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!