Saturday, June 30, 2007

Puerto Rico 2 of 3: the food post

As soon as we got to our hotel in San Juan, I had good omens that I would be able to eat well on this trip. The first indicator was the beautiful basket of fresh cold fruit that greeted us in our room. The second and better indicator was the fact that our hotel gave us a list of all the vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants in Puerto Rico as soon as we checked in! We had mentioned as we reserved the hotel that I was vegan, and they had taken the time to print the list for us! I was really touched- and amazed that there would be so many veggie options. But a funny thing happened- I hardly got to eat at any of the restaurants on my list (even though I took the list with me wherever we went). For whatever reason, because they were casual joints or located around the university, many of the vegetarian cafes in San Juan closed after lunch. Daiku and I would usually be out during the day, seeing different towns, and only be back in San Juan at night.

However, I did not miss out on good food, as the following photos will show:

On the drive east from San Juan to Fajardo, I noticed this health food market, one of many I would see all over the island. I stopped in and found a package of giant locally baked, vegan cinnamon buns made with whole wheat flour. The package of 4 only cost $2 and fed me for breakfast and snacks over the next two days!

Everywhere we went on the island, I saw giant mango trees brimming with fruit. The sight made me so happy- I'd never seen a mango tree in my life! Unfortunately, even though it's a fantasy of mine, I couldn't climb any of these trees because they were way too tall, and often located on private property. It was crazy to see mangoes rotting underneath them, though.

In Fajardo, we had secured a ride from a fisherman on his boat to take us to and from the island of Icacos where we spent the afternoon snorkeling. When we got back to land, we noticed a man bringing a huge bucket of mangoes (perhaps from his tree) to a group of fisherman. I became mesmerized by the sight of so many mangoes, and how the men were eating them right out of hand. Well, I must have been staring because one of the men gestured to Daiku and asked him if he'd like some mangoes. Before we knew it, they had given us 5! I couldn't believe my eyes, or their generosity. These mangoes also provided me with breakfast for the duration of our trip.

The best place to eat in Puerto Rico, if you are not vegan and if you want casual, authentic food, is one of the many purveyors of "comidas criollas" - the local, indigenous cuisine of Puerto Rico that features plenty of familiar dishes involving rice, beans, plantains, and - meat. I would notice produce trucks like the one above delivering to these joints, so that I knew that if nothing else, I could find plenty of plantains there. And I was right- throughout the week I ate plantains in every form imaginable (sweet (amarillos), mashed (mangu), fried (tostones), balls (bollitas), chips, etc.) They are very delicious and filling- I'm lucky that I love plantains, though!

I had to remember that in Puerto Rico with coffee, as in England with tea, you often get it with milk unless you expressly mention that you don't want it. Here is a typical photo of cafe sin leche for me, and cafe con leche for Daiku. On really hot days, we would also ask for some ice to make our own gonzo iced coffees with. I noticed that even the smallest establishments in Puerto Rico tended to have really fancy espresso machines, so that most of the coffee we drank there was excellent in flavor and quality. (It doesn't hurt that they grow their own coffee beans on the island, either!)

Yet another tree brimming with tropical fruit- this time giant papayas.

As happy as I was with all the abundant produce, though, I was still sad that I wouldn't get to try famous Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo (plantains mashed with garlic and often with pork). Until a very happy set of accidents made us end up at A Pedir de Boca, a tapas restaurant in San Juan. After a long and tiring day's drive to the west and south of the island, Daiku and I found ourselves looking for dinner at night. With our handy list in hand, we found not one, but two vegan restaurants, but they were both closed! Dejected and hungry, we walked around until we saw this restaurant. We decided to go in, since it is usually easy to find veg options on a tapas menu. I was trying to decide between a hummus platter and some samosas and told the waiter that I was looking for vegetarian foods. "Oh, you are vegetarian?" He asked. "Let me see if there's any tofu in the kitchen- maybe the chef can prepare something special for you." Within a few moments, I was told that the chef would prepare me vegetarian mofongo with tofu- I was ecstatic!

