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trip to San Juan

A few weeks ago I excitedly told you about my upcoming trip to a warmer climate. Sadly, I have since returned to the frozen tundra of central Minnesota, but it was beyond fabulous to get away and get closer to the equator for a few days!

Palm trees at the Hilton Caribe in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Between a family vacation, a surprise Christmas gift trip, and tagging along to a conference, I went on kind of a three-fold trip. San Juan, Puerto Rico was the last stop on my southern jaunt, and it was so fun to experience the culture, scenery, and FOOD from a new place.

It was my first trip to the United States-owned island, which I’m told is on track to eventually become a state. Traveling was a breeze (you know, other than the standard TSA inspections, overpriced airport food, and everlasting security lines…;)) since no passport is required!

Being a student of the beautiful yet completely impractical French language as a high schooler, it did feel as if I was in a foreign country with all the Spanish greetings, road signs, and communication in general. It’s on my bucket list to learn some basic Spanish someday, but my rusty Spanglish served me just fine for the most part. 🙂 I use enough Spanish phrases in my HR job to communicate what I need to, and it seemed like a good portion of San Juan natives spoke passable English, as well.

While in San Juan, I stayed at the Caribe Hilton – the first Hilton hotel outside of the continental United States.

Let me preface this by saying that I haven’t stayed at many Hiltons in my day – my family of origin has always been a penny-pinching Super 8 and Motel 6 kinda crew – but I honestly had higher expectations for such a well-known, celebrity-surrounded hotel chain (Hello, Paris?). My room had gaps around the windows and could have used some serious TLC all around, which was a bit disappointing. From what I heard, though, the hotel’s in the middle of a big renovation, and I just happened to have one of the rooms that hadn’t yet been updated.

Hammock at the Hilton Caribe in San Juan, Puerto Rico

The rest of the grounds, however, were beautiful and inviting. Yes, the age of the place shows. But that’s part of its charm! Thick rock walls almost reminiscent of something from The Little Mermaid surround the hotel’s oceanfront property, and there’s an air of tranquility wherever you roam. From the hammocks strewn between palm trees, to the chaise lounges scattered around the pool, to the incredible mattress-padded beds perfect for sunbathing, the Caribe Hilton was an ideal place to lounge.

The hotel also has the cutest 1960s sign still intact, Jetsons-style architecture near the pool, and a few other reminders of eras past mixed in with comfortable, modern updates.

The cloudy weather during most of the week didn’t even bother me! San Juan felt like paradise in the midst of my Minnesota winter. Ahhh…

Starbucks Frappuccino from the Hilton Caribe in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Best part? There were two Starbucks locations at the Caribe Hilton – one near the hotel lobby and another right next to the pool. Let’s just say it was SO convenient that I gained a minimum of five pounds just from blended coffees this trip.

Right away, I tried a pastry called a “quesito.” I’d definitely never spotted one of these on the mainland! The quesitos are long, flaky pastries traditionally filled with cream cheese. Of course, I went for the kind with Nutella added. Not bad, not bad!

Nutella quesito from Starbucks at the Hilton Caribe in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Plus, the Starbucks in Puerto Rico had coconut mocha Frappuccinos! Is this a thing throughout the continental states, too? I had never seen these before, and they were completely decadent. Please comment if you’ve spotted them locally!

The hotel also had a nice breakfast buffet at Palmeras. Most of my morning meals, as mentioned, came from one Starbucks or the other, but I tried the buffet one day just to see what kind of local cuisine was offered.

Buffet breakfast from Palmeras at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico

The above is my very unprofessional shot of my pastry-filled breakfast plate. Usually I’m going crazy with my DSLR, but I forced myself to leave it behind most of the time so I could experience a true vacation – pure relaxation, no heavy lenses or hurting shoulders. Just me and my camera phone, blurry photos or otherwise.

The photographer in me went a little crazy over my missing “limb”, but I highly recommend this form of unplugging, at least for part of any vacation! It was much-needed.

Cafeteria Tropical in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Outside of the hotel, we instantly discovered this hole-in-the-wall favorite simply labeled as “Cafeteria.” It looked like a convenience store, but the tiny restaurant was attached, and I went there more than once for Puerto Rico’s signature mofongo.

I think the garlic chicken mofongo took home the prize as my favorite, but the chicken with red sauce was delicious as well, as was the shrimp variety.

