I’m eating pinto beans, an Appalachian staple, and watching the travel channel — the tail-end of Tony Bourdain in Jamaica, the beginning of Andrew Zimmer in the Philippines. Blue Mountain coffee and duck eggs with 18-week-old embryos… I’m remembering a recent re-run of Bourdain in Puerto Rico eating pork. He claims that Puerto Rican pork is his second favorite. Indonesia makes the best, he says. Since I’ve never been to Indonesia, I can’t make that comparison. So, in my opinion, the best pork in the world is cooked in Puerto Rico.
And I know my pork! I was raised with swine. Not a play on words nor a jab at my relatives — I was literally raised with swine. My dad bought pigs in the spring, we fattened them up over the summer, and they were on the table by Thanksgiving. Although I have always loved animals, I never allowed myself to get too friendly with the pigs. Their ultimate end was not negotiable. My dad, however, fed them and talked to them and gave them treats of fresh-shelled corn. Sometimes he gave them names. I recall Sharp Ears was a favorite. His ears were pointy and stood up like the ears of a doberman. Cute, but in the end cute didn’t make a difference. I was grateful that I was always at school on hog-killing day. By the time I got home, the hams were salted and sugar-cured and hanging in the smokehouse; the meat already ground for sausage was spread out on the kitchen table for mixing with herbs and spices. At the end of the day the hogs were just pork.
Travelers with a lot of time to kill can head for the panoramic route through Puerto Rico’s mountains where locals roast pork on the side of the road. Fresh off the grill always tastes better. But, for most people, San Juan is a quick layover to someplace else, a change of planes enroute to other islands in the Eastern or Southern Caribbean. We did this for twenty-plus years before discovering the treasures of the “rich port” and changing our layovers to stopovers. The pork alone is reason enough to stop over and stay for a day or two.
One of my favorites: the Parrot Club’s pork sandwich. Fortaleza Street, Old San Juan. Fork tender. Smoky and sweet and intensely flavored from hours of marinating in herbs and spices. Down the street from the Governor’s house and the San Juan Cathedral and the Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park), Old San Juan’s most popular meeting place. With fabulous views of San Juan Bay and the suburbs of Bayamon, the park is home to thousands of pigeons and a whole bunch of folks in love or looking for love. It’s fun to grab a sandwich and a Parrot Passion (the signature drink) and then walk off the calories amongst the pigeons.
This oldest of American cities is one of my favorites. Its streets are iron, cobbled with adoquines (blocks of blue swag from the smelting mills of 16-century Spain). It takes awhile to get to know the place. I like to “follow the blue brick road” and see what happens, see what looks good and smells good and feels right. The buildings are medieval, Gothic, baroque, neo-classical…even some Arabian architecture. In this 7-square-block area there are 400 historically important structures with some of the best Spanish colonial architecture in the New World.
I can’t pass Cruz Street without slipping into the Butterfly People Gallery to check out their latest collection. Orange butterflies from Malaysia, yellow from Africa, blue from Australia and Timor, white from South America… Raised in controlled settings around the world, they are collected once they die and the wings turned into art — beautiful compositions created in Puerto Rico and sealed in lucite.
This photo doesn’t do them justice…so check out the Butterfly People Gallery website. The Mascaras shop sells masks for Carnival or to display on a wall or table — every color and style and size imaginable. Funny ones and scary ones. Animals and devils and otherworldly critters…and there are shops with pottery and jewelry and bobbin lace and wood carvings of the saints and other creatures.
If I’m out walking before breakfast, I’ll have to duck into La Bombonera on Calle San Francisco for the homemade mallorcas. These puffy sweet rolls are fresh, hot, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Nothing like them! (I understand La Bombonera and the mallorcas are Benecio del Toro’s favorites, too, when he’s in Puerto Rico.) And the coffee! La Bomb serves up some of the best Puerto Rican coffee in town. On display — a giant, 100-year-old coffee machine.
The old city is definitely the place to eat…besides pork, there are ethnic restaurants of every variety — Italian, French, Indian, Japanese (Dragonfly’s sushi is incredible!), Spanish (my mouth waters just thinking about the tapas at El Picoteo — patatas bravas, lobster empanadas, albondigas — the best marble-sized meatballs in the world). The restaurant Aguaviva is aqua colored like the sea with one-of-a-kind jellyfish lights and serves ceviche in enormous stainless steel bowls. And, of course, there are lots of authentic Puerto Rican places; lots of pork.
Shops, art galleries, museums, cafes, coffee shops, historic sites…I like to stop and browse and eat and take pictures, sit in a plaza and watch the people — old men playing dominoes, young couples holding hands, little kids chasing birds and each other. At the old Spanish fort, El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, there’s a great view of the Atlantic…and the San Juan cemetery with its chalk-white stones…and La Perla in the distance, the often-called “world’s prettiest slum.”
A day of walking, up and down Calles San Francisco, Fortaleza, Cruz, Cristo, and Norzagaray, along the Paseo de la Princesa promenade on the bayfront, with the vendors and the fountains, the statues and the art…it’s a fun place!
Back to the Hotel El Convento, one of my favorites in the Caribbean and Latin America. Built in 1651, it has been a convent, a place to store garbage, and a flophouse. How could you not love a place with such…interesting?…history.
Somehow I’ve gone from pinto beans at lunch time with Bourdain and Zimmer to rummaging through my stacks of cookbooks for Puerto Rican pork recipes. Every cook, including the Parrot Club, keeps his/her pork recipe private. But…this one approximates the “experience.” If you think this is good, pack your bags and head to Puerto Rico for the real deal!
Lomo de cerdo en adobo (marinated pork loin)
1 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin
5 or 6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons dried oregano leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon white wine
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1/8 teaspoon salt, freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Combine all marinade ingredients in a bowl. Score the meat, add to the marinade, and coat on all sides. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours. Cut the meat into 1/2 inch slices and cook on grill or in fry pan in olive oil. Brown on all sides, reduce flame, and continue cooking until meat is just done.