The result was stunning and delicious- the mashed plantains flavorful, the tofu expertly prepared to be crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, and the vegetables tangy and artfully arranged on a garlic/turmeric sauce. The chef personally came to check on us and ask how we were liking our dinner, and as we were leaving, the waiter told us to come back any time, they would always be willing to make us something vegetarian that was not on the menu. Could it have been any nicer?

Above are two photos from the Rio Piedras market in downtown San Juan. I was really excited to go and sure enough saw mountains and mountains of produce, some that I couldn't even identify. It was overwhelming and also a little sad, knowing that with no kitchen and no way to bring back fresh foods to the mainland, I couldn't really sample most of it.

Instead we grabbed some tropical juices and walked around the indoor marketplace looking for something to eat. I was preparing myself for more plantains, when I noticed Daiku having a conversation with a woman behind the counter in the above food stall. A few moments later, she disappeared. Daiku told me that when he has asked her if they had any food without meat, she had replied that they didn't, but she knew where she could find some. About 5 minutes later, she reappeared with a giant tray of food:

After a long hot day of walking, taking buses, and trying not to get lost, this was the best meal we could ask for. The tray held a salad, some sweet plantains and yucca (in the back), a bowl of pasta, and a bowl of mashed plantains (in the front). (Sorry for the poor-quality picture which also shows our juices and the bunch of quenepas that we had picked up from the fruit vendors, the fluorescent lighting made it difficult). Once again, I was blown away by the kindness of the food vendor, who, like the men with the mangoes and the waiter at the tapas restaurant, had made a hungry Bazu very happy. And, the whole tray of food only cost $6- now that's how to eat!

Speaking of quenepas, they were new to me- and so yummy! They look like limes, but when you crack open the skin, a juicy, tangy and gooey inside is revealed that you can slurp up. Be careful, though, they have large slippery seeds!

On our final night in Puerto Rico, as we walked around Old San Juan, I finally got to try one of the restaurants on the list that I'd been carrying around all week! Cafe Berlin is a quirky and vegetarian-friendly place on the Plaza Colon, featuring a varied and exciting menu. After much deliberation, I ordered the vegan Philly cheese-steak sandwich:

A big seitan patty and some grilled peppers and onions, served on a sandwich with tomatoes, sprouts, red onions, and lettuce. Not exactly Puerto Rican, but a delicious and fun way to end my stay at the island.

So as you can see, eating vegan in Puerto Rico wasn't just easy, it was enjoyable for me! Because of the kindness of strangers, who tried their best to decipher our broken Spanish, we got to sample a wide array of dishes- some traditional, some innovative, and all delicious. Toss that with some fresh tropical fruit, and you've got yourself quite a trip.

The only thing I regret is that I didn't get to meet up with Johanna (of Tropical Vegetarian Family fame) and sample some of her fantastic home-cooking! Even though we tried to make plans, we never made it to her hometown. If you're reading this Johanna, lamentamos no haberte visto!



Courtney said...

It sounds (and looks) like you had a great trip! I am happy to hear that people were so friendly and helpful when they found out you were a vegan--that is great! If only people in America were so nice about it...
Everything looks beautiful!


Emmy said...

What a beautiful assortment of fruits you got to sample on your trip. I love quenepas but I often have a hard time finding them. Sounds like you had a wonderful trip with yummy eats :)

Village Vegan said...

Wow, that looks like a delicious trip food-wise. You've really made me interested in Puerto Rican I want to try to come up with a recipe for mofongo. And all those mangos and fruits...mmmmmmmmm.

KleoPatra said...

Papayas on the tree. All those mangoes! Plantains galore! Quenepas?! Wow. Bazu, very exciting.

People's kindnesses blew me away, too. i really enjoyed reading that.

How terrific that what you thought was going to be a disappointment when you were first trying to get to a veggie eatery turned into such a happy event. That was probably one of the best things i read on this post. So great when a possible frown gets turned upside down. i love the unexpected when it turns out good, don't you?!!

i know the seitan patty w/the fixin's wasn't authentic to Puerto Rico but it sure looks delicious.

i'm thrilled you had such a great vacation, even tho you and Jo didn't meet up. All in all, a truly tasty (at least food-wise) trip, 'eh?

