La Fiesta de Santiago Apostól, Vejigantes - watercolor by
Antonio Broccoli Porto
Raíces is located a mere three and a half hours away from Tampa on Calle Recinto Sur in Viejo San Juan. This sorta-out-of-the-way dining spot simulates a typical country home circa 1940, with wooden ceilings, open window views to murals of the Puerto Rican countryside, and traditional masks of ‘Vejigantes’. Raíces’s staff also dons the traditional ‘jíbaro’, or peasant attire, to complete the illusion.
It is said that one has not been to Puerto Rico if one has not eaten mofongo, a mashed mound of plantains into which a combination of seafood, meat, or vegetables is added. It can be served as a side dish or a main course accompanied typically by beans and rice. The Belle enjoyed her mashed plaintain wad topped with chimichurri steak. I tried a bite and the steak was very good. To me, mofongo was uninspiring, though she seemed to like her meal choice.
My reason for traveling all the way from Tampa to old San Juan and Raíces was to have my way with their Kan Kan Pork Chop. This is a large chop served with ribs and cuero, or fried pork skin. The Kan Kan is delightfully crunchy, yet tasty, tender and delicious all at the same time. In Puerto Rico they don't breed all of the fat and flavor out of their pork, so you are not left with a tough and dry gob of meat like back home.
Holy moly was that chop ever good! Normally the Kan Kan is served with the traditional rice and beans, but I chose the Mashed Yuca and Garlic.
This was a memorable meal accompanied by several Medalla Lights, a pale lager beer by Compañía Cervecera de Puerto Rico.
While Raíces may seem a bit far from the paradise that is SOG City, a visit is do-able in a day. Depart Tampa around eight in the morning and you are in Puerto Rico around eleven. Do a little sight seeing, then have a late lunch or an early dinner and you can be back in Tampa by ten that night. What a great day trip!
Truth be told, we did not intend to make this a day trip to Puerto Rico. We had planned on several days to eat and explore, but really horrible weather and 'a sniffles with scratchy throat bug' that we picked up before leaving home made us decide to cut this visit short.
We had scheduled several days touring Viejo San Juan, but found that a day of wandering around narrow streets with run down buildings and boarded up store fronts was enough.
Particularly disappointing was the boarded up store front of La Bombonera. This family-run bakery and coffee shop was founded in 1902, and was a favorite of both tourists and locals. We were anxious to try the mallorca con mantequilla (a round, flat pastry dusted with confectioner’s sugar and served with butter), but alas the restaurant had shut down abruptly a week before our arrival.
On the lighter side:
We had wanted to get out of the city to experience the more natural Puerto Rico, but the El Yunque Rain Forest was getting way too much rain, and the wind and waves were making a snorkeling trip iffy to say the least. After two days we decided to cut our losses and head for home.
If we ever make it back to Puerto Rico we will stay far away from San Juan. The people are absolutely wonderful, but from the airport to the city and back reminded me a lot of a similar trip some years back that included Newark, New Jersey, which reminded me of pictures of Beirut, Lebanon. Decay and miles of barbed and concertina wire can be expected in a war zone, but not in a vacation paradise.
The boat people probably got the better deal - chug into harbor, hop off the cruise ship for a couple of hours and then chug on your way.