Running on Quenepa Fuel
On a recent vacation, the search for a first meal on a new island became a bigger ordeal than expected. A few friends and I had just landed in Puerto Rico, in the mood for some serious eating. After narrowly escaping the repercussions of an online car rental scam, we were car-less and found that a Denny’s fast food joint was the only eating option around. We were stuck on a highway, a good thirty-minute drive from our hostel in Old San Juan and definitely not a walking distance from any decent eatery. Getting past some collective indecisiveness, we finally agreed to call a cab to our hostel, in order to drop off our belongings before looking for a place to eat.
Upon our arrival in San Juan, we were hoping to sample some traditional fare immediately. It became apparent that this part of town, with its charming narrow streets, was home to some classy fusion restaurants, including Middle Eastern and sushi spots. But there was no “Puerto Rican” restaurant in sight. Searching for as long as our stomachs could handle, our first meal in Puerto Rico somehow ended up being at a South Indian restaurant.
Following a full afternoon exploring Viejo San Juan and right before catching some excellent live salsa at the Nuyorican Café, we finally encountered a restaurant boasting traditional Puerto Rican food. Feeling quite happy with ourselves, we snagged an outdoor table, and after confidently deciding on our preferred dishes, the waiter came over. Except he wasn’t asking for our order. He informed us that regretfully, their kitchen had just closed.
Our eating choices at this point were a pizza place and a Peruvian ceviche bar. We went for the latter because, well, at least they offered tostones on their menu.
Over the next several days we had increasing luck in sampling foods of a more local nature. I had mofongo—a traditional dish made of fried plantains mashed together—with shrimp. Thanks to kitchen access and the master culinary skills of one of our group, we ate several delicious meals of rice and beans, complemented nicely by the island’s variety of avocado.
The trip’s focus, however, became the island’s fruits. At breakfast we’d have papayas, pineapples, and mangoes. We kept guineos niños, little bananas, handy at all times. On the island of Culebra, a 1.5 hour ferry ride from the mainland, we ate guanábanas—a round pulpy green fruit with the consistency of a banana—and parchas, a kind of passion fruit. Coconut trees were plentiful, and one hot afternoon we had a coco frío each, drinking straight from the fruit with a straw.
And at all times throughout the entire trip, we were graced with the companionship of quenepas. I can best describe a quenepa as a lychee with a large pit, whose pulp is both sweet and tangy. Eating it is almost like sucking on a candy. In short, there may not exist a more addictive fruit, given their small size and especially because there seemed to be no shortage wherever we went.
We had quenepas as we lounged on the grass outside the colonial fort, El Morro, listening to the whistle-like call of the coquí (which, by the way, is not a bird). We had quenepas as we sat watching for shooting stars in the sky. Missing two ferry rides in a row to get to Culebra, we occupied ourselves with quenepa consumption in the otherwise-bland waiting room. As we walked along Culebra’s paradisiacal Flamenco Beach at night, there were quenepas to be had. We stopped for roadside quenepas on our drive to a beach at Cabo Rojo, at the southwest corner of Puerto Rico on the island’s Caribbean side. (Despite our earlier troubles, we had eventually been able to secure a car rental.) We discovered an underground produce market in our fierce campaign for a quenepa fix. We ate quenepas at the airport. I finished my stash of quenepas my first day back in New York. I’ve since had dreams about quenepas.
I’m not quite sure what I expected in my five days in Puerto Rico, but nothing happened quite exactly as anyone anticipated. My exposure to its gastronomy offered many surprises, including the fact that it wasn’t particularly dish-oriented. While there may be more to the cuisine that I didn’t discover in this trip, my experience couldn’t have been richer.