And again, welcome back! So glad to see you here...


SusanV said...

What a wonderful trip! You've really got me curious about quenepas. I wonder if they're ever sold here.

laura jesser said...

Everything sounds so wonderful! I would have been in mango and plantain heaven... and not to mention the quenepas, which sound so interesting. I'm glad that you found veg eating not only possible, but joyful on your trip. And I laughed when you said that even the smallest places serve the best of coffee--it seems like every other place in the world does coffee better than the US does. Oh well!

aTxVegn said...

All the foods and fresh produce look amazing. It's great that everyone was so accommodating to provide you with great veg meals. I've never heard of quenepas - how interesting!

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Theresa said...

Wow, Puerto Rico sounds very veg-friendly! Especially if you love fruit and vegetables. Mangos.... I miss mango season! Too bad you didn't get to climb a tree, but when you pick mangos they ooze super-sticky latex all over you, so it's better to pick them up from the ground anyways.

KathyF said...

Hey, I wanna travel with YOU! Talk about vegan karma!

Emilie said...

Looks like you did really well for yourself with the food. Yum. All that fruit too--it's making me long to eat some fruit right from its source. I think I need to go berry picking or something as mangoes, etc. are in short supply here in Boston!

urban vegan said...

Thanks for the culinary tour of PR. I am salivating over all the exotic fruit. I especially like your story of the mangos...what a wonderful gesture--and memory to take back with you.

Vegan_Noodle said...

Looks like you ate well and enjoyed your vacation! How impressive that so many vendors went out of their way to make something for you. I am always grateful for that kind of generosity. What a fun trip!

Vicki's Vegan Vice said...

I'm so loving your Puerto Rico posts!! The images are so captivating -- thanks for taking us along.

vko said...

I had no idea Puerto Rico was so veg friendly!

What a lovely trip & happy eats, the warmth of the weather & the people made for a perfect trip. I had never really considered going to Puerto Rico before, but I definitely want to go now.

Thank you for the mango on the tree picture- that's a first for me and I adore mangoes.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! i need to go to San Juan soon! i will love the list they gave to you! as i dont have any vegetarian restaurant around here. i absolutely love the post, i must try that mofongo with tofu yum!!!

right now im eating lots of free mango here! they are everywhere around my town and must people let you got them free. i love quenepas, i remember i post about them.

what a great aventure you have here! i must have one of that soon when i try to visit San Juan.

Hanna S said...

What an exciting post! I'm vegan, and I'm about to go to Puerto Rico with my omni boyfriend. I've been so nervous about finding food while I'm there, as it's my first time to travel since transitioning to veganism. This post has helped to calm my fears a bit.

Which restaurant was it that prepared vegetarian mofongo for you? I'd love to visit it while I'm in San Juan!

If you'd prefer it, please email me at I'd greatly appreciate any other advice you could give.


Ana said...

I discovered your blog when writing a poem citing quenepas...
I grew up smelling these fragant gifts from nature, also mangoes and acerolas, surrounded by them.

Your images on Puerto Rico's theme are awesome, beautiful, delicious!
Green love from this island!

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Vegease said...

I'm going to Puerto Rico in May. Renting a condo so I'll have a kitchen, but would love to visit a few vegan you still have the list? Would you share?

Vegease said...

Hi There, Thanks for stopping by. Hope you have a great trip.

I was in Old San Juan for my trip. 2 Places to try

1. 216 Calle Tetuan - Verde Mesa....Vegetarian and Vegan Friendly, Very good

2. Mojitos - I spoke to David (he stands outside and "directs" tourists into the restaurant) and let him know I didn't eat any animal products. He steered me through the menu and made great suggestions of things that were made without animal products - Black Beans, Yellow Rice, Green Plantain Soup, Tostones and the Mofongo Relleno can be made with a delicious vegetable stuffing.

Hope you have a great time.

Es un Isla Encate!

Anna E Ortiz said...

Hi.. I live in PR. And I want to tell you how I enjoy reading your article. I'm very glad you had such a good time, good food and fruits and good company. Thanks for so nice words. Come back!