Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I am Ironman!

For those of you that know me, it probably doesn't come as a surprise to you that my brother-in-law calls me "Captain Intensity". I am notorious for getting wild hairs to do something crazy, and then following through and actually doing them. That is kind of how it went when I put Barney Stinson's (from How I Met Your Mother) marathon training program to the test "You don't train for marathons, you just run them. Step 1: Start running. Step 2: There is no Step 2." - says NPH. I thought to myself, "That sounds reasonable." Boom, first marathon: 4:13, next to no training! Similarly, after my first sprint triathlon in 2011, I was hooked immediately and set my sights on Ironman 70.3 San Juan for 2013. This is now my victory post, proving that I can do whatever I set my mind to (and so can anyone else).

"Victory!" (in my Johnny Drama voice)
For those of you who are not familiar with Ironman 70.3, it is a triathlon (named for the number of miles that you swim, bike, and run) in which participants swim 1.2 miles (in open water), then bike 56 miles, and finally run 13.1 miles. I chose San Juan for my first IM70.3 because of its clear water and the bike/run routes along the coast. Plus, lets not pretend that I don't have an affinity for Hispanic cultures. The Ironman course was everything that I had it built it up to be in my mind, and more! When my legs or body would get tired, I would just look at the ocean and imagine that I was having a relaxing day on the beach. But that is enough about triathlons for now, here is a bit more of our Puerto Rican experience (and of course the food too).

'Cudas (top and center)
The race hotel for this event was the Caribe Hilton, it was an amazing hotel and resort. They have ocean and lagoon views, a great beach and pool, and one of the coolest things that a hotel could have. There is a pier at the hotel that jaunts out over a shallow water rock cave. During the day, you can go watch colourful tropical fish swim back and forth in the waves. At night, those beautiful tropical fish go into hiding as the barracudas that live in the cave come out to eat, you can see them in the water thanks to a spotlight that is attached to the pier. These barracudas were a lot fatter than the barracudas that we saw in Mexico, they must be eating really well! Don't let this scare you away from swimming at the hotel beach though, they are seldom seen during the day and you are not what they are looking for.

View from our room
Right to Left: Soursop, Mango, Acerola
There are conflicting stories out there as to the origin of the Pina Colada; one version of the story has the Pina Colada originating at the Hilton Caribe, another has it originating at Barrachina (in Old San Juan). Although we did not make it to Barrachina, we did try the Pina Colada at the Caribe Hilton. Two words: "Be careful!", these things are dangerously delicious! We had some other great drinks at the hotel too, however they were the healthy kind of drinks (juices). The Soursop and Acerola juices intrigued me, because I had never had them, but they had fresh pineapple, mango, and passion fruit juices as well. I was excited for the Acerola juice because it is basically an exotic cherry. It was delicious, but a tad tart for my taste. Conversely, I was a little worried that the Soursop would be sour (because of the name), but this funky looking little green fruit produces some of the best juice I have ever had in my life!

Medalla on the balcony
Other great Puerto Rican drinks that we enjoyed throughout the week were: coconut water, Medalla Light (Puerto Rican beer), and Yaucono (Puerto Rican coffee). Puerto Rican coffee is some of, if not the, best coffee in the world! It is so smooth! It is very sad, but millions of pounds of Puerto Rican coffee goes unpicked annually because the wages paid to coffee pickers are so low that its hard to find anyone to pick coffee for that wage, as workers can make much more money at jobs that are much less labor intensive. This has led to many Puerto Rican coffee producers importing beans from other countries to cut the Puerto Rican grown beans. Now before any coffee snobs interject; Yaucono is Puerto Rico's top selling coffee, but has probably also fallen victim to the above predicament. You can probably find much better and much more pure PR coffee, but Yaucono is still pretty awesome if you ask me.

