The wife and I spent our Christmas holiday in sunny Puerto Rico with the family. In addition to lounging on sandy beaches and getting sunburnt, I got to sample some Puerto Rican food, or as the locals call it, comida.
We had one of our meals in Old San Juan at La Mallorquina, which specializes in traditional Puerto Rican fare.
I ordered the chuleta de cerda ala parilla (grilled pork chop with grilled seasonal vegetables and yellow rice). Though a little dry, the pork was seasoned well. Salt and pepper dominated the flavor with faint hints of other spices, including garlic and chili powder. The accompanying peppers and peas seemed to have been blanched and then tossed in a vinegar-based sauce, adding a lightly sour contrast to the rich, meaty pork. The yellow rice was fluffy and aromatic from the chicken broth used in cooking it. It was a satisfying dish, but not spectacular.
My wife ordered the asopao de mariscos, a type of seafood stew. This dish is the eatery's claim to fame and it was evident. The bowl was full of shrimp, scallops, squid and mussels. The seafood was very fresh and perfectly cooked. The nearly soupy rice was deliciously seasoned to compliment the fresh shellfish. When combined with the bland fried plantain pieces tucked in on the sides of the bowl, it was like a symphony of sabor in my mouth. The only disappointment was my wife eating much more of her dish than she normally would.
I washed down all the deliciousness with this awesome mojito, easily the best one I've ever had.
After a long hard day in the sun and sand, we stopped into a beach-side hole-in-the-wall establishment called Costa Mia to silence our disgruntled stomachs.
For starters, we ordered some empanadillas de amarones y cebollas (little empanadas with shrimp and onions). The fresh shrimp, peppers and onions were marinated with a light vinegar mixture and stuffed in crispy fried pockets of yummy. Oh Mylanta, these circular sandwiches were amazing! The vinegar helped cut through the oily dough, allowing my taste buds to hone in on the interplay of fresh shrimp, spicy onions and sweet peppers. I was tempted to gorge myself on more but after so many years of focused eating, I was disciplined enough to wait for the main course.
For my entree, I ordered mofongo con carne frita. Mofongo is a dish said to originate in Puerto Rico. It consists of mashed green plantains that are shaped and baked. Though I don't know if all mofongo is shaped like this one, mine functioned like an upside-down cup where the hollow interior was stuffed with pieces of fried pork simply seasoned with salt and pepper. The mofongo was similar to slightly undercooked potatoes; it was bland, firm and slightly chewy. I didn't care for it much by itself, but with the salty, fatty pieces of pork, the combination was like algebra, looks weird at first, but after you've had it, it just makes sense.
As I mentioned earlier, we were traveling with the family, so most of the remaining meals consisted of attempts at recreating traditional Vietnamese dishes with local ingredients. It wouldn't be a family vacation otherwise! For example:
My in-laws made these succulent beef dishes with the freshest ingredients they could find that day. Though at first I was frustrated because each meal at the rental house meant one less meal with the locals, my frustration was soon ameliorated by the smells permeating the rooms. My only quibble about the food was that, though the store had many other exotic produce, my in-laws stuck with what they knew how to cook rather than experimenting with new ingredients. This was understandable because they didn't want to risk ruining a meal due to unfamiliarity with a foreign food item. But I for one would have loved the culinary adventure. And you may ask, "why didn't you cook up something?" That's because I know better than to get in the way of 6 Vietnamese women cooking in one kitchen. Forget Survivor, there should be a reality show where a group of mothers are forced to cook a meal in one kitchen at the same time. Only then will the world see real drama.