Chicken mofongo with red sauce and mayoketchup from Cafeteria Tropical in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Mofongo is basically an edible bowl made with smashed green plantains and filled with your meat of choice. The plantains themselves, since they are not ripe, are rather neutral in taste, but they make a wonderful savory dish when combined with pork rinds, garlic and other specialty flavors.

Plantains are served in many forms on the island, like in these chicken tostadas from Rosa Mexicano:

Chicken and black bean plantain tostadas from Rosa Mexicano in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Also from Rosa Mexicano: a side of plantains – ripe ones this time – served with crema and queso fresco. The sour cream-like topping and crumbly cheese were a great match for these sweet, ripe plantains! Plantains are similar to bananas, but while bananas might not make sense in this type of recipe, for plantains it just works!

Rosa Mexicano was spendier than most typical Mexican restaurants, so I’m not sure I would venture there for a classic Mexican meal, but it was definitely fun to try the plantain-centered dishes. I love absorbing the local cuisine as much as possible when I’m in a new place!

I didn’t only eat plantains on my trip (although I very much had my share! :)) – I also enjoyed the mahi-mahi tacos from the same Cafeteria Tropical.

Mahi-mahi tacos from Cafeteria Tropical in San Juan, Puerto Rico

The fish tacos, like most things in Puerto Rico, are served with “mayoketchup,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Mayonnaise and ketchup come together in a basic spread, sometimes with added flavors like garlic or spicy chiles. The finished tacos were a perfect blend of soft, crispy, and just a little spicy. Muy bueno!

I also tried black bean croquettes with cilantro sauce and chimichurri…

Black bean croquettes with cilantro sauce and chimichurri from Pina Colada Club at the Caribe Hilton

…and guyaba (guava) empanadas with coconut ice cream at the Caribe Hilton’s Piña Colada Club. Both were yummy, but you know me and my sweet tooth! I especially liked the dessert in all its creamy, guava goodness. 🙂

Guyaba empanadas with coconut ice cream from Pina Colada Club at the Caribe Hilton
Guyaba empanadas with coconut ice cream from Pina Colada Club at the Caribe Hilton

Fun fact: the piña colada was originally invented at the Caribe Hilton!

Well, maybe. Two competing legends dispute the origin of the famed tropical drink. One story suggests that it was invented at a popular Puerto Rican restaurant; another insists it originated with a bartender at the Caribe Hilton.

The world may never know.

(Nor will this prohibitionist, but I will gladly slurp every last drop of a pineapple-coconut smoothie! Pineapple juice + Coco Lopez = to die for! Try it sometime – you’ll love it!)

To state the obvious: I enjoyed plenty of good Puerto Rico eats on my first trip to the island! I’m already missing all the mofongo and scoping out the local grocery stores for some solid plantains to add to my diet.

The definite winner of the entire trip, though, was Restaurante Raices. Y-U-M. My lovely Puerto Rican friend Marie recommended the restaurant, and she knocked it out of the park with this one! Restaurante Raices is a popular stop for good reason, and it did not disappoint.

Surf and turf mofongo from Restaurante Raices in San Juan, Puerto Rico

I, Ms. Monfongo, tried the surf and turf mofongo. I probably would have liked a chicken or shrimp version even better, but that plantain bowl? Amazing. So garlicky and filling. I could have spooned just the bowl into my mouth and left a happy camper.

I also talked my tablemates into sampling some other specialties. Ceviche…

Ceviche from Restaurante Raices in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Beef empanadas with mayoketchup…

Empanadas from Restaurante Raices in San Juan, Puerto Rico

And the showstopper: the chuleta kan-kan. Holy pork chop! This pig was HUGE.

Chuleta Kan-Kan from Restaurante Raices in San Juan, Puerto Rico (giant pork dish!)

Oh, yeah, and there was also this little thing called piña colada flan. It was the best thing I ate on my trip. No further words are needed.

Piña Colada Flan from Restaurante Raices in San Juan, Puerto Rico

I also downed some incredible tres leches cake from El Picoteo de Tapas y Paellas at Hotel El Convento (a former convent, which was pretty cool to dine at), chewy and buttery coconut candies that nearly every vendor was selling, and far too many Frappuccinos.

You get the picture. San Juan was a great place to visit (especially in chilly February!) and I had a blast exploring everything the island had to offer. I’ll post the few actual non-camera photos I have in the near future but until then, stay warm and try mofongo! It’s pretty awesome.

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