THE GREAT AMERICAN VACATION
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Breakfast on the Caribbean coast is much like that of inland cities—rice, beans, tortilla, egg and cheese, or perhaps a baleada (similar to a quesadilla). Dinner is essentially the same, adding a piece of spicy fried chicken or tough beef to the plate. Lunchtime, however, is the delicious exception. Seafood is the natural meal choice, as fishermen haul in fresh fish, shrimp, conch, and
lobster just about every day.
The coastal speciality is pescado frito, a fried yellowtail fish served—head, bones, and all—with sides of lettuce, tomato, and slices of fried plantains (tajadas). At many beachfront restaurants, the catch of the day is cleaned and gutted right outside the kitchen before it hits the fryer. Seafood soup (sopa marinera) is flavored and thickened with coconut milk, and filled with yuca, platano, and other local vegetables. Garlicy breaded conch and lobster dishes are equally as popular, although some restaurants decline to serve either of these shellfish as they're locally overharvested. (We recommend not purchasing either for this reason.)
Some kitchens pride themselves on their ola de mariscos (literally, "wave of seafood") platters, which pile every sea critter imaginable onto the same plate, sometimes adding steak. Sometimes conch and lobster are included; if so, you can ask if it's possible to have an ola de mariscos without these overharvested items.
The majority of locally owned restaurants have strikingly similar menus of seafood, fried chicken, and pork chops. Expat-run eateries tend to offer alternative fare such as pastas, pizzas, hamburgers, and Tex-Mex dishes. Both types open early for breakfast, around 7 or 8 am, and close around 10 pm.
Although the northern coast was once the domain of major foreign and local banana companies, coconuts are more prevalent today. Beach vendors slice open the fruit with a machete as loungers gulp the sweet water from the shell. Coconut milk flavors rice dishes, soups, and fish fries. Some local farmers have replaced livestock with exotic orchards full of fruits like the Southeast Asian rambutan; the spiky, fire-red sphere is sold roadside by the bag. Peel back the furry exterior to suck on the chewy, milky-white fruit surrounding a seed (the Chinese lychee is similar but with a smooth exterior). It's not graceful, but it's tasty.