Seafood mofongo (in garlic sauce)
Before my race I pretty much stuck to Subway (as to not test my IBS before such a big day), but afterward we adventured out and tried to get into as much local food as possible. We started off by getting into some mofongo! Mofongo is a PR staple that is made from mashed plantains and often served with a mild garlic sauce. The first mofongo that we had was a seafood mofongo and was a bit more fancy than the mofongo we had later in the week. The plantains weren't mashed as finely, the sauce was a bit more garlic-y, and it was served with just about every type of seafood that you could imagine.

Coconut Water
The day after the race we went hiking in El Yunque, a national rainforest. From the top of the mountains, you can see all the way to the ocean. We hiked. We spoke to Coqui (a tree frog and unofficial mascot of the island of PR). We saw waterfalls. We even did a little 'Squatchin' (which was my wife and I taking pictures of my larger, younger brother walking through the jungle). If you are ever in PR, this is a must-stop destination. We had planned to also visit the bio-luminescent bay that night, but rain made us cancel our trip.
Panoramic view from the top of Yokahu Tower, in El Yunque
After a long day of hiking, we had worked up quite the appetite. We stopped by a beach-front restaurant and bar in Luquillo that seemed to cater to American surfing tourists. Boardriders has a huge patio where you can enjoy a Medalla, watch the waves roll in, and even play a little bag toss. This place has great fish tacos and fish wraps, although those are not traditional PR cuisines, it does not make them any less awesome. Boardriders also makes an incredible pineapple and mango salsa. The salsa has medium heat and go perfectly with white fish.

On our way back to San Juan, we also stopped by the kiosks in Luquillo. These kiosks are known for serving Puerto Rican treats known as frituras (fritters). Frituras come in every different shape, size, and flavour. There are sweet, savory, and everything in between. Each kiosk has their own recipe. You will find frituras made of beef, chicken, pork, seafood, etc. wrapped in some form of carbohydrate and deep fried. These carbohydrates can be: a flour tortilla (with the contents rolled inside cigar style), corn meal, or plantains. The most interesting fritura that I tried was made with ground beef, sandwiched between two pieces of fry bread, and then the void between the two pieces of fry bread was wrapped with a sweet plantain. Pour a little bit of hot sauce on that and you have a mighty fine fritura.

Coco y Parcha
Other street food items that we enjoyed in PR were pinchos and sebert. Pinchos are the PR version of a kabob. They are barbecued meat or seafood on a stick, topped with a piece of bread. Honestly, the pinchos that I had at the Condado Lagoon, by the Conrad Condado hotel, has to be the best meat on a stick that I have ever had. Once you have had your fill of pinchos, you wont have to look too far for an older gentleman pushing a sherbet cart around. There is nothing better on a hot day in PR than a combo of coco (coconut) and parcha (passion fruit) sherbet, although my wife prefers coco y pina (pineapple).

We also indulged in another local favorite, Puerto Rican rum. We visited Casa Bacardi (the Bacardi distillary), Casa Don Q, and Fernando Fernandez at Ron de Barrilito.

Bacardi Windmills
When Facundo Bacardi moved to Cuba from Spain and opened up a specialty store, he refused to sell Caribbean rum (at the time called Kill Devil, or Pirate's Moonshine) because of it's harshness. Facundo decided that rum had a good base, in  sugar cane (or molasses), and that he could distill a rum that was smooth enough to drink. His little experiment became the best selling rum in the world. In true empire fashion, Casa Bacardi was gigantic, sophisticated, and corporate. Puerto Ricans appreciate what Bacardi brings to the island in revenue and jobs, but they prefer a rum that originated on the island. Don't get me wrong, they make a mighty fine product (it's not #1 in the world for nothing), the tour is just a tad corporate for my taste.

Don Q is the best selling rum in PR, and has local origins. Casa Don Q can be found in Old San Juan, directly across the street from where the ships port, and is not a distillery, but more of a shrine to Don Q (with a bar) than it is a museum or a history lesson. CDQ does have good information about the distilling process, and some awesome specialty drinks that cool you down on a hot day, but at the end of the day they are catering to the touristas that walk across the street from the ships (and I do understand that is what pays the bills, I just prefer not to be grouped in with tourists, I am an independent traveler, not a tourist).

