My good friend is leaving for Puerto Rico today, so to follow through on a last minute promise, here is my version of what’s good in Puerto Rico–to eat, see, and enjoy–based on the three months I lived there in 2007. The first installment is about an area of San Juan I frequented regularly:
On Thursday and Friday nights, the bars surrounding this market plaza are so packed with locals that the crowds spill out into the street, where they dance to live music, gather around tables with beers and fried seafood, and socialize beneath the large trees that line the plaza. I was there about twice a week, but it was usually at midday, instead of midnight.
This is because the Placita de Santurce is also home to a farmer’s market where you can find the best fresh fruits and veggies in the city. Inside the plaza’s turn-of-the-century structure, you can find everything from red bananas to yellow avocados. One vendor sells exotic herbs like yerbabuena, wild tarragon, and Puerto Rican lemongrass—all especially good for flavoring cocktails like mojitos.
Another yummy add-in for mojitos is my favorite Puerto Rican fruit: guama de la India. Native guamas grow on trees, inside large green pods that look like giant peas. But in the summer, they are out of season, so, to keep up with year-round demand, another kind of guama tree was imported from India. Its fruit looks like an orange teardrop with tender white flesh inside—and the taste is like nothing else. It has the fresh, pine-y taste of juniper berry, the tartness of lychee, and the sweetness of Muscat grapes. You can’t go to PR without trying one…or twenty.
The Ramirez family sells guamas at their large stand in the center of the market. They also sell rum bottles full of homemade aji (spicy pepper sauce), which make for great souvenirs. Across the aisle, there is a dried spice vendor that sells the best sea salt I have ever tried. It comes from Cabo Rojo, on the other side of the island. This salt was so good that it warranted a pilgrimage on my part (see part III).
The most expensive item at the market is a $5 quart-sized bag of freshly shelled beans. Still pulsing with life, they are off-white with pink spidery lines encasing a green core. They take only 10 minutes to cook, and are another must if you’ve only had dried or canned beans all your life.
Outside the market, there is a ferreteria that looks small from the front, but their huge back room is stacked to the ceiling with shelves full of vintage cookware—some still in the original packaging. It takes some digging, but you might come away with a $3 Spanish paelleria, a $7 Italian percolator, or a 50-cent Ms. Pacman tablecloth. Bring cash, and be ready to bargain with the cashier if you really want to make your dollar holler.
On the other side of the plaza, on Calle Dos Hermanos, there is a fritura shop that is painted bright orange. The woman inside has great swordfish pinchos (kebabs) for $2, and cups of caldo de pescado (fish broth) for $1. FYI: This fish broth is important because it is a surefire hangover cure. So, you could come here to party all night, get your groceries in the morning, and be ready to hit the town again before sundown.