One interesting aspect of travel is the opportunity to learn about local customs and cuisine. In Puerto Rico, exploring a menu and interacting with waiters also provides an opportunity to learn new words and practice our conversational Espanol.
Here’s a sampling of Puerto Rican food served at the Metropol Restaurant in Fajardo:
Ensalada de de aguacate – a simple but delicious avocado salad with lentils in a balsamic glaze served over greens
Mofongo Marisco – Nearly every menu in Puerto Rico includes a variation of mofongo. This is the traditional comfort food here…the equivalent of mashed potatoes in the U.S. but with a thicker consistency. Ingredients include fried green plantains mashed together with yucca, garlic, stock and olive oil. Sometimes the mofongo is stuffed with protein. Here it is served smothered with seafood.
Pechuga de pollo – chicken breast served with black beans and rice and candied ripe plantains
Churrasco – grilled skirt steak served with veggies and potato salad
Chuletas Kan Kan – crusty, deep fried, melt-in-your-mouth pork chops served with Spanish rice and tostones (unripe fried plantain slices)
Puerto Ricans also love their roasted pork (lechon asado). Lechonerias are everywhere in Puerto Rico, most commonly in the form of informal highway stands. Roasted pork is commonly served with side dishes such as rice with pigeon peas and plantains.
Route 184 near the town of Guavate in eastern Puerto Rico is known locally as pork highway. A series of cute little pig graphics announces one’s arrival in hog heaven. More than a dozen lechonerias are concentrated within a half mile section of this remote, rural road. The pork highway is the epitome of retail clustering. This community went whole hog in its efforts to attract visitors.
To get things started, simply step up to the counter and gaze at the expression on the face of the whole pig as it rests stoically on a spit above hot coals.
Then order some slow roasted pork and select from an assortment of side dishes. Once the order is placed, watch closely as the chef hacks furiously at the pig with his machete. A large chunk of flesh is transferred to the cutting board for further processing.
When the desired serving portion is achieved, the chef places the meat in a Styrofoam clamshell container. The serving includes mouth-watering tender meat as well as bones, crispy skin and other pork byproducts. After the chef’s assistant adds the side dishes, proceed to the cashier and pay about $12 for a satisfying meal including beverage.
Obtain some plastic forks and spoons and a healthy supply of paper napkins from the condiment station, then have a seat at a picnic table or proceed to the nearby community park for an outdoor picnic.
Another staple in the Puerto Rican diet is empanadillas…a pastry filled with beef or chicken, then deep-fried to a golden brown, crusty shell. These snacks are typically displayed in an enclosed glass box under heat lamps. In a residential neighborhood, a front yard empanadilla stand with tables and chairs quickly evolves into a gathering spot where area residents catch up on the news of the day.
Food trucks parked along commercial highways are a major element of the food culture throughout Puerto Rico. In addition to lechon asado, there are also vendors that specialize in barbequed chicken, frappes, fruit stands and Creole food. These vendors are highly patronized by the motoring public. Each stand offers a small plastic table and chairs under a makeshift awning for customers who prefer to dine alfresco.
During the lunch hour and at other times as well, it is not unusual to be delayed on the highway as hungry drivers unexpectedly enter and exit the road in the vicinity of a food stand. Sometimes, customers cross busy four-lane highways on foot in order to gain access to a popular food truck on the opposite side of the road. Although this practice is unsafe and contributes to traffic congestion, the police appear at ease with the situation as they wait in line patiently with other customers.