Before I decided to try Old San Juan, I was like most Americans: indifferent to the differences between Latin American/Caribbean cuisines.
We all think we know what would consist of a dish from this region: rice, beans, with some pork or goat. Unfortunately, when we think like that we deny ourselves an opportunity to experience another culture, another way of life from our own that is both unique and yet similar to our own.
Personally, whenever I heard of someone eating Cuban food, I thought it was just rice, beans, maybe some chorizo and plantains. I gave it very little thought, like most things in my every day life. Perhaps they were eating a Cuban sandwich; a sandwich that I knew was on long, flat bread…and that’s all I knew. Probably some pork.
In fact growing up all I had heard about Cuba was that it was a place that Americans couldn’t go. I left it at that, and moved on.
Before I thought of reviewing Old San Juan for the blog, I never considered it as a viable dining option. Old San Juan, on Surfside Drive next to a laundromat with a broke front window, suffers from being one of those places that some wouldn’t frequent unless they were convinced by word of mouth from a close friend.
When I first walked into Old San Juan, I was a little skeptical; there was a TV showing a band playing and yet the TV itself was muted, few tables, and I was uncertain whether I was supposed to order at my table or at the counter. We decided to sit at the table and look at the menu, and that’s when a lady who worked there came over to take our order. The staff speaks very little English, however the international language of “pointing at the menu” sufficed.
First meal up was the ropa vieja, aka “Old Clothes”. Yes, it is Spanish for “Old Clothes”, and I have no idea where the name comes from. Actually, no one really does; the story goes that a man was so poor that to feed his family, he tried to boil some old clothes for a meal, and when he took the clothes out of the pot, out came some delicious food. Sounds…reasonable. The dish originates in the Canary Islands, so maybe you should ask them. Ropa vieja is shredded beef with onion, green peppers and garlic in a light tomato sauce (most Cuban food has a light sauce), and since it was the lunch portion it came with white rice, black beans, two slices of Cuban bread and two pieces of sweet, sweet plantains. Now remember, this is a lunch portion. There was enough food for three meals!
I take back everything. I’ve never said anything bad about Cuban cuisine, but I regret those days where I didn’t care about trying Cuban food. This…this was divine! It’s a bit pricy ($12) but you’re getting enough food for two or three people. Goes great with a Coke, which I’m sure is what the originators of this meal were going for.
The REAL star of this meal, however, was what I ordered as a side dish: the papas rellenas. These little puffy potato pockets are stuffed with spiced ground beef, and fried to golden perfection. Picture a knish stuffed with ground beef, and that’s exactly what this is. If you don’t know what a knish is, I don’t know what to tell you. If I wasn’t so full of old clothes, I would have ordered more of these. The best part about the papas rellenas – besides their price ($2 for two) – is that they’re portable, meaning you don’t have to sit down at a table to be able to enjoy them, as they’re actually street food in Cuba.
Another visit had me ordering a to-go item: a Cuban Sandwich. What I received was more of an ironing board than a sandwich, as this thing was long and heavy. This one sandwich fed me throughout the entire day, and I’m a pretty big man. A Cuban sandwich consists of pickles, chorizo, Swiss cheese, mustard, ham and pork on Cuban bread. The Cuban bread was extremely salty, which I’ve learned is the norm. I enjoyed the whole thing, although I would have preferred more meat in the sandwich.
But again, the side item was bigger and better than the meal itself. The real deal was the Mamey milkshake; Mamey being a type of sweet fruit that grows in Central America and kind of looks like a fuzzy orange. I ordered a medium shake for only $1.25, and I finished the entire thing during my five-minute drive to work. It wasn’t that small of a cup, but I just couldn’t stop drinking it. I know others have said “you have to try the milkshakes” but really…you have to try the milkshakes. I have had the Mamey, the Mango and the Pina Colada, but the Mamey is the one I’d follow into a burning building.
Of course it wouldn’t be a fair review if I didn’t go back for at least one more meal, and on my last meal I ordered a simple dish, the roast pork. Topped with onions and spiced with some pepper and garlic, it was decent. It was somewhat of a let down from the first two meals, but not enough to deter me from going back, which I have several times – for some more papas rellenas.
I went into Old San Juan with little appreciation and even less care towards a cuisine and culture I knew little to nothing about. I left there with a curiosity and zeal for learning more and more about what I was eating, and what influenced that cuisine. That’s what food does: it forces us to either sit back and rest on what’s comfortable, or to test ourselves and experience what the world has to offer. Before a few weeks ago, I had neither a need nor a want for Cuban food. Now it’s hard to imagine anything more delicious.