Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Diner Envy

Frozen Key Lime Pie

If you know anything about New Jersey, it’s that NJ is known as the official US home of the diner. Sure, other states have coffee shops, or Denny’s or a Waffle House, but there is nothing like a NJ diner anywhere else in the US.

 NJ diners are a place where you can get anything from omelettes to a tuna salad sandwich, to chicken cordon bleu, at any time, day or night. Even Mick Jagger visited the world-famous Tick Tock Diner in Clifton a few years back.

So on a recent vacation to Florida, I had the opportunity to meet friends for lunch at a new kind of diner. And, wow, I was impressed. The Lake Park Diner in Naples has it going on. From the first look, you can see this is a whole different animal. Modern and shiny, with a fabulously creative menu, the management here is on to something. 

Because it’s Florida and you can eat outside year-round, there is a large, pleasant outdoor seating area. As at all good diners, it’s a casual atmosphere. But what’s different here is their mission statement: “we believe that when you go grab a quick bite to eat, you shouldn't have to feel guilty about it afterwards.”  They offer a menu sourced with sustainable, organic products, and focus on putting their customers’ health and the environment first. Combine this with delicious food, and you’ve got a winning ticket.

Pimento Chicken Panini

I had good intentions of ordering a salad, but heck, I was on vacation so instead went for the Pimento Chicken Panini - buttermilk fried chicken, pimento cheese, bacon jam, baby arugula, and provolone - all pressed together on terrific sourdough bread. Let me tell you, the sandwich worked on all levels, but the moist, tender chicken and the fabulous bacon jam were the all-stars. One of my lunch partners had the same thing and she concurred with my enthusiastic review. The sandwich came with a choice of sweet potato fries, regular fries, or mixed green salad. I chose the regular fries because, IMHO, they are one test of a kitchen’s strength. The fries were perfectly crisp and salted. There’s nothing I hate more than ordering fries and having them arrive at your table limp and unseasoned! My friend ordered the sweet potato fries and thoroughly enjoyed them. Our third dining friend loved his Roti Sandwich, which consisted of organic rotisserie chicken with sun-dried tomato goat cheese, organic arugula, crispy prosciutto, garlic aioli, and balsamic drizzle on a rustic baguette. I’m sure, by now, you see this was not your typical diner. 

Lake Park's Sweet Potato Fries

Brice, one of Lake Park’s managers, took very good care of us and offered dessert but we were all too full (heck, I had to take half of my panini home!). If you find yourself in the Naples area, stop by the Lake Park Diner - you may find yourself with “diner envy” and wish for a spot like this in your hometown - I certainly do.

Sunset at CJ's on the Bay

The rest of my Florida trip was a mixture of pure relaxation; reading/snoozing at the pool or beach, and grilling fresh seafood from local purveyors at our rental home. We did venture out to a few waterfront venues (Kane’s Tiki Bar at the JW Marriott, and CJ’s on the Bay in the Esplanade) to enjoy the gorgeous sunsets appearing nightly on the island.

Pelican Bend's Grouper Tacos

But my favorite restaurant meal on Marco Island was at Pelican Bend in the Isles of Capri neighborhood. It’s a very casual waterfront spot with a laid back vibe, serving fresh seafood, burgers, salads, etc. My friend and I gushed over how terrific our grouper tacos were. Topped with lettuce, shredded cheese, house-made pico de gallo, and a Key lime aioli; served with very good cole slaw, and excellent fries. We couldn’t resist sharing the house-made frozen Key lime pie (that mouthwatering image at the top), perfectly tart with a crisp graham cracker crust. We could have sat there all day, watching the pelicans dip in and out of the water. But, alas, there was ice cream to be had!

I have known my friend and traveling companion for going on 23 years but I had no idea she was an ice cream devotee! During my two weeks on Marco Island, we visited all the ice cream shops (some more than once!). Even though there was a gelato shop on the island, my favorite was a traditional ice cream store called Sweet Annie’s Ice Cream Parlor, where I thoroughly enjoyed their Butter Pecan in a sugar cone; a very close second was Beebe’s Ice Cream (loved their Pistachio and Rum Raisin). Dolce Mare (the gelato spot) was good, but I was expecting more. Chances are I am jaded from having the real thing in Italy many times. Oh well, so many ice cream stores…

While there we did a short boat tour of the Everglades where we took in the peaceful beauty of the area and saw the creatures that call it their home: the endangered, gentle manatees, scary alligators, graceful egrets, ibis, and other wildlife. It was an easy, fun way to experience another part of southwest Florida.

Escaping to Marco Island was definitely the antidote to a very long year filled with life changes. The warm air, bright blue skies, gorgeous sunshine, and ocean views do wonders for the soul. Might just have to be a yearly thing.

Twenty-six days until Spring!

Eat well, stay warm, be happy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

You Can Take the Girl Out of Jersey...

The view from our condo.

In July 2019, after a long-time desire to live in a warm climate,  escape the harsh northeast winters, and to experience life in someplace other than New Jersey (where I had lived my entire life), we moved to Puerto Rico. What could be bad, right? It’s part of the United States (yes, folks, it is a US territory, not a foreign country - you wouldn’t believe how many people do not know that), warm weather all year round, beautiful ocean views, laid back island vibes, a large “ex-pat” community, an English-speaking island (sort of), US financial system, US healthcare insurance accepted, US Postal Service, etc. 

Friends and family were simultaneously sad at our departure, and envious of our forthcoming life in paradise. Well, paradise is not always what it seems.

