Monthly Archives: April 2011

SoHo Za-Za-Zoo

I headed downtown with reluctance, ready for another disappointment, tired of searching, but – as always – with a twinkle of hope in my increasingly cynical New Yorker eyes. I was beginning to resent swiping my Metrocard at the entrance to the subway, for it only led me onto a train of disappointments.

After searching uptown, where I thought there would be more apartments available and for better prices, the realtor with whom I had been apartment-hunting sent me photos of a small SoHo apartment with black brick walls. SoHo? I thought. Yeah, right

Cherry Blossoms and Sky. Central Park, NYC. (Taken by Blackberry)

The idea of being within walking distance of NYU seemed impossible, so I hadn’t been looking downtown. I looked at a couple Brooklyn apartments (some day, I do think I will end up in Brooklyn if I am still in NYC…), but, in order to get the benefits of cheaper apartments, you’ve got to go deep enough into Brooklyn that the idea of hopping on a train one to two times a day (for science labs, NYU events, using the NYU gym — whatever) buffs the sparkle of Brooklyn down to a dull muted tone. There is a lot of appeal to living in Brooklyn, but I guess this just wasn’t my Brooklyn-year.

I headed down to Canal Street on the 1 train — my loyalty will always be to the 1, no matter where I live — to meet the realtor in front of the SoHo walk-up. While black brick walls aren’t my thing, my quest for the right apartment was becoming thoroughly dehumanizing, and I had to give something different a chance.

SoHo is way too cool and hip for me — I’m a comfort girl. SoHo is like the pair of cute shoes that I figure I should own, but never actually wear because I’m much more comfortable in my Upper West Side-esque flip-flops, alpargatas (actual ones from Argentina, such as these, NOT Tom’s – side note: did you know these currently very popular shoes are Argentine gaucho shoes that Argentines have been wearing forever? Notice the Argentine flag on every pair?), and flats. SoHo is chic, fashionable, designer, white tablecloths. I am sporty/casual, low-maintenance, reusable water bottle, and second-hand table right now.  But I am also something else: open-minded. I had to at least see what a SoHo apartment could look like.

We met downstairs. I immediately felt this neighborhood — the SoHo-Tribeca border with Chinatown and Little Italy just a few blocks away — felt totally not me, in a good way. I’m an uptown girl at heart, but if I could live on the corner of Guanguiltagua y Arosemena Tola en Batan Alto (my Quito address – yeah, I had to carry an index card around my first week), I could probably handle this change of scenery too. South of Houston isn’t South America — what’s the big deal, right?

Bridge in Central Park. NYC. (Taken by Blackberry)

On the corner of my potential future block: a cute Mexican restaurant. SCORE. Also on the block: a mini-supermarket, a pizza place, a cool lounge, and a modern Chinese-comfort food restaurant. All great things. I also like it when buildings have names. This one did. But I’ve stood hopeful outside a building many times. This momentary optimism was usually quickly shut-down upon ascension into the potential digs. According to the photos, this apartment had black walls. That’s a big no-no for me! But I knew that a little paint could fix that — the black walls, at this point, were not a deal-breaker.

We entered the red and white, tiny, tiled lobby. Good vibe. We headed up to the third floor – good: fourth floor or higher apartments were deal-breakers to me (knee trauma), and second or first-floor apartments usually meant noise, garbage, cold, or darkness — all deal-breakers. (I told you, I know what I want.) The staircase was wider than other ones I had seen. I liked this: good for carrying my bike up and down. We got to the door. It had a good number. I walk in, quickly evaluating the tiny but cute kitchen, which opened up into a decent little living room, and that’s when it happened: I smiled.

The apartment is completely imperfect — the kitchen is teeny-tiny, but it is an actual eat-in with a big window: score. The bathroom is in two parts: a toilet in one end of the apartment, the shower at the other end (hehe — this would “not” make sense better if you could see it). They call it “European-style” — yeah, yeah, whatever. The walls were NOT black! Much to my happiness, the apartment was full of light, the brick walls are painted white but in a really nice way. The light fixtures were antique-style, not the usual upside-down glass bowl with a cluster of dead bugs at the bottom. The floor was being redone, the closet space was great, the views were actually nice (enough) and — most importantly — despite all it’s minor imperfections, it was the first apartment that I walked into and felt HAPPY.

