6 Foods to Try on Your First Trip to Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a melting pot of cultures, and its food scene is a reflection of its rich history and diverse influences. From succulent roast pork to flavorful rice and beans, Puerto Rican cuisine offers a plethora of mouth-watering options. Visitors to the island can indulge in an array of traditional dishes and unique culinary creations, making it a paradise for food lovers.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed all the dishes I tried during my first trip to Puerto Rico back in 2014. On my recent trip this past spring I confirmed that it really was as good as I remembered. It helps that I really enjoy plantain is all of its various formats.
There are so many tasty local dishes to try, it was hard narrowing it down. It’s tough work but someone has to do it. So here’s my personal pick of the top six foods you need to try on your first visit to Puerto Rico:
If you didn’t eat Mofongo, were you really in Puerto Rico? Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish made of mashed plantains that are formed into a ball and filled with various ingredients, such as chicken, pork, or seafood. It’s then fried to perfection, creating a crispy exterior and a soft, pillowy center. It has its roots in African, Taino, and Spanish cuisine, though it’s believed to have originated in the Dominican Republic, but it quickly gained popularity in Puerto Rico, in part because of its appeal to the diverse cultural groups that make up the island’s population. Embraced by both Spanish colonizers and enslaved Africans, mofongo has a unique flavour and cultural significance that sets it apart from other Puerto Rican dishes.
Over time, mofongo evolved to include different variations, some seasoned with spices, herbs, and other ingredients to enhance its flavour. Today, mofongo is a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine and is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
The best place to try mofongo is at a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant or a local “fonda” where you’ll find it listed as either an appetizer or as a main course. I recommend Los Yeyos in Old San Juan for your first Mofongo.
When an island has a section of mountain road called the Pork Highway, you best stop in for a sample.
Lechon Asado, or roasted pork, is a popular dish in Puerto Rico that has its roots in Spanish cuisine. The dish has been a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine for centuries, and its popularity can be traced back to the early Spanish settlers who brought the tradition of roasting whole pigs over open flames to the island.
In Puerto Rico, Lechon Asado is typically made from a whole pig that is seasoned with spices and herbs, such as garlic, cumin, and oregano, then slow-roasted over an open flame for several hours. The result is a tender, juicy pork that is infused with the flavors of the spices and herbs, and is served with rice, beans, and other traditional Puerto Rican sides.
The “Pork Highway” is a section of route 184 in the eastern part of Puerto Rico that’s lined with a large number of lechoneras – cafeteria style restaurants that specialize in the slow roast pork. It was featured on two of Anthony Bourdain’s tv shows so it was a must-stop for me. I recommend Lechonera Los Pinos as your first stop for deliciousness.
Lechon Asado became popular in Puerto Rico because it was a dish that was well-suited to the island’s warm climate, as roasting whole pigs over an open flame was a great way to feed large groups of people during events such as family gatherings and celebrations. The dish was also a way to make use of the abundant resources on the island, such as pigs and other meats, as well as herbs and spices, which grew well in the tropical climate.
Today, Lechon Asado remains a popular dish in Puerto Rico, and is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. You can typically find it at local markets or at traditional Puerto Rican restaurants. Whether it’s served at a family gathering, a celebration, or a restaurant, Lechon Asado is a dish that is sure to be a hit.
Arroz con Gandules
Arroz con Gandules, or rice with pigeon peas, is a popular dish in Puerto Rico that has its roots in African, Taino, and Spanish cuisine. The dish is believed to have originated in West Africa, but it quickly gained popularity in Puerto Rico due to its delicious flavor and versatility.
In Puerto Rico, arroz con gandules is made by cooking rice with pigeon peas, ham, bacon, onions, garlic, and other spices and seasonings. Tough to be a vegetarian here. The result is a flavourful and filling dish that is a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine. The pigeon peas add a unique flavor and texture to the dish, and they are a good source of protein, fiber, and other nutrients.
The diverse cultural groups that make up the island’s population, including Spanish colonizers, enslaved Africans, and indigenous Taino people embraced arroz con grandules. The dish became a symbol of Puerto Rican culture and identity, and it is now enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. It’s a natural side dish for Lechon asado.
Alcapurrias are another dish you need to try on your first trip to Puerto Rico. Like a lot of Puerto Rican food, they have their roots in Taíno and African cuisine. They’re made from a dough made of grated green plantains, yautía (a type of root vegetable), or yucca that is mixed with spices and seasonings, shaped into cylinders or balls, then filled with meat or seafood, and finally deep-fried. Seriously delicious if you like crispy, carb-y, deep-fried things like I do.
The dish is believed to have originated in Puerto Rico with the Taíno people, who used similar ingredients and cooking methods to make fritters that were filled with seafood or other ingredients. When African slaves were brought to the island, they added their own influence to the dish, including the use of spices and seasonings, and the filling the fritters with meat.
Today, Alcapurrias are a popular dish in Puerto Rico. Whether they are filled with meat, seafood, or other ingredients, Alcapurrias are a delicious and versatile snack that is sure to be a hit with those who try them. They can be found in homes, restaurants, street vendors, and other venues throughout the island. My recommendation is to window shop along the Luquillo Kiosks until you find alcapurrias calling out to you. Great with a mojito or Pina colada by the beach.
Tostones are thin slices of green plantains that are twice-fried to a golden brown. They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, making them the perfect side dish or snack. You can find tostones at local street food vendors, traditional Puerto Rican restaurants, or at local markets.
It is believed that Tostones originated in the Caribbean and South America, where plantains have been a staple food for centuries. Plantains are a type of banana that are starchy and not sweet, making them a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes. When plantains are sliced, twice-fried, and seasoned with salt, they become Tostones.
Tostones became popular in Puerto Rico because they’re an affordable and easily accessible food, as plantains are readily available on the island. They’re also a versatile food that can be served in many different ways, making them a popular snack or side dish. Get them as a side dish with just about any item on the menu (like the pork in plantain gravy above) from El Jibarito in Old San Juan.
Today, tostones are a popular food in Puerto Rico, and they can be found in homes, restaurants, street vendors, and other venues throughout the island. Whether they are served as a snack, appetizer, or side dish, Tostones are a delicious and convenient food that is sure to be a hit.
The sweet bread known as mallorca, which has become a popular breakfast food in Puerto Rico, was brought to the island by immigrants from the Spanish island of mallorca in the 19th century. The bread is typically made with eggs, sugar, and lard, and is formed into a spiral shape before being baked until it is golden brown. Over time, mallorca became a beloved staple of Puerto Rican cuisine and is now commonly served with a variety of fillings, such as ham and cheese, and is often accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate or café con leche. You can find malloras at many bakeries and cafes throughout the island, and has become an iconic dish of Puerto Rican culture.
For a no frills, but solid breakfast, check out Cafetería Mallorca in Old San Juan for a Mallorca with egg, ham, and cheese.
Puerto Rican cuisine is like a joyful culinary fiesta that combines a delightful mix of Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno flavors. It’s a true flavor explosion! Mofongo, lechon asado, alcapurrias, arroz con gandules, tostones, and Mallorcas… these popular Puerto Rican dishes are not only bursting with flavour but also perfectly suited for the island’s sunny vibes. They’re like the Caribbean sunshine on a plate, making the most of the island’s abundant resources.
Whether you’re a foodie or just looking to try something new, these traditional Puerto Rican food is sure to tantalize your taste buds and leave you wanting more. So go ahead, dig in and savor the flavors of this delicious cuisine!