Puerto Rico, Part One: Street Food and El Yunque

Twelve years ago we went on a pre-wedding “honeymoon” to Isle Royale National Park.  The island is accessible only by boat or plane, so we ventured out on the first Ranger III of the season (so it was the two of us and some fish and wildlife guys, wandering around on a huge boat). We spent nine days backpacking around the island.  It was below freezing every night, and we shared the island with wolves, loons, moose, aggressively hungry squirrels, and a handful of other humans.  We ran out of food while miles away from the only store, seriously risked hypothermia, and slept in three-sided shelters or on the ground.  We also saw a spontaneous emergence of winged insects over a little inland pool, went to sleep every night to the howl of the wolves, interacted with all manner of non-human life, and generally had the most amazing experience.
It was, as they say, epic.
While we have done a lot of traveling in the years since that trip, most of it has involved conferences, cooking events, or family visits.  We felt that it was time for another epic experience.  With that goal in mind, we decided on Puerto Rico, being drawn in by the rain forest, the food, and the history of the island–one that has been marked by colonialism and occupation.  I took roughly 8.2 billion photos while we were there, so narrowing down the pool was pretty tough.  For this chapter, I wanted to show you all some of the street food we ate while on the island, as well as a small snapshot of the stunningly lush rainforest, El Yunque.
Our morning view from Hotel Milano, in Old San Juan

Mofongo is something of the national dish in Puerto Rico, and there are dozens of variations on the basic theme, which is fried green plantains that are mashed with garlic and (typically) pork fat and/or cracklings.  It was the first thing I ordered when we arrived, and this introductory dish was the best I had during the trip–maybe because it was first?  Possibly.  This one was topped with shrimp and a sauce criolla.

We sampled at least a half dozen different mofongos, including versions made with yuca and cassava, some with sauce, some filled…mofongo is a beautiful, variable thing.  I am pretty sure that the two pounds I gained were due to the excessive consumption of mofongo (and, possibly, rum–more on that in another post).  Puerto Rican street food is not what you would call light fare.  For lunch one day we stopped at a row of roadside “kiosks,” each displaying a wide variety of deep fried foods, arepas, whole fried fish, sausages…

Morcilla, a spicy blood sausage
Fresh oyster kiosk–there were water birds patrolling this one

We ordered a few things to share, and found them to be greasy but tasty.  The seafood rice had shrimp, a mild spice, and bits of chewy conch:

The pastele was our least favorite, as it was both bland and greasy.  I have had much better versions (but this one was cheap!).  The little rectangle in the back is the pastele, which is made like a tamale with a plantain “masa” filled with savory fillings.  We also sampled a plantain “pie” stuffed with ground beef that had a picadillo sweet-sour flavor, and it was tasty.

To work off some of the street food, we spent the better part of a day hiking around in El Yunque (lots of hills, so it burned off some of those plantains).  There is no real way to do justice in photos, but here are a few to give you a glimpse.  To get a more realistic and visceral experience, view these in a very hot room, while misting yourself constantly with warm water.  It was hot, it was humid, it was as if we were in a rain forest or something.

Gingers, bird of paradise, and hibiscus growing wild, often in large swaths
I have kind of a thing for snails, and these guys were everywhere–huge
Beautiful, in an alien kind of way
Just a gorgeous, tropical waterfall
The consistently-slippery trail

That’s about all I can cram into this post, but I will be regaling you with picture of rum drinks and architecture in my next post.  Hey, I didn’t take all of those pictures for nothing…

Thanks for reading,


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13 Responses to Puerto Rico, Part One: Street Food and El Yunque

  1. Lisa @ Snappy Gourmet May 25, 2012 at 1:20 am #

    Great photos!! And now I'm hungry!

  2. Steven Merkel May 25, 2012 at 2:50 am #

    Wow! This IS truly epic! Even without the mention of squirrels, it may have still been a fantastic read.

  3. Angela May 25, 2012 at 3:34 am #

    Steve, you know I love squirrels! There was one particular squirrel on Isle Royale that literally would park right on top of the backpack, trying to get at the gorp inside. A really industrious squirrel.

  4. Eric B. May 25, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Love the pix, and the food looks tasty also!

  5. Denise Heikinen May 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    Great pics! I love the pastele description as "both bland and greasy." You don't see those adjectives in a food blog often. Very epic! 🙂

  6. Karen Harris May 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    I've been anticipating this post. Beautiful photos Angela. I've been craving a little street food from somewhere and of course, a little rum. Thanks for satisfying on of those cravings.

  7. Angela May 25, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    Karen, I am working on a more rum-saturated post 🙂

  8. Angela May 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Yeah, it was both! Plus, it wasn't even fried, so it was odd.

  9. Angela May 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Thanks! More coming up.

  10. Cathy Wiechert May 26, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Nice! I'm looking forward to seeing the rest. 🙂

  11. SKIP TO MALOU May 27, 2012 at 5:26 am #

    When you mentioned Puerto Rico and street food on the title, I thought I would see food that are similar to ours. I know Puerto Rico and our Filipino food have so many things in common. Maybe on your part 2 haha. Twas really an epic and thank you for taking us with you.

  12. Angela May 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Cathy, I think I could have bored everyone with about ten posts, but I tried to restrain myself 🙂

  13. Angela May 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    I don't know enough about Filipino food, so I need to learn! Thanks for stopping by.

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