Food-obsessed traveler alert! You know you’ve got the disease when:
You think nothing of cramming 3 lunches and 2 dinners into a single day, just to be sure you don’t miss out on a fabulous restaurant.
You arrive at a new destination armed with lists of “the best” Tokyo ramen shops, Paris patisseries, Istanbul spice merchants, Bangkok street food stalls. Your days are planned around what and where you’re going to eat.
You talk food and take notes constantly. What’s that elusive flavor in the Kerala fish curry? Lime leaf? Cardamom? How do you cook a 63 degree egg? In Mexico a cooking teacher gives you a mock “best student” award. Companions roll their eyes in exasperation.
You’ve guessed it. It’s me. Guilty on all three counts.
There’s no cure, so it’s a relief to run into someone who shares your obsession. Instantly you understand each other. No need for apologies.
Within 8 minutes of meeting our driver Raymond at the San Juan airport, I knew we’d hit the jackpot. First he casually turned the conversation to the island’s food, including the dishes—churrasco with guava sauce caught my attention—he cooks for his girlfriend at home. Then he rattled off the names of some worthy local restaurants, including El Capitan, a low profile café in Dorado that serves “the freshest seafood,” and Jose Enrique in San Juan, whose eponymous chef was voted one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2013. Both have passionate local followings.
But he clinched the deal when he described, in tantalizing—or perhaps I should say salivating—detail, the Ruta del Lechon, a hilly road that leads to the Cayey region and dozens of popular eateries specializing in lechon (succulent spit-roasted pig), not to mention arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), roasted batata (sweet potato), and other delectable side dishes that go along with it.
Oh, and do you know about Kiosko El Boricua opposite the surfing beach in Pinones? It’s the place for heavenly fried food like alcapurrias stuffed with conch and bacalaitos, aka salt cod fritters.
So it was that a few days later, we abandoned one of the Caribbean’s most spectacular beaches to spend the day with Raimundo. Trust me—this was not a hardship.
A drive of an hour or so took us up into the hills of Cayey, cruising along PR-184, a winding road through a jungle literally erupting with tall bamboo canes as thick as my arm. Huge bunches of green bananas dangled just out of reach while taro leaves burst from the fertile ground and breadfruit ripened on tall, pointy-leafed trees. “No one has to work here,” Raymond said with a smile. “You just go out and pick whatever you need to eat.”
My idea of happiness.
Suddenly we reached our destination: Guavate. We passed sprawling, open air lechoneras with corrugated tin roofs and signs depicting plump, smiling pigs. One read: Bienvenidos! Cerdo 100% Del Pais! (Welcome! 100 percent local pork!)
As we drove along, I saw that most had open kitchens where the famous flame-roasted pig, tied to a spit, was displayed in all its burnished glory, usually in a glass case open to the back.
Puerto Ricans are wild about lechon—some say it’s the island’s “national” dish—and everyone has a favorite lechonera, but Raymond took us to two of them. We began at El Rancho Original, an establishment so popular that it occupies both sides of the road, one building for eating in, the other for catering and take out. The real party takes place on the weekend, but even at 11 AM on a Friday morning, a crowd was gathering out front and hungry diners were already moving through the line.
What did we want to eat? Lechon of course! A cook grabbed a machete and hacked off a huge chunk of meat from the reverse side of the roast pig. Then he chopped it up into bite size portions of rich, salty, meat topped with a large square of caramelized golden-brown skin so crisp that it shattered like glass when I bit into it.
Meanwhile Raymond guided us through the cafeteria line: the steam table was a virtual primer on Puerto Rican tubers and other popular foods. The servers piled our plates high. Did we want quineitos, green bananas cooked in salted water? Sure! Roasted batatas, sweet potatoes with yellow flesh and arroz con gandules, yellow rice with pigeon peas? Bring it on!
We made our way to a table on one side of the open air dining room. Take a look at my lunch tray(s):
Starting at the top left, moving clockwise, there was savory yellow rice flavored with achiote and cooked with the round legumes known as pigeon peas; hunks of delicious roasted lechon (seasoned overnight with salt, pepper, garlic and thyme) and burnished crackling skin; guajitos, tender, mild-tasting morsels of stewed pig’s stomach; amarillos, sweet caramelized yellow bananas roasted in the oven; the mildly astringent green bananas known as quineitos, and batatas, or sweet potatoes. Not shown here is longaniza, highly seasoned pork sausage, and morcilla, a black blood sausage which sent B into ecstacies.
