Guided city tours have long been popular with art, architecture, and history buffs but the growing trend of foraging a destination to find its best local fare is trending worldwide. So, why not skip the typical guided walking tour on your next trip and instead book a culinary adventure with an epicurean host? We've taken food and cultural tours in Hawaii, Seattle, Lisbon and most recently Puerto Rico.
We find the number of guests on gourmet walking tours tend to be fewer than on typical city walks making it more comfortable to interact with the host and the other guests. These smaller groups are often welcome at even the coziest of bars and bistros so you find some real hidden gems on these tours.
On our trip to Puerto Rico last April we booked a tour with Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours. Our guide, Denise, was a young and energetic woman eager to share the history, architecture, and flavors of Old San Juan. She had two goals for our group of ten - 1) make sure we had fun and, 2) impart an appreciation of the food, culture and history of her island. If she could accomplish those two things, she assured us we'd leave at the end of the tour with a full belly and happy heart.
During our three hour tour, Denise took us to six places where we sampled a variety of dishes representative of Puerto Rico's diverse food scene featuring Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, African, Taino and American influences.
Rum is the national drink here and Puerto Rico is the world's leading rum producer so it seemed logical that our first stop was rum tasting. Our group huddled around the Rum Bar, a little kiosk inside the Princesa Gastropub, located on Paseo La Princesa, a main thoroughfare in the La Puntilla section of Old San Juan. The bartender introduced us to the many types of rum, ranging from complex sipping varieties to simple spirits that would blend well into any tropical cocktail. The small, but well-equipped bar, stocked many light and dark rums - many produced in the gran enejo or super-aged style similar to Tequila or barrel-aged whisky. A few guys purchased a shot of the high-end stuff but the rest of us enjoyed our complimentary pina colada. We also got our first bite of the tour with servings of Iberian ham croquettes, and breaded eggplant topped with beef stew.
After a brief stop at Señor Paleta to select an all-natural ice pop to go, we took shelter under a sprawling mango tree at small park overlooking the San Juan Bay and enjoyed our cool treats while Denise gave us some history about the island. We made our way to a local art gallery and craft boutique which also housed our next stop - Cafe El Punto, where we were greeted with trays of fried plantain fritters and a ceviche appetizer made with grouper, avocado and homemade salsa. We admired the artists' work while we enjoyed our appetizers. A short walk took us to our next destination, Spicy Caribbee, where we sampled provisions from Puerto Rico and other neighboring Caribbean islands. The little boutique had an impressive selection of exotic spice blends, jerk sauces and condiments including banana ketchup and jams featuring guava, pineapple, mango and papaya. I think everyone purchased something to take home from the vast array of delicacies and gift items like candles, soaps and lotions.
As we strolled the centuries-old cobblestone streets en route to our next stop, Denise made sure we were taking in the Spanish Colonial architectural sights - from the colorful and ornate facades and balconies to secret courtyards and not-so-secret parks like Parque de las Palomas, or Pigeon Park, home to hundreds if not thousands of the meandering birds.
The next tasting on the tour required some work on our part to make mofongo, a local Afro-Puerto Rican dish. Once seated at Rosa de Triana (the building was a former jailhouse), we were each given a wooden pilon, also known as mortal and pestle. Inside were fried plantains (picked green before ripe), garlic, butter and salt. Our job was to pummel the concoction with the pestle until it was well mashed. To that, we added creole chicken, rice and beans from a platter served family-style at the table and quenched our thirst with either sangria or the local beer.
The last stop of the day was bit of a chocoholics dream. Casa Cortes ChocoBar is an artsy chocolatier with a wildly imaginative menu featuring chocolate in both sweet and savory dishes. Here you'll find chocolate pastries, cakes and truffles but also entrees like salmon in chocolate butter sauce, sandwiches pairing grilled cheese and chocolate and salads dressed in balsamic chocolate vinaigrette. Our group was seated in a little alcove where we were treated to cups of decadent hot chocolate served with pieces of dark chocolate atop a small slice of cheddar cheese. The recommendation of our host was to drop the chocolate and cheese into the cup of hot chocolate and let it melt. It sounded weird but I did it and liked the slightly tart taste and creaminess it added to the hot chocolate. Next came warm, mini churros accompanied with a rich chocolate dipping sauce which we all politely devoured.
Denise walked us back to our starting point where our little group Air Dropped photos, shared email addresses and said our goodbyes with full bellies and happy hearts!