Ron de Barrilito offices
(inside a decommissioned wind mill)
My taste in rum led me to Ron de Barrilito. Fernando Fernandez runs the company that his great-grandfather started after immigrating from Spain. Ron de Barrilito started, similarly to Bacardi, to elevate the level of Caribbean rum being produced. However, Ron de Barrilito was modeled after the Cognacs of France and intended to be the best rum that you have ever tasted, rather than to build an empire. Little has changed about Ron de Barrilito since 1827 (when it was founded), they even change the barrels as infrequently as possible, I would not be shocked if there were multiple barrels in the aging room over 100 years old (stupidly, I did not ask). One of the secrets to RdB is that it is aged at proof, rather than being aged at over-proof and then cut down to proof (like most other rums, *cough* Bacardi *cough*). Everything around here is done the old fashion way; the machines on the bottling line were only configured to attach one label, so when the government started requiring back labels on liquor, RdB began gluing them on by hand (rather than buy new machines). The only tough thing about RdB is that it is ridiculously hard to find! You will need to do a thorough internet search, stop and ask for directions, and you still may not find it unless you have someone who has been there before with you. Sure, I could tell you exactly how to get there, but then you would miss the adventure. The only thing that can make the 3-packs of "3-star" that you can buy for $45 (SMOKING DEAL!) is when it comes with a little adventure.

Red Snapper
Last but not least, we stopped by a little restaurant in Old San Juan that was recommended to me by a Puerto Rican co-worker, called El Jibarito. The inside of the restaurant is modeled just like the outsides of the buildings around Old San Juan. The food in this place was so amazing that we broke our rule about not dining the same place twice while traveling. Between all of the members of our party, and two meals, we tried just about everything on the menu. The first day, my favorite dish was the "Island Steak" that is a cheap cut of round steak that has been marinated and grilled the Puerto Rican way. It was especially delicious when I slopped a little bit of the house made garlic sauce on it. I felt pretty confident that this would be the best dish to order on our second visit, until my wife orders the whole red snapper. Oh man did she out order me! The red snapper was probably the best that I have ever had! Luckily for me, my wife couldn't finish all of the fish, so I got to pick the bones clean. I even got the salty, gooey eye balls (Bourdain would have been proud). No matter what you get, I recommend the mixed mofongo (plantain and yuca) as your side, its pretty incredible. If you find yourself anywhere near Old San Juan, you will be doing yourself a dis-service if you do not stop into El Jibarito, ask for Angel and tell him that the Ironman and the Strongman sent you (then show him the picture of my brother and I below).
The Ironman and the Strongman
Make sure you tour El Morro, fly your kites on the fort's lawn, and do your walking tour of Old San Juan before checking in on the amazing gastronomy of Old San Juan. I say this because if you love to eat as much as I do, you may not be able to afterwards.
El Morro
As the saying goes, "to whom much is given, much is required". I have dropped all of this PR knowledge on you, although admittedly only scratching the surface myself. But before you go planning your trip, there is a few things you need to know. PR is America! You CAN drink the water there! (I clarify because these are common questions that I have gotten about PR). Although it is America, and they have 99% of the same conveniences that we have in the lower 48, they still have two official languages (English and Spanish). Remember, as with anywhere that you travel, you are the guest in someone else's territory. Be respectful of their culture. If you do not know elementary Spanish, carry a Spanish phrase book with you. You will be hard pressed to find someone in Old San Juan that does not speak English, but you will go to areas of the island that you will be hard pressed to find someone that does (then you will have to know how to order your 6-pack of Medalla en Espanol).

We loved PR and will definitely be back, possibly even for next year's IM70.3.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Windy City Birthday

A few weeks ago, I took my wife to Chicago for her birthday. Before we get started, a couple discussion points: Yes, I know that I am more than a few weeks behind on blogging, but things are really lining up for a big spring of awesome posts! Secondly, its kind of crazy to think how cold and snowy it was just a few weeks ago. Now, with that out of the way, here is a little bit more about our awesome 4 day weekend in Chicago!

