Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island that is a self-governing commonwealth of the United States of America. Located in the Caribbean Sea to the east of the Dominican Republic and west of the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico lies on a key shipping lane to the Panama Canal, the Mona Passage.
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.
Top Places to Eat in Puerto Rico
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.
Magic pancakes (brunch)
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.
Things to Drink in Puerto Rico
Unlike most U.S. jurisdictions, Puerto Rico’s drinking age is 18. That, coupled with the fact that the U.S. does not require U.S. residents to have a passport to travel between Puerto Rico and the continental U.S., means Puerto Rico is a popular destination for teenagers on spring break. Puerto Rico has a relatively relaxed attitude toward alcohol consumption compared with most US states, more similar to attitudes in Europe and other Caribbean countries. Beer and hard liquor are available at almost every grocery store, convenience store, panadería (bakery), connell cabinet shops, and meat shops. There are many bars just off the sidewalk that cater to those of age, especially in San Juan and Old San Juan.
Puerto Rico is obviously famous for its rum and rum-based cocktails, and is the birthplace of the world renowned Piña Colada. Several fine rums are distilled in Puerto Rico, including Bacardì, Captain Morgan and Don Q. Rum is not a connoisseur’s drink in the same way as wine or whiskey, and you may get a few odd looks if you ask for it straight since it is almost always drunk as a mixer. This is a shame, because the best aged Puerto Rican rums are drinks of dazzling subtlety and extremely high quality. Perhaps the best rum for a tourist to get in Puerto Rico is known as Ron del Barrilito. It isn’t available in the mainland US, and is considered to be the closest to the rums distilled in the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, both in taste and the way it is distilled. It has an amber-brown color and a delicious, clean taste with a soft dried-fruit nose, sugary-sweet flavor, a silky texture, and a slightly smoky finish. Aged rum is very refreshing on a hot day on the rocks and garnished a mint leaf. Common highballs are mostly of Cuban origin; they include the Mojíto (rum, lime juice, mint leaves, and seltzer water) and the Cuba Libre (spiced rum and cola), often known jokingly as a Mentiríta (literally “little lie”), a stab at the Cuban government.
The local moonshine is known as pitorro or cañita, distilled (like rum) from fermented sugarcane. It is then poured into a jug with other flavorings such as grapes, prunes, breadfruit seeds, raisins, dates, mango, grapefruit, guava, pineapple, and even cheese or raw meat. Its production, while illegal, is widespread and a sort of national pastime. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Puerto Rican home around Christmastime, it is likely that someone will eventually bring out a bottle of it. Use caution as it is quite strong, sometimes reaching 80% alcohol by volume (although typical alcohol levels are closer to 40-50%).
During Christmas season, Puertoricans also drink Coquito, an eggnog-like alcoholic beverage made with rum, egg yolks, coconut milk, coconut cream, sweet condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It is almost always homemade, and is often given as a gift during the Christmas holidays. It is delicious, but very caloric. It will also make you very sick if you drink too much of it, so be careful if someone offers you some.
Most stores stock a locally-produced beer called Medalla Light that can be purchased for $1-$2 each. Medalla Light is first in the Puerto Rican market share, and until recently was only available in Puerto Rico (It is now being exported to select US markets such as Florida). Other beer options for the discriminating drinker include Presidente, a light pilsner beer from nearby Dominican Republic (note: it’s a different brew from the Dominican version), and Beck’s. Beck’s imported to Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean is a different brew from the one that makes it to the U.S., and is considered by many to be better. Other beers which have popularity on the island are Budweiser (Bud Light is not available or very difficult to find), Heineken, Corona and Coors Light, which happen to be one of the prime international markets. Many other imported beers are also available, but usually at a higher price.
Most of the beers sold vary from 10 to 12 ounce bottles or cans. The portions are small (compared to the Mainland) so that the beer may be consumed before it has time to warm up.
Tap water is treated and is officially safe to drink, though it tastes rather chlorinated; many opt for bottled water instead.
If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may find heaven in Puerto Rico. Nearly every place to eat, from the most expensive restaurants to the lowliest street vendors, serves coffee that is cheap, powerful, and delicious. Puerto Ricans drink their coffee in a way particular to the Caribbean, known as a café cortadito (literally, “coffee cut [with milk]”), which is half espresso coffee and half sweetened steamed milk. A cup of coffee at a good panadería is rarely more than $1.50.
As a legacy of Puerto Rico’s status as one of centers of world sugercane production, nearly everything is drunk or eaten with sugar added. This includes coffee, teas, and alcoholic drinks, as well as breakfast foods such as avena (hot oatmeal-like cereal) and mallorcas (heavy, yeasted egg buns with powdered sugar and jam). Be aware of this if you are diabetic.