Here we are with wine glasses hanging around our necks:

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We toured around the room–a big super modern convention center–and ate various tasty bites, including the pig you see in the lead photo; here it is in its entirety:

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It was very cool how they served it: you got the meat, then you got blood sausage (made from its blood), and some of the crispy skin. That’s what I call using all parts of the animal:

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Our favorite bite of the night was actually not from a Puerto Rican table, but a Peruvian table. Or, more accurately, a Perurrican table:

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There were mussels served with lots of chopped up red onion and lime juice, almost like a ceviche:

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But our favorite was this octopus (pulpo) served in a purple olive sauce:

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David Lebovitz writes on Flickr: “Am not sure I’d eat that, octopus or no octopus.”

But David, believe me, it was dreamy and creamy and colorful. That purple color came from olives, not food coloring, and it was just a very winning combo. Ask Matt if you don’t believe me.

The next morning, we woke up at 7:30 AM and took a catamaran to a remote desert island. The journey was supposed to be smooth, but it ended up being one of the bumpiest boat rides of my life. Not only that, but we weren’t allowed to be on deck, so we were in a hot, crowded cabin bouncing in our seats. As you can tell, this made us the slightest bit queasy:

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But it was worth it because the island itself was so beautiful. (It was Culebra, voted by Travel & Leisure to be the 3rd most beautiful beach in the world). Our boat didn’t have a license to dock, so we actually had to swim ashore. I thought that was really cool—I’ve never had to swim to get anywhere, so I enjoyed that. But that also meant no cameras could get to the beach (unless yours was water proof), so here’s the last picture I took before visiting Culebra.

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And it’s a shame Matt didn’t bring his, because you could’ve seen me shirtless like Daniel Craig walking along the beach, slowly and stupidly absorbing the sun’s rays (my sunblock washed off in the water) until–24 hours later–I’d be redder than a Le Creuset. My back still burns: thank God for aloe!

That night, our last night of the trip, Jody took all of us to perhaps the most foodie-ish San Juan destination: the Luquillo Beach Kiosks.

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The kiosks are where you go for Puerto Rican street food. Not surprisingly, as is true of much of the world’s great street food, much of it is fried. Here’s what greeted us at the first kiosk, a display case of fried wonders:

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Here’s the proprietor presenting us with something wrapped in a plantain leaf: (Note—I have to credit Matt for having him pose for this picture. Matt has a much better version of this somewhere in his camera!)

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Here’s the plantain leaf up close:

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And here’s what was inside:

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It was an almost custardy mixture of plantain and–rather surprisingly–crab. The combo of seafood and plantain, sea and earth, was unusual and intriguing. It was certainly a taste I’d never tasted before and one I’m not likely to recreate any time soon at home. But I liked it.

Here’s another fried thing that we ate:

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This one wasn’t quite as memorable–so much so, I forget what was in it!

But here’s another display case:

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And here’s Desiree, one of our trip leaders, with two more small bites:

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One of which was my favorite by far—a crispy seafood pancake:

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It had the brininess and salinity of seafood but the crispness and whimsy of a big potato chip.

And that, gentle readers, marks the end of our trip to Puerto Rico. That night Matt and I shared a Pina Colata and bid each other farewell; the next morning, I was back on a plane to New York.

A big thanks then to Jody and Desiree for planning the trip, to the San Juan Marriott for flying me out, and to Matt for inspiring me to say “yes.” I’m very glad I did.

Puerto Rico Information

Marriott San Juan

Rent The Bicycle

Raices Restaurant

Puerto Rico Wine & Food Festival

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