After a whirlwind of cashier checks, lease-signing, paperwork and the nightmare that is moving-logistics, I have a new apartment to call home, beginning this weekend. It’s going to be a quirky place to live, but – if anything – it can be “that quirky SoHo apartment with the weird bathroom that I lived in during my twenties.”

As you can see, I may come off as a perfectionist with unreal expectations (OK, I really hope I don’t but I think that is how the previous realtor I was working with might describe me), but really, I just know what I want is out there, and I’m willing to take a little longer to find it. Of course I am also willing to compromise, and I’m not expecting everything I am looking for to come in one perfectly tied-up package, but the important thing is finding that place that makes you happy, despite its imperfections. And really, the imperfections are what make my new home special.

A mid-April stroll through Central Park. NYC.

Every apartment brings with it a new set of memories, life experiences, ups and downs… I’m excited to find out what SoHo has in store for me. Within the next three weeks, I have to pack up all my stuff, move it all downtown (along with furniture in three different locations), unpack, set up wireless, set up cable, set-up furniture and LIFE. I also have to finish studying for the GREs, take the GREs, get my new NYU ID, figure out my new life, and begin school for the first time in six years. There is actually even more going on, which I’m not blogging about… Just trust me when I say I’ve got my hands pretty full right now.

But outside, the cloak of winter has been lifted and the cherry blossom petals rain over the cement. A new season, with a new apartment, and a new chapter full of possibility is about to begin. And the black walls have been painted over in white.



Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized

The Quest for Apartment Za-Za-Zoo

I interrupt your wanderlusting to share with you the dreadful non-adventure that is the NYC apartment hunt.

I can’t help myself. I’ve got to write about the fruitless quest for the perfect (trust me, “perfect” is a very loose term in New York City real estate lingo), affordable (herein lies my first major problem), apartment (or excuse for one) to spend the next two or more  years studying.

Finding an apartment in NYC is like the apartment-Olympics; ANYWHERE else in the world, you are competing at the high school or maybe intramural college level. In Manhattan, it aint NO joke. It’s as tough as it gets. Yes, it’s rough out there, people. We take a lot of shit in this town, because it is fantastic. Or at least, at times like this, we have to keep telling ourselves that.

In Manhattan (yes, Williamsburg, you count), it’s not about what you get, but what you don’t get. A deal? Let’s just get this overwith: you won’t get one of those. Roaches? Meh, maybe. But if you don’t have cockroaches, you most likely will have mice. No mice? Congrats! Bedbugs for you. Don’t even get me started on the bedbug conversation… If you’ve never checked out, now might not be the best time to do so, as bedbug infestations are predicted to be the worst — by far — beginning this June (so help us all).

View from the outside of a beautiful, spacious apartment I loved... with a history of bedbug infestations.

If you get a great layout, you sacrifice natural light. If you find an apartment with many windows, it is most likely on the first floor which does you no good. The cheapest apartments are on the top of fifth- and sixth-floor walk-ups — a deal breaker for the girl with a bad knee. When you finally find the dream home you were looking for, you’ve got a drummer with daily 9pm band practice in the room directly above your bedroom (but you don’t find this out until you’ve already moved in). No matter what you find, apartment-wise, you can never predict your neighbors, or their hobbies (opera singers: check, drummers: check, barking dogs: double-check)… and they are EVERYWHERE. Like, within a foot of your home in every single direction.

Apartments in New York are lose-lose situations. We just accept that. The trick is to find some WIN in that loss. It’s a delicate dance of sacrifices.

I’ve gotten lucky with apartments in the past. Wait, scratch that.

My first Manhattan apartment was on 80th and Amsterdam — a neighborhood that has now become incredibly yuppy (a recent New York Times article called it the new “suburbs of Manhattan” because of all the blossoming young families of finance advisors and lawyers who can afford the ‘hood). But in my defense, it was an opportunistic move; a friend from college (shout-out to SK!) had moved out a year earlier, and even though she had found a replacement, her roommate now needed to move out too. So, I got in touch. I had been to a party or two at her place, and knew it was exactly what I was looking for, although a bit more expensive that I was hoping to find. That said, the cost of not having to search for a roommate or apartment in New York (brokers fees, crazy people, questionable supers galore) made the extra monthly cost worth it. I could slip right in.