My wife always does such nice things for my birthday, so I thought that this year I should return the favor. I had a couple Southwest points burning a hole in my pocket and wanted to take her somewhere that we would not have to rent a car. This made Chicago a natural choice; direct flights, the 'L', and the abundance of good places to eat (including food trucks) outweighed the fact that it is a cold weather city. 

We stayed in the Hampton Majestic Theater, right in the loop, so that we could get anywhere that we wanted to go (and we all know that I love Hamptons). It didn't hurt that they had a good view from the workout room, as I was right in the thick of Ironman 70.3 training. We also hoped to get rush lottery tickets to the Tony Award winning musical The Book of Mormon, which was playing in the adjacent Majestic Theater. For those of you unfamiliar with rush tickets and rush lottery tickets: They are a great way for people that enjoy the finer things in life to have them without breaking the bank (as long as you don't mind spending some of your time waiting in line for a chance to buy tickets, sometimes fruitlessly). Broadway rush tickets began when Rent-heads would camp out to buy Rent tickets. Essentially, they put us hardcore people in the front two rows so that they know they will have an enthusiastic crowd. We were lucky enough to get drawn for the opportunity to buy two tickets in our second lottery!

Our first night in town, Thursday, we stopped by a local watering hole for some forgettable mac & cheese and some Goose Island beer on tap. Although we did not plan to ride the Green Line CTA ('L') Line this weekend, it did not stop me from ordering a Goose Island Green Line Pale Ale (call me a fake flagger if you would like). The bartender even gave us free shots of Jameson, so we knew then that it was going to be a great weekend!

Friday, we had a big lunch planned, as the Tamale Spaceship food truck had a stop right by our hotel (which, honestly, also factored into my hotel decision). These guys serve tamales, from a spaceship (truck), while wearing luchador masks; This had "John, you have to try this food" written all over it! I had been looking for an excuse to wear my luchador mask that I picked up the last time we were in Mexico, this seemed like as good of chance as any! Much to my surprise, WYCC (Chicago's local PBS affiliate) was shooting a show (Food on the Go!) at the truck that day (honestly, I had no idea). They thought that I would make for good TV (uh, duh, of course I make for good TV!). I had the roasted beef, roasted pork, and Domino tamales. The roasted beef & roasted pork were great tamales (with even better sauces), the Domino tamale was the subject of Food on the Go! that day, see my thoughts on that (at about the two minute mark of the Tamale Spaceship video) here: http://www.wycc.org/foodonthego/ 
The Tamale Spaceship on Urbanspoon

After I nearly exploded my stomach by eating so many delicious tamales (and lied down to take a rest) we headed to Flirty Cupcakes for some dessert. We had a 4-pack of the mini cupcakes (including chocolate, coconut, red velvet, and cookies & cream) and a full size Elvis Presley (Chocolate Banana Cupcake with a peanut butter buttercream). All of the cupcakes were good, but the Elvis Presley was by far both of our favorites.
Flirty Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Friday afternoon, we began our tour of tourist spots at the Sears "Don't Call Me Willis" Tower. It's always okay to stop at tourist spots when you are out of town, but you always want to at least avoid looking like a tourist. One way to ensure that you will stick out like a sore thumb is calling the Sears Tower the Willis Tower. We were lucky and got to the top right away (traveling during down seasons helps this as well). We took photos in the ever-scary plexiglass sky boxes that allow you to see all the way down to the street below. I was even able to use the coin operated binoculars to spot a power plant in Michigan City, Indiana that I had done work at a few years ago.

