Whether on a dusty street or in a glittery, upscale restaurant, Puerto Rican food offers a burst of spices and a rainbow of colors. But ask Puerto Ricans what the most traditional foods of the island are, and you’ll probably get a range of answers about what foods to try and where to find them. To make sure you’re not missing out, here’s how to prioritize your Puerto Rico vacation around the best local meals.
Street Food Staples
To many Puerto Ricans, there’s nothing more rico than lechón—suckling pig roasted on a spit, served up roadside. To visit the island’s most-loved route of lechoneras, make your way to Ruta del Lechón, the pork highway in Guavate, a winding road reached from Exit 32 off San Juan’s Highway 52. Take your pick from among any of the roadside stands, though well-loved spots include Los Pinos and El Nuevo Rancho, complete with its own dance floor for working up an appetite. You’re in for a memorable Puerto Rico experience when a vendor serves you a hunk of fried pork, chopped off with a machete, before you go off and dance to merengue music. Dancing or no, make sure you don’t forget the sides: Lechón goes great with a helping of pastelón, Puerto Rico’s version of lasagna, a sweet-and-salty casserole layered with meat and plantains.
The dancing continues Thursday and Friday night at La Placita in the Santurce district. During the day, head to one of the small cafes surrounding the mercado for ceviche made with mahi mahi, grouper or octopus. Fresh ceviche is the best way to enjoy crisp tostones, made from plantain that’s smashed and fried to create a crunchy and pillowy cross between french fries and potato chips. And of course, no trip to Puerto Rico is complete without a plate of mofongo, the staple Puerto Rican plantain dish. Every chef does mofongo differently, but it typically involves mashing the plantains and then mixing them with seafood or meat, and a spicy or buttery sauce. The dish is versatile enough to go from rustic to high-end, like the pork belly mofongo at La Jaquita Baya.
A Foodie Feast
The secret’s out about another, decidedly more upscale treasure in Santurce: José Enrique—the celebrated restaurant named for its Santurce-native owner. Once the exclusive domain of San Juan gourmands, Enrique’s inclusion in Food and Wine‘s Best New Chefs in 2013 means the spot is now on the radar of the global foodie scene. Local, organic ingredients make up the constantly-changing menu, but the crispy and dramatically flayed yellow snapper is the restaurant’s signature dish. For bold flavor, try Enrique’s take on traditional serenta de bacalao, a salad made of boiled egg with still-runny yolks, tomato and salted, dried cod. And if you’re looking for something sweeter and more familiar, there’s always the sensational coffee flan.