Well, when I say I was excited to move in to my first Manhattan apartment and out of my parents’ place, where I had been living and saving money for travel and life for two years, that would be an understatement. I was feeling empowered, grown-up, and beyond ready to finally be independent in NYC. I felt so strong that I decided I could move into the 5th-floor walk-up without any help (pssh, boyfriends  – who needs them?! Fresh out of heartbreak, I didn’t!). I wanted to prove to myself that I could manage without anyone’s help, even if it meant my quads would be burning by the fourth or fifth trip up the steep, pre-war stairs.

I did the move in flip-flops, because it was a gorgeous day and I was young, sturdy, and in my eyes, unbreakable. Now, it’s one thing to walk up five steep flights of stairs over and over again. It’s another thing to do it carrying as much as you are physically capable of holding during each trip up. When I say I did this alone, I should add that I didn’t have a bed or dresser yet, my parents stuck by the car downstairs, and I had a rowing friend bring over a table she wanted to get rid of. I eventually had a couple teammates help me carry my Ikea and West Elm furniture up in pieces, which we then sat on the floor and put together (adult Legos), which was SO much fun. I actually love building furniture (side job?!).

Nevertheless, I must have completed at least 20 trips up and down those stairs. I’m no mathematician, but I probably walked up over 100 flights of stairs while carrying around 30-50lbs of stuff on many trips up. That’s a lot. But when it was all said and done, I couldn’t have been happier. I was in my first apartment, I loved it, and that suppressed (do to lack of funds and stability) domestic side of me was ready to pounce on the possibilities of my new home. Exhausted but thrilled, I finished the move off right: with my rowing teammate (the table-donator) and a couple margaritas at the bar downstairs. It was the perfect start to summer.

Three weeks into my brand new one-year lease, while rowing 3-4 times a week and running almost every day I didn’t row (I was planning to race again for the first time since college, and as always, wanted to rip it up on the water), disaster struck. I dislocated my knee, could barely walk, and found myself in so much pain I kept blacking out as I walked on my suddenly bad knee. A few x-rays, a couple MRIs, and three disagreeing doctors later, I realized I was in a tough spot. I could barely walk, let alone go up five flights of stairs, but I refused to give up my new independence so quickly. Instead, I decided I could hop on one foot up the five flights of stairs, and the staircase was narrow enough that I could slowly get down it using my upper body to lift myself between the wall and the banister, and lower myself several steps at a time, while keeping all weight off my right knee. It was a hovering technique, and it almost worked.

A couple weeks of this, and I knew I was screwed. I had to move right back into my parents’ place, leave my new apartment (which I still had to pay for), and wait until I was healed enough to get back in there. My roommate would pack me some clothes and bring it down the stairs for me, and I’d hobble with a roller suitcase back to my parents’, in my sunken, new, injured reality. Thanks, life.

I moved back a month later, definitely prematurely. I continued my hopping up the stairs and hovering down, to the best of my abilities, plotting each day so that this up and down procedure only needed to be done once. It wasn’t long before my good knee started getting mad at me, and one day, while getting my breakfast ready for early morning physical therapy, I nailed my forehead on the sharp corner of a new shelf I had installed, giving myself a small concussion. I half-passed out in my towel, and had to lay on the floor of my kitchen until the nausea and stars stopped twinkling overhead. I’ve had brighter moments.

My year in the fifth-floor dream apartment in the perfect neighborhood didn’t quite pan out the way I had hoped, but I got through it. Sadly, I was forced to move because my knee just wasn’t healing (the last thing anyone with a knee injury should be doing is walking up and down five flights of stairs daily, often more than once). For apartment number two, I required an elevator, which usually shoots the rent right up.