Friday night, we went to the original Billy Goat Tavern. We were extra hungry by the time we found it, because the address is on Michigan Avenue, but it's actually located beneath Michigan Avenue (we probably walked on top of it 4 times before seeing the inconspicuous staircase that leads down to Billy Goat). When we were greeted, we were told that you sit down and order drinks, then you go to the grill and order food. We were also told that "The double (burger) is best, but the triple is better", which kind of makes you scratch your head and kind of oddly makes sense at the same time. My wife and I ordered the Billy Goat Light and Billy Goat Dark (house beers), respectively, we also both had a double cheese burger (they are the best, after all). Both of the beers were nicely carbonated, they were very crisp and refreshing, they complimented the diner style flat burgers very well. The burgers were diner style flat burgers, reminiscent of Town Topic hamburgers (for those Kansas Citians), but on a nice Kaiser roll instead of the standard diner style buttery bun. Very good experience! We will be back here the next time we were in Chicago.
Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Saturday was our lucky day! We started it off by winning the right $25 front row seats to Book of Mormon. Then we went to grab a quick lunch before the show started. Right down the street (about 2 blocks) from the Majestic Theater is Macy's. "I thought you went to go get food, not shopping" you say, I am getting there! This is another one of those "Finer things in life, on the cheap" times. Have you heard of Senor Rick Bayless? If you have, you will want to pay special attention to what I am about to say. If you have not, get out from under that rock and pay special attention to what I am about to say! Rick Bayless owns a few upscale restaurants off of Clark Street, has a TV show, and is a best selling cookbook author. But this is not a trip to Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, or even XOCO, this is a trip to Frontera Fresco in the food court at Macy's. 

Frontera Fresco is the genius of Rick Bayless, for the every man. Stashed just above the shoe floor in Macy's. How do I know what floor is the shoe floor, you ask? See Exhibit A (picture to the right of the previous paragraph). If you are a gastronaut (such as myself) with a wife that you love, that loves to shop, this Macy's is the place for you! Give your wife your credit card and then go glutton yourself on amazing Mexican food! The chips and guac are great (although, as I have stated a million times, is never a reason to go to a restaurant). They have Bohemia, which is my favorite Mexican beer (in a restaurant, my favorite Mexican beer on a beach in Mexico is Modelo Light). The roasted corn and poblano chowder is gigantic, out of this world delicious, and under $4! The grilled steak torta was very good, but paled in comparison to my wife's grilled steak tacos, both highlighted with melted Chihuahua cheese! And as an added bonus, they also display the names of the farms that they source their ingredients from. I cannot say enough about this place!
Frontera Fresco on Urbanspoon

After we were done stuffing our faces, we waddled back to the Majestic Theater, just in time for the show. SIDE NOTE (for any theater rookies): Do not take photos in the theater, especially of the cast, even more especially if you are in the front row! The lady sitting next to my wife got her iphone confiscated for doing just that (*cough* IDIOT *cough*). They want enthusiastic people in the front row, but act like you have been there before (even if you haven't).

We then took the Red Line to check out Chicago's night sky and have a Lavazza espresso on top of the world, at the Hancock Tower. We had heard that the observation deck at Hancock was better than that at Sears. It was true, believe the hype, Hancock was better. There is an open air sky walk at Hancock, that was somewhat reminiscent of The Top of the Rock (although 30 Rock was much more impressive, obviously). I do, however, do not recommend skipping the Sears Tower, simply because of the history that the Sears Tower offers. 

As if we hadn't eaten enough at this point in the day, we decided to go for the gusto and head over to the Original Genos East. We waited on the line outside, under the chicken roasters, and mingled with the people. Surprisingly enough, at this tourist must-stop, it was predominantly locals that we talked to on the line. FYI: you can go to the bar and get drinks (as long as you are of age) while you're waiting on the line. This night, the line didn't happen to be that long, but by the time we got in, ordered, and received our pizza (as it takes 45min-1hr to cook) we were surprisingly hungry. We got a pitcher of Goose Island 312 (Downtown Chicago area code and wheat beer) and a small cheese and "famous sausage" deep dish pizza, we didn't really have another choice if that was what they were famous for (besides deep dish pizza, of course). The pizza was great and perfectly sized for only two people. The cornmeal crust was out of this world! After all of this food, drink, and excitement, we were about ready to turn in for the night. P.S. Don't forget your marker when you go to Genos, as it is encouraged to write your name on the walls (but please don't write swear words, this is a family establishment).
Original Gino's East on Urbanspoon