Raymond, who accomplished the extraordinary feat of having lost 100 pounds recently, stuck to simple roast turkey and a bottle of water. Unlike myself, he was an exemplar of restraint.
Our next stop was Los Pinos, another lechonera with an avid following just down the road. “The pork is different here, not so salty, a little juicier,” said Raymond. “And you’ll see different side dishes.” ( I don’t think Anthony Bourdain got past the pig.)
Like Rancho Original, Los Pinos showed off the piece de resistance behind glass: There were two handsome spit-roasted pigs, already half-eaten, as well as a dozen golden chickens and links of longaniza hanging overhead.
After piling our plates with food, we joined other diners at picnic style tables under lazily turning ceiling fans. Everyone looked very serious about their food. No smiles, just very intense chewing.
In my view there was only a little difference between the two styles of lechon. At Los Pinos, it was definitely less salty than at Rancho Original and a little more succulent. But I was totally intrigued by the side dishes.
The pasteles—similar to tamales, stuffed with a little shredded pork and olives—resembled the wide, flat tamales from the Vera Cruz region of Mexico, but instead of fine cornmeal, they were encased in a thick masa made of mashed yautia and green bananas seasoned with achiote and steamed in a banana leaf.
“The dark color comes from the green bananas,” said Raymond. “ They turn color when they’re cooked. Sometimes you add pumpkin to make the masa softer, and they can also be made with cassava.”
My real favorite, though, were quineitos (second dish from the bottom left)—those hard, slightly astringent green bananas, served in an escabeche made of vinegar, onion, black peppercorns and roasted peppers. The piquant flavors were just the right tangy counterpoint to the rich pork.
Other specialities included roasted purple yautia and white name, or yam, and Raymond’s favorite, savory stewed chickpeas.
It took only an hour and a half to get to Pinones, but it was a world away from the Ruta del Lechon. Described in The Rough Guide as “a languid, low-rent community of shacks, houses and a couple of thousand tenants,” the town borders the public beach that lies along PR-187. On one side are Atlantic breakers, windblown palms and the tangled roots of mangroves; on the other, rows of gaudy souvenir stands and ramshackle eateries.
Instead of roast pork, they offer deliciously greasy fried food, most of it stuffed with seafood.
As The Rough Guide notes, “Pinones is home to the descendents of freed African slaves as well as more recent Domincan immigrants” which makes for a raucous food and music scene. When we edged into the jammed parking lot at Kiosko El Boricua, the lines of locals were already long at the takeout window and tropical salsa was blaring from a boom box somewhere out back.
Boricua, incidentally, means “from the island of Borinquen,” the Taino name for Puerto Rico.
The ladies in the cramped, smoky kitchen were working double-time, trying to keep up with rolling orders for alcapurrias, wildly popular stuffed fritters made of starchy mashed tubers such as plantains or yautia. Tacos were not the usual Mexican suspects, but dough rolled flat, stuffed, folded like a turnover and fried. Pinonos were soft, almost gooey stacks of sweet, orangey plantain slices. All of the above could be stuffed with seasoned meat, chicken or, more likely, assorted fish and shellfish such as jueyes (crab) and carrucho (conch). There are also pinchos, skewers of chicken sizzled over open flames.
We carried our feast in brown paper bags to a rickety white plastic table in back, fetched a couple of beers and dug in. The crab-stuffed alcapurrias were greasy, but good. B loved the taco stuffed with fresh conch, a happy memory from a long ago visit to Vieques.
But for me, it was all about the bacalaitos, thin salt cod fritters cooked on a crusty, blackened griddle. The cod is soaked in water to remove some of the salt, shredded and then fried in a simple flour and baking powder batter seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and a little cilantro. They are greasy, salty and entirely delicious, especially if you alternate bites of the fritter with sips of a cold Medalla beer.
As we ate, we watched one of the kitchen staff hack open green coconuts with a machete, insert straws and hand them to patrons thirsty for fresh coconut water to go with their alcapurrias. Small blackbirds known as changos strutted around the tables scavenging for crumbs.
The shadows grew long. The salsa was loud. We were stuffed.
For three food-obsessed travelers, it had been a perfect day.
But it wouldn’t have happened without Raymond Maldonado, our superb driver, new friend and guide to all things delicious in Puerto Rico. Here, Raymond prepares to tackle the lechon at El Rancho Original with a machete.