Thanks to the economy crashing, and sudden panic amongst the New York landlords, I snagged an incredible apartment twenty blocks further north, with an elevator! I was prepared for a long hunt, but this was the first apartment I saw, and I knew it was the one. I took it, without a second thought, and it was — although I hesitate to use the word — perfect. I reluctantly hired movers to get my furniture from the fifth-floor walk-up to my new, cheaper-and-easier-to-access 4th-floor digs, and, yes, with the help of a wonderful boyfriend (who would fail to last until the next move),  the transition was smooth. I was in this place to stay, I could only hope. The biggest issue was that, like clockwork, every night when I finally got into bed, the thumping of a pedal, the strumming of an electric guitar, and the low off-key notes of a 20-something guy having band practice would cause my bed to vibrate. But eventually, I was able to make peace with the guys who played the drums above my bed. It was a New York miracle.

I had so many good times while living in that apartment. When one romance ended, another one began. It was a fantastic, albeit tumultuous, year. But, when the second relationship fell apart, I was offered a job in Ecuador, and it was clear that I was going to have to give this gem of an apartment up. That decision still haunts me a little, but it was the right one at the time.

Now, I’ve got to find myself a new place. I knew it would be difficult, but the options I have seen so far are just depressing. Not only has confidence in the economy suddenly spiked, causing the highest rents the city has seen in a few years, but there is also less than 1% vacancy in New York City apartments. That means people are desperate, landlords can raise rents, and any apartment you see has several other applications already in the works. If you don’t act immediately, your crappy option for an apartment is gone. So, what about the good ones? The “perfect” apartments? Well, apparently they are no longer out there. Yippy.

So far, I have seen apartments with barely any windows, beautiful teaser apartments that have a history of bedbug infestations, and construction sites with no walls, sinks, or floors installed yet that already have applications in progress. Every apartment that comes close to being something I can work with has a deal breaker, such as bedbugs, one bedroom with no windows (that does NOT qualify as a bedroom, ya jerks!) or hardcore construction going on directly outside every window. In other words, there is a reason all these apartments are vacant. And in NYC, finding an apartment that works is like striking gold; you don’t give that up for nothing. Right now, all I’m getting is the scraps.

Actual apartment I saw yesterday, available immediately for $2400. This is one bedroom. The other one didn't have a window.

Sigh. It’s brutal, people. This apartment hunt is making me question why I love NYC so much. It makes me want to live anywhere but here. Every year, I get closer and closer to wanting to live elsewhere. I fantasize about having a home or apartment in any city but this one, and I know I could find something that works for a fraction of the cost that I have to pay here. I have to stop myself from thinking about this reality because it is painful, especially in moments like this. Whatever you do, do NOT tell me how wonderful your place is and how little you pay for it. And if you have a porch or terrace, you must remain silent. Bottom line: I KNOW, ok. I know! And I don’t want to hear about it. [See other posts for why I love NYC. I should probably re-read those right about now…]

Because I am going to be a student, I am not very flexible on the cost. This takes me to new depths of despair. Because I have a soul, I am not flexible on the amount of windows and natural light. Because I am a New Yorker, I know what is out there — I know what each neighborhood means, in terms of apartment,  atmosphere and accessibility. I’ve seen it all, at this point, and yet the only thing I haven’t seen is a place I could or would want to live for the next year or two.

The gloomy view from another apartment I saw yesterday. $2300/month.

It’s pretty depressing. I’m feeling a little deflated with the whole search process, but finding an apartment is like finding someone to love: some people are willing to settle, some people think “I can work with this if I just change one or two things around,” but I’m not looking for a fixer-upper. I am looking for it, the apartment that I can fall in love with, the one that clicks (I’ve felt it before), the one that becomes my home — the one, above everything, I can trust with my new life. I need an apartment that gives me the za-za-zoo when I walk in. It’s got to make me happy, and be zen. I might be picky, but I’ve seen enough apartments (and yes, had enough relationships) to just be at a place where I know what I want. I’ve felt the za-za-zoo before, and I need to feel it again. As discouraging as this search is right now, I know my future apartment is out there. Until I find it, I just can’t see myself settling for anything less.

And so the hunt continues.


Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, USA

A New York Girl In Old San Juan

I didn’t expect “beautiful.” No, not necessarily. Puerto Rico isn’t the most culturally “exotic” place for a New Yorker to visit since we’ve actually got more Puerto Ricans in NYC than there are in San Juan. Plus, the island is a US territory; although they consider themselves their own country, culture, and nationality, no passport is required for Americans to enter (nice!). But I did want a taste. I wanted to know what it would feel like to walk the streets of Old San Juan surrounded by Puerto Ricans and enveloped by warm ocean breezes, rather than riding the subways of New York City surrounded by the same people all bundled up in the frigid stillness of an East Coast winter. It quickly became clear that, even while many Puerto Ricans and I call New York City “home,” this island, this colonial city, is where their heart is. And for one week, mine got to be there too.

View from Fort of San Cristobal. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Part of me expected Spanglish to fly out of everyone’s mouth, because that’s what I’m used to in NYC. But when you’re on the island of Puerto Rico, you’re far, far away from the urban jungle. I found myself speaking Spanish like I was in South America — how I love when I have to speak Spanish. While most locals speak English as well as Spanish, many do not. I quickly realized that I was farther away from the US than I expected to feel, although the first sight of a Starbucks, Chili’s, and Walgreen’s helped to remind me of the connection. It’s Miami meets Cuba meets New Orleans. That’s how I’d sum up this town. The Latin energy thickly coats the muggy nights, and the colors, architecture, and rhythm are undoubtedly Spanish-influenced. It’s exotic but familiar, foreign but navigable, us (U.S.) but them, here but there

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Often when I travel, especially to Latin American cities or even Caribbean islands, I find myself confused by a feeling that I am almost more in my element and more at home in these places than in my beloved Manhattan. I definitely feel more at home in Latin cultures than anywhere else in the US where, even though I look white, I never feel as white as the general culture around me.

Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I love to dance. For anyone who doesn’t know that, there it is. But, as I have joked, I can’t really dance to “white people” music — the kind they play at weddings and in well-lit rooms. It just doesn’t feel natural. I’ve got to get my hips shaking and I need the right beat, but without forcing anything — it’s got to just start happening on its own. I like to get close, to sync-up with another person charged by the music. I like to be spun and led by a Latin man who knows how to work it. I can’t just listen to salsa, merengue, reggaeton, reggae, bachata, cumbia, dancehall, soca, tango, etc. and not MOVE. It gets in me, as white as I may seem, and works its way through me with a determined vigor that rock (or whatever you call it) just doesn’t give me.

Graffiti in Old San Juan. Puerto Rico.

This all became extra clear on Saturday night, when my mom, my sister, her Australian boyfriend and I headed to the Hotel San Juan just down the street from our swanky hotel, where we were told the locals love to go for the live salsa music and dancing. We sat in the old, massive lobby and watched as Puerto Ricans of all shapes, sizes, and ages got up and shook their hips, gliding across the dance floor with their partners in an effortless haze of natural talent. These people are so unafraid, so uninhibited, so free and HAPPY when they dance — and boy can those men dance! At one point, we all found ourselves completely mesmerized by the hips of a tall dark-skinned man with moves that could slay vacationing gringas with one perfectly placed thrust. Women wore anything that resembled second skin — words that come to mind: short, tight, revealing and/or excessively sparkly. Men wore loose, airy button-down t-shirts with white belts and comfortable pants, many with that dark complexion that beckons a panama hat and cigar. They danced because they couldn’t help it. They danced because it was in their sangre. They danced and danced and all I wanted to do was transport this place to New York, take all of this energy with me, and dance with them as one of them on my island. But this time, I was an onlooker.

Window and cobblestones. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It made me nostalgic for Ecuador, where every Wednesday I would go salsa dancing with a combination of gringas and Ecuadorians (shout out to Victor, my favorite dance partner!). That’s probably what I miss most about living in South America: the dancing. The constant liberty to just move if you felt like it — the inevitability of dancing. This is what the US lacks. Americans can be so up-tight on the dance floor — so afraid. Especially the men. (Of course, this is certainly not ALWAYS the case.) It just isn’t a part of the culture the same way it is in the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. And it’s not in Americans’ (oops, “our”) blood to just MOVE, to let a beat take them wherever it wants to, and to let go. When I travel and dance in other countries, all I want is to take these places and the people back with me to Manhattan where I can feel at home in my hometown. And yet they’re already here, already transported, immigrated, mixed right in. But it’s different here, on the continental US. The energy, the music, the weather — it’s just different.

