A fresh bowl of octopus salad will fuel your energy for the fried foods that await you in Puerto Rico. (Photo: Jessica van Dop DeJesus)
Puerto Rico is home to a multicultural society that lays claim to European, African and Taino Indian roots. Plus, as a U.S. territory, the island has experienced more than 100 years of North American influences. This cultural mix is evident in Puerto Rico’s cuisine, which features an eclectic range of popular dishes, from roasted pork and fried plantains to grilled ham, egg and cheese sandwiches. When in Puerto Rico, put these foods on your must-try list.
Island life makes for fresh seafood. The southern coast of Puerto Rico showcases an array of seafood restaurans with Caribbean views. When hunger strikes, forgo grilled or fried fish and order an octopus salad instead. This colorful dish is made with a mix of octopus, onions, tomatoes and olives and then seasoned with vinegar and olive oil. It’s a light alternative to many of the rich, fried foods you encounter on the island. El Marullo Bar and Restaurant at Inches Beach in Patillas serves it in a to-go cup perfect to bring to the beach. At Annie’s Place in the town of Cabo Rojo, the salad is served with tostones and a view of one of the most beautiful sunsets on the island.
Lechón Asado (Roasted Pork)
One of the main staples of Puerto Rican cuisine is lechón, or roasted pork. Don’t be surprised to see Puerto Ricans order a whole roasted pig for big celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and even Christmas parties. The pig is usually cooked outdoors, slowly spinning over a fire, which makes for succulent meat and a savory, crispy skin called cuerito.
Head to Guavate, a town in Cayey (an hour south of San Juan), where you’ll find along the “Pork Highway” rows of restaurants known as lechoneras that serve up whole roasted pig. Lechonera Los Pinos is a favorite; it has live music on weekends. Eat your lechón and dance off the calories!
Tostones, Mofongo and Viandas — Oh, My!
Lechón is always served with a selection of traditional side dishes — try as many as you can possibly eat. One of the most popular sides is arroz con gandules, a savory saffron rice served with pigeon peas. Tostones, or fried plantains, are also a much-loved option and come one of two ways, green or ripe. Fried green plantains are salty, crispy and often dipped in a blend of mayonnaise and ketchup. On the other hand, fried ripe plantains are sticky and soft with a perfect balance of savory and sweet flavors. Still hungry? Mofongo, mashed fried plantains, is also commonly served as a side dish. Dig into shrimp-stuffed mofongo while admiring the ocean view at Casa del Mofongo in the town of Naguabo.
As you travel the island, scan menus for viandas, a selection of cooked root vegetables such as yucca, taro root and yautia. Taste some of the best at El Bosque in the town of Adjuntas — the restaurant has the added bonus of mountain views and proximity to Cerro Guilarte, one of the highest peaks on the island.
Finally, if you’re visiting Puerto Rico during the Christmas season, ask for pasteles, a typical holiday treat. With a dough of green bananas, plantains, taro root and pumpkin, pasteles are typically filled with stewed pork and wrapped in a banana leaf.
Puerto Rican Sandwiches
A delicious and inexpensive breakfast on the island is a grilled ham, egg and cheese sandwich on a sweet roll (Mallorca bread). Cafetería Mallorca in Old San Juan and Ricomini Bakery in the town of Mayaguez are the perfect places to try it.
Be sure to find yourself a media noche, a sandwich served on a soft roll with roasted pork, Swiss cheese and pickles. The place to have it is at Kasalta Bakery in Ocean Park, San Juan. The sandwich is so delicious that even President Obama ordered one when he visited the island.
Frituras (Fried Snack Food)
There’s a joke that in Puerto Rico everything is fried — and that’s partially true. To sample the deep-fried goodness, buy frituras, fried snack foods. One of the best places to find frituras is in San Juan’s Piñones neighborhood, a 15-minute drive from San Juan Airport. There you will come across a series of kiosks dishing out fried empanadas filled with things like crab and octopus.
Order the savory bacalaítos, a codfish fritter that is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, and don’t leave town without indulging in an alcapurria. A kind of fritter typically stuffed with ground beef or crab, alcapurrias make for a tasty snack as you sit on the beach in Piñones.