Puerto Rico is a drive-through buffet. All you need is a car, an appetite the bigger the better, time, and the realization that your swimsuit won't fit as well when you get to your destination. The island has the most diverse culinary offerings in the entire Caribbean. There's something for everyone. You can enjoy the finest Puerto Rican food at most traditional town squares and also for those of you who get homesick have a steak at a place like Morton's.
Authentic Puerto Rican food comida criolla can be summed up in two words: plantains and pork, usually served up with rice and beans arroz y habichuelas. It is rarely if ever spicy, and to many visitors' surprise has very little in common with Mexican cooking.
Plantains plátanos are essentially savory bananas and the primary source of starch back in the bad old days, although you will occasionally also encounter other tropical tubers like yuca cassava and ñame white yam. Served with nearly every meal, incarnations include:
mofongo — plantains mashed, fried, and mashed again, when stuffed relleno with seafood this is probably the best-known Puerto Rican dish of them all
tostones — twice deep-fried plantain chips, best when freshly made
sopa de plátanos — mashed plantain soup
The main meat eaten on Puerto Rico is pork cerdo, with chicken a close second and beef and mutton way down the list. Seafood, surprisingly, is only a minor part of the traditional repertoire: the deep waters around Puerto Rico are poorly suited to fishing, and most of the seafood served in restaurants for tourists is in fact imported. Still, fresh local fish can be found in restaurants across the east and west coast of the island, especially in Naguabo or Cabo Rojo respectively. Common fish used include chillo red snapper, pulpo octopus, jueyes land crab and carrucho conch; the latter two are often served in salads which resemble ceviche in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, served refreshingly cold with vinegar and lime juice.
The pinnacle of Puerto Rican porkcraft is undoubtedly lechón asado - roast whole suckling piglet. Slow-cooked over an open wood flame for hours, this succulent masterpiece rivals the best of any barbeque joint in the American South. Lechón is typcially served at specialty restaurants, often little more than roadside shacks, which serve mile-high portions accompanied by a dizzying array of very caloric side dishes listed below. To experience authentic lechón, take a trip down Route 184, the Pork Highway La Ruta del Lechón, in the island's southeast corner around the town of Guavate. This rural mountain community is famous for its many lechóneros, where you can kick back with a fantastic meal and a Medalla while watching the sun set over the scenic Cordillera Central mountains.
Other incarnations of pork Boricua-style include:
chicharrones — crispy dry pork rinds, Puerto Rico's favorite snack
chuletas — huge, juicy pork chops, available grilled or deep fried.
cuajo — slow-cooked pork stomach
longaniza — pork sausage flavored with annatto, similar to but less spicy than chorizo
morcilla — savory blood sausage black pudding
pernil — pork shoulder with oregano and garlic
A few other puertorriqueño classics include:
alcapurria — fritter made from mashed tubers and vegetables stuffed with meat, chicken, or crab
arroz con gandules — rice with pigeon peas, the unofficial national dish of Puerto Rico
arroz con jueyes — rice with crab meat
asopao — a spicy tomato stew with rice and chicken or seafood
bacalaitos — salted cod fritters
empanadillas — fried pastries stuffed with cheese, meat or lobster, similar to what Jamaicans call a patty
quenepas — a green grape-like fruit common in summer, don't eat the skin or seeds and watch where you put them, they stain clothes easily
sofrito — a fragrant sauce of sweet pepper, herbs, garlic and oil, used as base and seasoning for many dishes
Strict vegetarians will have a tough time in Puerto Rico, although the larger towns have restaurants that can cater to their tastes. Traditionally almost all Puerto Rican food is prepared with lard, and while this has been largely supplanted by cheaper corn oil, mofongo is still commonly made using lard, bacon or both.
places to eat
Meals in sit-down restaurants tend to be fairly pricey and most touristy restaurants will happily charge $10-30 for main dishes. Restaurants geared for locals may not appear much cheaper, but the quality and quantity of food is usually considerably better. It's not uncommon for restaurants to charge tourists more than locals, so bring along a local friend if you can! Note that many restaurants are closed on Mondays and Tuesday.
If you want to eat like a local, look for places that are out of the way. There is a roadside food stand or 10 at every corner when you get out of the cities. Deep-fried foods are the most common, but they serve everything from octopus salad to rum in a coconut. You might want to think twice and consult your stomach before choosing some items - but do be willing to try new things. Most of the roadside stand food is fantastic, and if you're not hung up with the need for a table, you might have dinner on a beach, chomping on all sorts of seafood fritters at $1 a pop, drinking rum from a coconut. At the end of dinner, you can see all the stars. In the southwest of the island, in Boqueron, you might find fresh oysters and clams for sale at 25 cents a piece. The beach at Piñones is a particularly well-kept secret; the numerous food stands lining this lovely beach west of Isla Verde offer a dizzying variety of cholesterol-laden traditional Puerto Rican foods such as bacalaítos fried codfish fritters, empanaditas fried pastry dough stuffed with meat, potatoes, or plantains, and chicarrones crispy fried pork skins.
If you are really lucky, you might get invited to a pork roast. It's not just food, it's a day-long affair - and it's an unforgettable cultural experience. Folks sing, drink, hang out telling stories, and help turning the pig as it roasts; when it's ready, you'll likely find yourself served a succulent cut of pork paired with arroz con gandules rice and beans.
Typical fast food restaurants, such as McDonald's and Wendy's are numerous in Puerto Rico and identical to their American counterparts. Some feel, however, that fried chicken restaurants are somewhat different in PR. Pollo Tropical is a fast food restaurant unique to Puerto Rico that serves more traditional Puerto Rican
Finally, there are some wonderful restaurants, and like everywhere, the best are found mostly near the metropolitan areas. Old San Juan is probably your best bet for a 4-star meal in a 4-star restaurant. However if your experimental nature wanes, there are lots of "Americanized" opportunities in and around San Juan. Good luck, keep your eyes open for the next roadside stand, and make sure to take advantage of all the sports to counteract the moving buffet.