Sunday (or Museum Day, as I will call it) started out with an Argo Tea and a trip to The Bean. Argo Tea offers a long line of delicious, artisan teas (hot, cold, and loose leaf). Chicago is one of only 4 U.S. cities that you can find Argo in, but anyone can order the loose leaf teas online, you will not be disappointed. Our hot teas (POM white tea and ginger honey latte) kept us warm on our walk to Millennium Park, where my wife tried her best to steal The Bean's soul (with her camera) and then push it over.

Next we caught the bus to the Shedd Aquarium, where we had a blast and spent 4-5 hours. We saw Beluga Whales (insert Baby Beluga song from Full House here), sea otters, every fish from Finding Nemo, an awesome tortuga named Nickle, and a sweet exhibit about Jelly Fish, just to name a few.

Turns out that taking in sea creatures all day has a common side effect of increased hunger, trust me, it happened to us. Luckily for us, nestled between Shedd Aquarium and The Field Museum was a Chicago hot dog stand. Street food, with local flavour, yes please! The Vienna hot dog, mustard, onions, tomatoes, dill pickle spear, and jalapenos, all on a poppy seed bun, was just what a hungry man needed to get ready to take on a T-Rex (but more on that in a minute).

The Field Museum is home to the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton. This was something that I was very excited to see, as a child that was way into dinosaurs (thanks to Land Before Time). However, after laying my eyes upon this 'large' T-Rex, I could not help but think about how unimposing it looked compared to how I thought that it would look. Looking at SUE (the T-Rex's name), I decided that if I were a caveman (using caveman tools), I would be having some T-Rex for dinner. I know that you are thinking that I have fallen completely off of my rocker right about now, but hear me out. This method requires careful planning and observation of the T-Rex. Step 1: Fashion a very strong, very long spear by whittling down a very strong wood (like oak or walnut). Step 2: Don't get excited about your awesome spear and try to stab it in the ribs of the T-Rex, the ribs are very close together and you may completely miss vital organs this way. Step 3: Watch a T-Rex attack its prey, and time it. Step 4: When you think you have the timing down, piss it off and get it to attack you. It's only method of offense or defense is with its mouth, because it cannot get you with its little T-Rex arms. Step 5: Wait until you can see the soft spot on the roof of the T-Rex's mouth, then stab its brain through the roof of its mouth. Step 6: Eat Awesomeness! Please do keep in mind that Step 5 is key! If you cock-up Step 5, then the T-Rex will be the one Eating Awesomeness.

On our way back to the hotel, from our big day of fish watching and T-Rex assessing, we picked up a Chicago favorite: Al's #1 Italian Beef. Al's is a local chain that isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, but what everyone considers the gold standard of Italian Beefs in Chicago. We got the Big Al, "Sweet" and "Dipped", and an order of cheese fries. I enjoyed everything quite a bit, but if my wife were to do it all over again, she would get her Italian Beef un-dipped.

Last, but certainly not least, after taking the Orange Line back to Midway on Monday, we made an obligatory stop at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop that is inside the terminal. Potbelly is our favorite sandwich shop ever! Everything is great, we have never had a bad sandwich there! Tips: Always get everything on your sandwich, whether you think you will like it or not, give it a try. And always get a pickle to go with your sandwich! We will look at flights, when we fly Southwest, and purposefully try to get a layover in Chicago, just so we can have Potbelly. And great news to those of you in Kansas City: Potbelly is opening up a store on The Plaza!
Potbelly Sandwich Works on Urbanspoon

Chicago has to be one of the best airport food cities in America. Between Potbelly at Midway and Tortas Frontera (another Rick Bayless gem) at O'Hare, anyone flying in, out, or through Chicago has it made!

Finally, we made our way back from our awesome weekend, but we will see you again shortly Chicago!