Friday, August 27, 2010

Eating in the Caribbean - St. Thomas, Dominica & Barbados

Happy Cow is a great website for finding veg friendly restaurants in areas that you're unfamiliar with. I like it better than just doing a Google search, because Google doesn't have filters to realize that a sushi restaurant isn't veg friendly just because they have avocado rolls. I was happy to see that they have a section for the Caribbean, and had quite a few entries for the islands I'd be traveling to.

St. Thomas
I was really excited to try out Rootsie's Ital. Jeff and I were supposed to go SCUBA in the morning, but unfortunately our excursion was canceled, so we figured we'd take a leisurely walk to Charlotte Amalie, which is St. Thomas's downtown. While we wound up taking a taxi (asking for directions is moot, the taxi drivers will tell you that it's in a different direction than it is, or that it's too far to walk, because they want your business) we did wind up walking for quite a way trying to find Rootsie's, which is off the tourist map.

Jeff and I found Rootsie's, and saw that it didn't open until 11, giving us about an hour to kill. We went to a smoothie shop and got smoothies and chatted with the waiter about the oil spill, Arizona's ridiculous immigration law, and other news. I was mildly surprised that the smoothies were made from frozen fruit, given the fact that we were in the home of fresh mangos, bananas and other tropical fruits. St. Thomas is a small island, and I'm not sure how much food they grow, much less how much food they grow that doesn't get exported.

Unfortunately, we found out from a local on our walk back to Rootsie's that it's closed on Mondays... and our ship was only in the harbor for that one Monday. Giant bummer! We were 0 for 1 but determined not to let that get us down. Plenty more islands to come!

(Just a note, on our taxi to Megan's Bay later in the day we did notice a possibly veggie place called Natural Livity but it was too late for us to try it out.)

Our next port of call was Dominica, an island totally unspoiled by 5 star hotels, casinos and endless duty free diamond shops. Dominica is very mountainous and lush, and is great for people who enjoy hiking. Jeff and I got to experience the rain forest as it is at its most unforgiving, as we got thoroughly soaked from head to toe on our hike to Middleham Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park.

Back downtown in Roseau, we were hoping to check out Natural Livity but the address brought us to a large, closed wooden door labeled cafeteria or some such. (Is this related to the place in St. Thomas? Not sure!) We were really disappointed, now being 0 for 2, and anticipating greasy veggie burgers back on the ship. But we managed to run into my sister, brother in law and parents, and wound up getting 3 dollar rum punches that made us forget all of our worries. We also checked out the marketplace and I bought a few jars of my favorite hot sauce, which I'd been looking to restock since my last trip to the Caribbean in 2008.

Cutting Barbados is probably the polar opposite of Dominica. It's flat, it's covered with commercial outlets and it was bone dry the day we docked. According to Happy Cow, we had a lot of options in Bridgetown, but we managed to actually find Pure Food Vegetarian Cafe, so that's where we went.

Pure Food is very humble inside, with a very short cafeteria-style line. You can pick what you want to eat, it's served up on a plate, and you pay and eat. I was somewhat unsure of how much food we could get away with packing on our plates, and no prices were listed anywhere, but Jeff and I were determined to eat a hearty vegan meal. I got the rice and beans (no pork bones to worry about here!), and Jeff got the gluten (we would call them seitan cutlets), chickpeas and roasted veggies. We shared some mango lemonade.

Rice and Beans The food was delicious! And the two people working there were quite friendly as well. I'm not sure how many tourists they get in their restaurant but we were the only two there at the time. While our plates weren't "full" by US restaurant standards, we were very satisfied at the end of our meals. The gluten was very well flavored, and my rice and beans were savory and delicious. I was very excited to finally get to eat real rice and beans in the Caribbean.

I will definitely go to Pure Food Vegetarian Cafe again if I ever return to Barbados.

Stay tuned next time for the rest of the islands, a look at Caribbean beers and breweries, and a Carnival Cruise survival guide. Go read part one where I write about eating in Puerto Rico.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Eating in the Caribbean

Jeff and I have been back from the Caribbean for a week, and the time has flown by really fast. We came home to an infestation of bed bugs and piles of work to catch up on, so I haven't had much time to think about blogging until now.

We spent a few days in Puerto Rico, followed by a cruise to St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and St. Maarten / St. Martin. This post will be the first in a series of posts on some of the delicious foods we ate on the islands, and either Jeff or I will write a follow-up post on how to eat on a Carnival Cruise.

Puerto Rico
We all stayed at a hotel in Isla Verde, which is very near the airport and a short taxi drive to the cruise docks. This strip is home to lots of hotels and several restaurants all within walking distance. It is also home to a cock fighting establishment, which I obviously never intend to step foot in. Lupis Mexican Grill, which is apparently a chain, resides here and serves a veggie burger that tastes of the dead cow that was previously fried on the grill. It's okay if you want to eat, but not if you want a meal. Platos is also near Lupis but actually serves Puerto Rican food. My entire family walked over for dinner on our first night in town, and Jeff and I scoured the veg options. We asked the waiter for help and he was able to suggest mofongo, made without any butter. (At first he seemed aghast that mofongo be made without butter, "but that's how it's made!") Mofongo is a dish of mashed plantains, and ours featured an array of grilled veggies inside. It is very delicious, starchy without tasting anything like mashed potatoes.

