El Colonial

Most of my travels become Trips about Eating.

Interspered between meals are lots of walking or taking public transportation about, trying to do as much as possible to feel like a native and not a tourist, and sleeping late or taking naps.

But the meal is definitely one of the high point, or, in a pinch, a sightseeing expedition that invariably relates back to food. In Minneapolis, Mickey's Diner. In St. Paul, the Mill City Farmers Market on Saturday morning. In Boston, a desert place where, as my daughter puts it, you can get cake with cake with a side of cake. (It's sort of the Chez Panisse of desert places, where each selection comes with cunning little side dishes that amp up the flavor of the main choice. )

Best meal in Florida: El Colonial: a Cuban restaurant about 35 minutes north of Palm Beach, in what probably was a pancake place in an earlier incarnation. Almost no atmosphere; almost perfect food. The tables are white formica, the booths are black pleather, and through the use of occasional pieces of fabric, some red is introduced into the mix. Clearly a place with regular customers, and a good sign was the number of cars in the parking lot. We'd been noticing how empty all the restaurants looked, and so it was reassuring to have to look for a parking place when we found the place.

The menu was direct and light on the description. You could choose grilled, fried, or another category I can't recall. And within the grilled choices, you could opt for types of meat or shrimp or fish chunks. Honest.

I chose "Shrimp on the Grill." When I ordered "grilled shrimp," the very nice waiter reiterated "shrimp on the grill" ? I agreed, and then chose as my three sides mixed rice, boiled yuca, and fried plantains. The best part was that I had no idea what any of these tasted like, and I was still ready to try them.

On one plate I had several perfectly grilled shrimp resting on a bed of red pepper, iceberg lettuce and croutons with some oil and wine vinegar that mized with the smoky juices from the shrimp and turned into a salad. The second plate held a mound of onions on top of the yuca; rice mixed with black beans and spice; and carmelized, sweet, slightly chewy banana-like plaintains. The yuca tasted a bit like a slightly nuttier, slightly firmer, white potato.

And this is my favorite way to eat: many different flavors, really fresh and clean tastes, lots of little tastes and choices of texture and color and kinds of foods. A bit of adventure, a bit of reassuring familarity. Comfortable environment, great service, no pretensions.

Sangria to drink, but next time cold beer.