As an aside, in case you are not aware, Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898 after centuries of Spanish rule. It is roughly 3,500 square miles, situated in the Greater Antilles chain, and has a population of approximately three million people.

The Puerto Rican people are very proud of their heritage and extremely protective of their culture. Many of the natives have absolutely zero interest in becoming a US state, fearing the loss of their culture. They cite Hawaii as an example (they are not totally wrong).

Back to my story.

Yes, it is a beautiful island, with incredible views around every corner. The Atlantic and Caribbean oceans that encircle the island are a gorgeous crystal clear blue-green hue. But with its location in the West Indies, comes the threat of hurricanes every year from June - November. The island has still not recovered from the devastating twin hits of Maria and Irma in 2017. As a result of those hurricanes (resulting in shortages of food, water, and fuel), the agriculture industry was almost entirely wiped out. Farms were destroyed. Fishermen whose families fished those waters for generations left the island. Healthcare professionals left for work on the mainland. On an already poor island, thousands of people slid into poverty (the poverty level on the island is 40%). 

Local wildlife

Many houses and buildings damaged during the 2017 hurricanes have still not been repaired (the ubiquitous blue tarps on many rooftops), crumbling structures line the streets and highways. I found this very depressing.

Prior to the hurricanes, the electric grid in Puerto Rico was fragile, due to the corruption of the government-run agency. Afterwards, it was almost non-existent. Our power went out almost weekly, sometimes for just an hour, sometimes for a whole day. During the earthquake in early 2020, we had no power for a week (we considered ourselves lucky compared to some other parts of the island).

Due to a lack of farm-fresh foods, food prices on the island are sky-high. This is also due in part to the antiquated Jones Act of 1917 which stipulates that anything being shipped to the island must first go to the US mainland. On top of this, the few farmers that are still on the island ship their first-rate products off the island to get top dollar, so the locals are left with mediocre produce (farmer’s markets were not at all like what we had experienced in the states).

 Puerto Rican Green Parrot

So not only does everything take longer to get there, now it costs more. And, if like me, you are used to being able to get almost anything you want at supermarkets, and products of a high quality, this was shocking and extremely disappointing. And don’t get me started on my never-ending, island-wide search for really good bread, pastries, and bagels (spoiler: they don’t exist there)!

For someone like me, who is very food-oriented, the lack of really good restaurants in Puerto Rico was surprising. Not to say there are none, but they are few and far between. Fried everything is the major food group. Ethnic restaurants (Thai, Indian, good Asian, etc) are practically non-existent. Good wine stores? I had to drive thirty minutes to get to one. 

I know these issues sound like first world problems, and these things are not important to many people who move to Puerto Rico, but they were to me.

Technically, the island’s official languages are Spanish and English, but only about 20% of the island’s population speak English. My two years of high school Spanish were woefully inadequate. Dealing with electricians, plumbers, etc., were near impossible - thank heavens for Google translate. Not to mention trying to speak with doctors. It was draining trying to communicate. 

Let’s talk about driving in Puerto Rico. I can sum it up this way: it’s like the wild west. Very quickly, you learn to drive defensively for two reasons. One, the roads are a mess, and two, drivers are not very good. One person told us that drivers are bad because there is really no driver education required (that explains alot). 

What we didn’t fully grasp before moving was that we would be the interlopers, viewed as outsiders, coming to dilute the culture. There is an “expat” community, people from the states who have relocated either full or part-time to the island, but we found not much in common with alot of these folks. 

To be fair, our timing was off. About six months after moving, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. So all the amenities at the gated golf/beach resort where we lived were closed, and the complex practically deserted. Another thing we didn’t know before purchasing this apartment was that this was primarily a weekend/vacation second home community (only about 20% of the residents live here full-time). We were hoping for a more active life socializing with other residents, but that was not in the cards.

I discovered that living on an island was not for me. I felt trapped. Yes, I could get in the car and circumvent the island (you could drive the entire island in about three hours), but having to fly to see friends or family was expensive and complicated. 

In April, 2020, I accidentally stepped on a fire ant mound and got a terrible reaction. Luckily, I had access to tele-health with a dermatologist who was able to prescribe meds.

The final blow was in August, 2020 when during my regular daily walk, I slipped in a mud puddle and fractured my wrist. Surgery was required almost immediately and a plate and seven screws are now a permanent part of my anatomy. I may never be able to play tennis again (not that I played before!). Even though our health insurance was accepted widely on the island, the hospital did not accept it, and we had to pay everything up front (the ER, the surgeon, the surgical suite, the hardware inserted in my wrist, the anesthesiologist, the GP who had to clear me for surgery, etc). None of the hospital forms were in English.

I had a sneaking suspicion Puerto Rico was trying to tell me something…go home!

After much soul searching, I moved back to New Jersey in February, 2021. Four snowstorms threw me a welcome home party. To be honest, I am not happy about the circumstances that brought me back, but I am happy to be back. Back to good supermarkets, incredible restaurants, great farmer’s markets, access to music and theatre, and the ability to get in the car and drive to get-togethers with family and friends. 

Jersey peaches!

My advice to anyone thinking of relocating to an island paradise, rent for at least a year before buying. We threw caution to the wind and took a leap of faith, thinking that if it didn’t work out, we could always leave. Easier said than done.

True, New Jersey is not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the girl. 

Author's note: this is a more in-depth version of an article first published in the Healthcare Marketer's Exchange.