Old San Juan
Mon, 06/29/09 12:33 PM
I spent just a couple of days in San Juan, PR, late last week. I was there to speak at a conference, and had very limited free time.
On Thursday evening, I went to dinner with my fellow panelists at The Parrot Club in Old San Juan. Although I wouldn't characterize this as "roadfood," the meal was excellent, and I would recommend the place without reservation.
Most of my fellow diners had the house mojito; I had a caipirinha. We all enjoyed our drinks. We shared an assortment of appetizers: calamari, crab fritters, plaintain chips with salsa, etc. They were all delicious, especially the crab fritters.
Most of my fellow diners had some kind of seafood for their entrees; I had the roast pork loin, which was simply delicious. Moist, flavorful, served with some kind of seasoned rice. I am not generally a roast pork fan (although I do love pork barbecue), but this was absolutely fantastic. Portions were generous. Service was attentive without being intrusive. It was lively, even a little chaotic, but a very nice experience.
On Friday afternoon, I walked from my hotel (Caribe Hilton) to Old San Juan. It's about 2 miles, and is a pleasant walk (although the sidewalk abruptly ends here and there and you have to cross the street), but it was a hot day, and even though I had on a straw hat, I got sort of overheated.
I considered touring the fort, but was really just too hot. I did drop by the church of St. Francis Assisi, which was established in about 1746 by the Third Order of St. Francis. (I don't know how much of the building, if any, is original.) Great acoustics in the sanctuary.
I wandered around and checked out a number of the recommended restaurants (La Bombonera; etc.), but frankly, I'd gotten so warm that nothing looked very appealing -- no reflection on the places, just on me. I did pass a pizza place on Calle Luna called Pizzicore which smelled fantastic (like they had a wood oven), but I hadn't come to San Juan to eat pizza.
I finally ended up at Barrachina, which is one of the places in San Juan that claims to have invented the Pina Colada. I got there about 2:30, after the lunch rush, and was offered seating in either the patio or inside in the air conditioned dining room. I chose the patio, which was pleasant. The waiter brought me my Pina Colada almost immediately, and it was very, very good. I still wasn't very hungry (because of the heat), so I decided to order sauteed grouper, creole style, rather than a heavier dish.
Here's where things broke down. The waiter had told me that was a "good choice," so I was pretty confident that I'd have a good meal. However, it took forever to get my food. There were a few other customers eating there, and they were served pretty quickly. But I kept waiting, and waiting. After about 25 minutes, the waiter told me my food was "coming." It arrived shortly after that, with a gratis bowl of bean soup, "to make up for your wait." It was a nice gesture, but I don't like bean soup, so I didn't eat it.
The fish was served in a light creole sauce, topped with shrimp and served with white rice, and steamed broccoli and carrots. The rice and the vegetables and the shrimp were fine. But the fish tasted very odd and smelled and tasted "iodine-y." Not spoiled, exactly, but it just didn't taste right.
I probably should have sent it back. But by that time, I felt like I'd wasted enough time. So I paid the check and left. The cost was comparable to The Parrot Club, but the food was not nearly as good.
I don't necessarily think this is a typical experience at this place. But I wouldn't go back for food. I'd just have a Pina Colada at the bar.
Frankly, I was a little concerned about food poisoning. I didn't get sick, but I did have an intestinal upset early the next morning. It was self-limiting, however, and I don't necessarily blame that particular meal for it. I suppose it could have been anything I consumed while I was there.
I was at the Caribe Hilton, which was the conference hotel. It was fine, but my room (a "junior suite," so-called, but it was really just a large room, though it did have a balcony and, if you craned your neck, a view of the ocean) was a little frayed around the edges. I was traveling alone, so all the amenities that I'm sure appeal to couples and families were lost on me, although I did enjoy walking along the beach.
I was intrigued by the Normandie, an Art Deco hotel built in the 1940s that was nearby. I walked over to check out the interior, and it was a stunning Art Deco "steamship" style design. If I had known a place like that was so convenient to the conference hotel, I probably would have tried to stay there.
The only other thing I'd complain about was that the cab driver who drove the cab I took from my hotel to the airport insisted on allowing his "friend" to come along, saying he'd drop him off "on the way." I asked him if the "friend" was going to pay half my fare to the airport. They ended up taking me to the airport first.
I didn't feel threatened or anything, though as a woman traveling alone I probably should have either gotten out of the cab or insisted the "friend" get out. But I didn't. Nevertheless, it made me mad, and I gave the driver only a small tip. Probably should have stiffed him completely. I also didn't get his cab number or his name, so I couldn't complain to the tourist cab licensing authority. For someone who is an experienced traveler, both in the US and abroad, I handled this about as badly and stupidly as I could have.
This was my first trip to Puerto Rico, although I have been to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica previously. The visit was a mixed bag. As I said, great food at The Parrot Club; lousy food at Barrachina. Good service in some places; bad in others. I guess that's par for the course.
I did pick up a bottle of Ron de Barrillito rum at the airport. Very interesting rum -- aged in oak/sherry casks. Almost like cognac to drink.