I sure enjoy fine dining. But when presented with coffee and a fried egg sandwich straight outta the back of a van in Puerto Rico, that’s cool, too. In fact, on a recent trip to the airport — that’s exactly what we did. Can’t be much different than a food truck, right? That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Mr. Wonderful and I were awaiting an early morning departure to Isla Culebra from San Juan when an old white van backed up to the glass doors at the front entrance of the airport. (I tried to imagine this happening in the States.) A man they call Domi is there every morning, according to the gate agent, so we walked over to the van in in search of caffeine. There, we found him cheerfully handing out tiny cups of coffee sweetened to high heaven with brown sugar. (This is how many Puerto Ricans take their coffee.)
Mr. Domi proceeded to offer me a sample of everything he brought with him on this overcast Friday morning. His salt and pepper mustache twitched as he mumbled through the menu: Café. Sopas. Jugos. Mallorcas. Every snack had its place behind the back seat, where he warmed my fried egg sandwich on a hot plate with jamon y queso. And then:
“Pruebalo! Pruebalo!” he urged, shaking a jug of thick red liquid he called “Dracula.”
For some reason, I did not retreat when he offered me a cup — even after that nickname. I wanted to be polite, so I gave the ole antibodies a quick pep talk and took a sip. Mr. W eyed me suspiciously. He knew what I was thinking.
Am I gonna be allergic to something in this? I’m totally gonna break out in hives. Manners will be the death of me.
The juice was thick and sweet — a Puerto Rican V8, maybe? Lord only knows. I asked Domi what the drink was made from, but the only part of his response that I could make out was zanahorrias, aka: carrots. Now I’ve never met burgundy carrots, but I suppose I could have overlooked that booth at the Austin farmer’s market.
After the questionable apéritif, Domi handed me a little Styrofoam cup packed with arroz con gandules, the island’s national dish. Now we’re talkin’. The soupy snack was chock full of rice, peas and thick chunks of what I can only assume was ham. Jamon is a part of nearly every dish in PR — and reminiscent of many meals I had in España.
I gotta say, the unexpected sampler was quite an introduction to Puerto Rican street food. The airport snacks were surpassed only by the spicy chicken pinchos we bought at the park in Fajardo the next night from the guy who taught me how to dance La Plena — a native folk genre of music with hand drums. I didn’t tell him about the half a dozen years I spent in Mexican folkloric dance boot camp as a kid. I had to laugh at the surprised look on his face when I caught on.
It’s all in the hips.