By far the best restaurant I've eaten at in Puerto Rico is Cafe Berlin. Located in the heart of Old San Juan overlooking a statue of Columbus himself, Cafe Berlin serves vegeterian, vegan and omni cuisine and is pretty much guaranteed to make any member of your family happy. The hardest part is deciding what to order. Jeff ordered the veggie steak, which I'd had before. Served with a savory gravy with some mushrooms and potatoes, the "steak" is soft but substantial. It would probably be divine if a little bit more firm, but even if the texture wasn't quite there, the taste was. I had the coconut-tomato tofu, which was a nice hefty chunk of tofu served in a delicious sauce made from (you guessed it) tomato and coconut. I thought the combination to be odd, but the two flavors made a great marriage. It was served with some mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables, including carrots, which I ate. (I generally hate carrots, but only when they taste like raw carrots. These were cooked to mushy perfection, in my opinion.) To top it all off I had a mango smoothie, making Jeff regret not ordering one as well. My mom ordered a banana smoothie which was just as good. (Photo credits: my mom)

In driving around Puerto Rico to various locations (caves in Camuy, El Yunque rainforest and the Aricebo Observatory) we drove by lots of produce stands on the sides of the street. That and a lot of small BBQ shacks where people grill and sell (mostly, I think) dead animals. While the BBQ shacks were not my thing, we stopped at a produce cart and I had the most delicious banana ever. Anything I've eaten in the northern latitudes of the US just can not compare. The first remarkable thing about the banana was its heft and size. Biting into the banana yielded an incredible tender, juicy and sweet fruit. I had a "banana" in my cereal this morning and it was disappointing, even though I still love bananas. Chances are good that you've never had a plant ripened banana before if you live in cold climates. Just as a vine ripened tomato far surpasses the taste of anything you'll get shipped from thousands of miles away and ripened by gas in a truck, a fresh picked banana is truly a delight. (Photo credit: my mom)

But if I thought the bananas were delicious, I had only to sink my teeth into a mango to learn the taste of pure heaven. The tender flesh yielded easily to my bite, and I had to be careful not to let the juicy nectar spill all over my face. The mangos were easy enough to peel by hand so we could eat them in the car. (We couldn't wait to try them out!) Jeff and I had a hard time sharing, even though we had purchased several mangoes.

By far the strangest fruit I've eaten, and a new one for me was the canepa. This is a tiny little green ball about the size of one of those big shooter marbles. You peel back the slightly bumpy skin and pop the entire fruit into your mouth, being careful not to eat the large pit. There isn't much flesh in a canepa, and eating one is more like sucking on a lollipop than doing any real chewing and swallowing. Canepas reminded me of strange jellied concoctions you generally find in Asian grocery stores. Honestly, I felt that they were too much effort for little reward, but they seem to be a favored fruit in Puerto Rico. Definitely worth trying if you're up for something different.

On our last evening in Puerto Rico we took an excursion to the Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques. Easily one of the most impressive places I have ever been in my life, the bay is inhabited by countless dinoflagellates that luminesce when agitated. Put in simpler terms, if you swim in the bay at night, the water around you will glow a shade of blue. It is an amazing sight to behold, and my sister, dad, Jeff and I were all sad to have to eventually leave the water to go back to our hotel on the main island. We booked the trip to Bio Bay through a company whose name I can't recall, but they offered a dinner as part of the trip. Jeff and I knew better than to get to the boat hungry, so we grabbed some take-out Chinese food on our way. The menu was presented to us before we got on the boat to Vieques, where we were to pick our option so it would be ready when we got there. We were pleased to see vegetarian options with mofongo listed as well as rice and beans. Having found out at Platos that mofongo is made with butter, we opted for the rice and beans. Settled into a beautiful boat ride with loads of rum drinks, we enjoyed some time with my family until we got to Vieques. A short bus ride brought us to the restaurant where we awaited our food and chatted with other people headed on the excursion. The rice came out first, and Jeff and I happily started eating. Next the beans, which I heaped over my rice, and I started chowing down. As did Jeff, but when he overturned his bowl of beans, out popped a pork bone. As we made this discovery, the waitress brought us some steamed veggies topped with a pat of butter. We put our forks down and were just glad to have found out the truth behind our meal, and that we had already eaten something earlier.

All in all, our experience in Puerto Rico was lots of fun. Two years ago when I went to Puerto Rico with my parents, sister and brother in law, we only stayed for an overnight which was not enough time to really experience the island.

Stay tuned for a summary of the delicious food, and more pictures, from other Caribbean islands.