Colorful homes in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I’ve got to say: I loved Old San Juan. I was expecting it to be a little seedy or run-down, but it was quiet vibrant and — the travel writer’s most despised adjective — charming. Not to mention, Puerto Rican men can be quite friendly when you wear short shorts… Yeah… Hehe.

Ok let’s see if I can paint the picture for you: Imagine you’re walking up a hill, two sixteenth-to-eighteen century fortresses to your right are separated by a large expanse of bright blue ocean. To your left, a dark man with a potbelly in a too-tight bright green t-shirt shakes a bell, letting you know he’s selling coconut and mango flavored ices. Another man sells potato skins in a rolling cart. An overwhelmingly warm morning is whipping around you in the refreshing ocean breeze. When it stops, you realize your sunglasses are sliding off your sweat-slicked nose. The tops of your feet are burning a little in your flip-flops, but despite the excessive heat, the air is light. The streets are filled with colorful colonial-style homes, with balconies and shutters that remind you of the Creole-Caribbean influenced houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All the streets are cobblestoned and lined with leafy trees, bright magenta flowers, and the occasional graffiti. The energy is new even though the city reeks of history, pirates, cannon ball fire, large ships with the quest to conquer, and footprints of the Spanish.

Ship sketch on wall of dungeon in Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Dome next to El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Especially after the sun sets, Old San Juan comes to life from beneath the heat. Pulsing with a newfound chic-ness, this city is anything but dead or run-down. Puerto Rican food is generally unhealthy — chincharrones (the Puerto Rican interpretation of chicken nuggets) and fufu or mafongo, a sort of stew with a base of mashed plantains and black beans — are staples here. However, either I had very good luck with our restaurant selections for the week or Old San Juan has an amazing little selection of Nuevo-Latino restaurants with with which to play. (See list at the end of this post.) Let’s just say I ate well. Like, really well.

Tres Banderas: Spanish Military flag, Puerto Rican flag, American flag. El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For those wondering, this was a family trip. Every year, my family (of seven) tries to do a spring break together. It’s a tradition that, for most families, fades after high school, but in ours, it has managed to continue, albeit with the occasional sibling missing in action. One nice perk to dating a Tavel: you get to join, courtesy of my dad. Not too shabby… Not that you need ANOTHER reason to date or hang out with me, but there it is. (HA! SO JUST KIDDING. This better be obvious.) Not bribing. Just sayin’…

Me strolling through Old San Juan.

Since I graduated from college, the annual Tavel spring break has taken me to Turkey (Istanbul), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Salta, Tucuman, Cafayate, Purmamarca), Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Bruck), Italy (Rome, Pompeii, Vatican City), and now Puerto Rico. As you can see, most of the trips have been to European cities, where we spend our days exploring museums, ruins, and general neighborhoods in a nonstop fury of productivity, punctuated by heavy, excessively delicious three-to-five course meals that often happily backfire on us and slow things down. Getting four adult kids and an opinionated, sassy Argentine mom to agree on the daily itinerary can be trying, at times. It often feels like the opposite of vacation, and sometimes – by the end of the trip – I find myself needing another one just to dilute the intensity of the phantom vacation I supposedly just had. But it’s also wonderful, and it means a lot to my parents that we are still happy to do these trips. That said, I always end up in the middle  seat on every flight when I specifically request the aisle (why, WHY, will no sibling every trade with me!?). My mom acts like an excited puppy when she sees good shopping, at which point my impatience begins to take over (I am not a shopper). We all just have slightly different agendas, and it takes a lot of bending and shutting up to make things work in a big family. Alas, it somehow always does…in its own way.

Colorful street. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Needless to say, it’s getting harder and more complicated to pull off these trips without a clash of opinions, priorities (mine are always cultural – the art, the food, the people, the street life, the history, the desire to take in the big picture of a place), and moral/existential/social/personal preferences. To try something different (and save a little cash), I thought we should go somewhere that could combine our interest in another culture with our desire to completely RELAX (you know — the point of a vacation), and suggested Puerto Rico.

El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To my happiness, this worked out PERFECTLY. Every morning, we’d sip our Puerto Rican coffee on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the ocean, and spend most of each day either basking in the sun by the pool, or submerging ourselves in the warm sea. We’d go for daily walks up and down the beach of Isla Verde, and order the occasional pina colada, mango smoothie, or beer from the comfort of our bright blue pool-side chairs. Most evenings, we’d venture into Old San Juan for a trendy restaurant, and spend a morning or two casually strolling through the city, only to follow the effectively calm morning up with an afternoon nap by the water. It really was heaven, and for a change, it truly felt like a vacation.

Beach. Isla Verde. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And now we’re back in New York City. Gone are the beaches and the palm trees, the waves of calm water, the cilantro and plantain-filled meals, the constant pulsing desire to move my hips and speak Spanish. But here in Manhattan, I’ve still got the Puerto Ricans. A girl like me can only hope that I will find myself a slice of that Old San Juan energy somewhere within the crowded streets of this less tropical and slightly less Latin island that, like for many Puerto Ricans, I call home.

For those of you actually traveling to Puerto Rico, here are some restaurant suggestions:

Tavel’s Old San Juan Dinner Picks:

Marmalade. Considered “the best” restaurant in Old San Juan, it was an easy choice for the Tavel clan. The restaurant is very trendy, but backs it up with a really delicious and funky Latin-inspired menu. I opted for the four-course tasting menu, which included a paella with smoked chicken, then an unforgettable white bean soup scented with truffle oil and dusted with pancetta, followed by a perfectly tender beef tenderloin in a cabernet-rosemery jus with roasted mushrooms and three cheese potato gratin, and topped off by a killer chocolate mousse. Before dinner, I sipped a honey-chamomile martini (for a girl who hates sweet drinks, this was a good choice as it was like a chill, alcoholic version of relaxing and strong chamomile tea with honey). White curtains dangle between diners, and the hip but relaxed atmosphere of this primely located San Juan restaurant — not to mention the memorable food — hit the spot. It’s a great place to celebrate anything, or nothing. Basically, just come up with some excuse to go here if you find yourself nearby.

Baru. The tapas-style menu, along with the flamenco music on the speakers and the outdoor courtyard in the high-ceilinged Spanish-style building, will temporarily transport you to Southern Spain. I loved this restaurant from the moment I walked in. Immediately, the interior architecture makes you feel like you could be in someone’s home, with the small rooms having the natural flow of a house, and the outdoor seating small enough to be intimate beneath the shade of a big palm tree, but large enough to feel you’re on your own even surrounded by other diners. Highlights of the menu include a salad with greens and incredibly sweet mangoes, plantain chips in fufu and a spicy black bean dip, amazingly light pan seared scallops in a coconut curry sauce, a delicate asparagus risotto, a fresh paper-thin halibut carpaccio, and possibly the best chocolate mousse I’ve had in a long time. The vibe is a perfect island calm, and it’s a great place for a small group dinner or a romantic evening for two. After dinner, the restaurants and bars on this famously beautiful street, San Sebastien, fill with locals grabbing a quick bite or setting up for a night of live salsa.

Dragonfly. Located on a bustling Old San Juan street with a string of outdoor dining just outside, this restaurant was modeled after a Shanghai opium den. The atmosphere is hip at this Latin-Asian restaurant, which provides a great getaway from the Puerto Rican standards while incorporating the strengths of the island’s flavors. The dark, red seductive interior goes well with dishes like the criollo BBQ pork steamed bun sliders, the pork and amarillo (plantain) dumplings, and the miso-honey halibut. Creative cocktails and tapas-sized dishes make for a fun dinner experience. More sexy than casual, I’d definitely go back — perhaps with a nice Puerto Rican man rather than my family, the second time around. If you can stomach it, try the ginger tres leches dessert.

And here are a few songs to finish off this post and complete your immersion into the San Juan mood (as always, ignore the actual videos and just enjoy the music):

Feel free to add links to your favorite salsa music as a comment!


Filed under Food, Islands, New York City, Puerto Rico, Travel, Uncategorized, USA