Puerto Rican food is an exuberant blend of Spanish, Taíno, American and African influences, a rich Caribbean melange known as cocina criolla (Créole cooking), not unlike Cuban and Dominican cuisine. Traditional food can be exceptionally appetizing, but it can also get monotonous after a while, the repertoire of dishes being fairly similar at most restaurants. To spice things up, seek out the island’s surprising number of local specialities, or at the top end, sample some of the region’s most creative restaurants, innovators of Nuevo Latino cuisine. When it comes to drinks, Puerto Rico is well entrenched as the Caribbean’s leading rum producer and inventor of the piña colada, while its once lauded coffee is gradually winning back international acclaim.
Core components in any Puerto Rican meal are plantains (plátanos), a type of savoury banana that is only eaten cooked: tostones are fried plantains usually served as an appetizer or starchy side dish. Mofongo is the best-known plantain dish and essential eating, at least once. Rice, invariably accompanied by beans (arroz con habichuelas) or gandules (pigeon peas), is often served as a meal by itself in cheap canteens, and considered stereotypically Puerto Rican. It’s the dish Puerto Ricans feel most nostalgic for overseas and not as bland as it sounds: kidney beans are richly stewed with pork and spices, Spanish-style, before being poured over the rice.
Puerto Rican cuisine has inherited plenty of other Spanish legacies. Adobo was originally a Spanish marinade, spreading throughout the colonies where it was adapted to local ingredients. In the Philippines adobo became the national dish, while in Puerto Rico the word generally refers to the seasoning of crushed peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil and lime juice rubbed into meats before grilling. Other Spanish traditions include mouthwatering lechón asado, or barbecued pig, still a Castilian speciality but with an earthier quality here, inherited from the Taíno.
Another national favourite is asopao, a rice stew served with chicken or seafood from a caldero (traditional kettle). Like mofongo, each restaurant tends to have its own unique interpretation of the dish.
Puerto Ricans love pork and chicken, with arroz con pollo (fried chicken and rice) featuring on just about every menu along with various incarnations of pechuga (grilled chicken breast) and chuletas (pork chops). Other juicy grilled meats that appear regularly in most restaurants include churrasco (skirt steak) and chuletón (T-bone steak).
Being an island, it’s no surprise that seafood and shellfish form an important part of the restaurant scene, with prawns, crab, lobster and octopus popping up on most menus along with the ever-present chiollo (red snapper) and dorado (mahi-mahi).
Everywhere you go in Puerto Rico, meals invariably end with coffee and flan (a rich blend of eggs, milk and cream cheese, a bit like a custard tart), usually vanilla-flavoured but occasionally involving tropical fruits such as guava. Restaurants often engage in feverish competition to decide who has the best flan, and as with many modest-looking Puerto Rican dishes, the results can be spectacular and bursting with flavour.
Other traditional desserts include guayaba (guava) with queso blanco or queso del país (white cheese), though the guava is usually preserved in syrup and is sickly sweet – best eaten in small doses. Cakes feature heavily, and are also available through local bakeries and supermarkets. Coconut is a common ingredient in many desserts, and you’ll come across plenty of examples of crispy coconut squares and candied coconut rice. Candied fruits such as dulce de papaya are also common sweet treats. Locally made ice cream (helados) in tangy fruit flavours is incredibly refreshing and can be found in even the smallest towns, sold in cones or tubs for under $2.
Vegetarians will not be overly excited by the options in Puerto Rico, though San Juan does have several vegetarian restaurants and diners all over the island are starting to offer vegetarian choices. Though cocina criolla isn’t particularly vegetarian-friendly, given their links with the US, most Puerto Ricans understand the concept and are fairly sympathetic when it comes to special requests. Remember that even plain mofongo or rice and beans often contains pork or pork fat.
Puerto Rico’s tropical climate is perfect for growing all sorts of luscious, exotic fruits, though modernization (and US import practices) has taken its toll and the selection on offer can be remarkably poor compared to other countries in the tropics. Most notably, the range of local fruits stocked in supermarkets is tiny, reflecting the relatively small scale of fruit farming on the island: drive around the hills in the summer and you’ll see literally thousands of juicy, ripe mangoes that have been left to rot on the ground (it’s usually OK to help yourself, but check first if it looks like the tree stands on private land). The best place to buy fresh fruit is at the roadside, where local vendors sell seasonal crops: in addition to mangoes, you’ll see huge avocados (Feb to April) and pineapples (summer). Guava and papaya are traditional Puerto Rican fruits that have lost popularity in recent decades, but are still used in numerous preserves and jellies (jams). Bananas are also still grown on the island.
Adventurous eaters should try Puerto Rico’s more unusual fruits: kids love the caimito (also known as the star apple, with a vaguely grapelike flavour), quenepa (Spanish lime) and zapote (a small fruit with a complex taste, blending peach, avocado and vanilla).
Snacking is a Puerto Rican passion, and the island’s cocina en kiosco provides a highly addictive (if coronary-inducing) plethora of deep-fried delights to savour. Roadside stalls, generally known as kioscos (also kioskos) are some of the best places to try cheap Puerto Rican food: some kioscos are collected together in areas on highways (such as those in Luquillo), along the coast (in Piñones) or in the mountains (Guavate), but you’ll find individual stalls all over the island and in many town plazas. In larger towns, the market (mercado) is the best place to seek out no-frills snack stalls, as well as sellers of fresh fruit and coconut juices, while almost every town and village has a local café or bar that sells similar fare along with potent cups of coffee and cold beer.
The most common kiosco food (cocina en kiosco) is deep-fried fritters, especially bacalaítos, thin and crunchy cod fritters, battered with garlic, oregano and sweet chilli, and alcapurrias (mashed yautia root and green plantain, stuffed with ground meat and fried). Other favourites are rellenos de papa (ground meat and mashed potato balls), empanadillas (turnovers filled with meat, more crispy than the Mexican version) and deep-fried tacos, more like Chinese spring rolls than Mexican-style filled tortillas. See the Language section for a complete menu reader.
Tap water in Puerto Rico is technically safe to drink, though locals have mixed feelings about it: it’s treated so it should be clean, but the amount of chemicals in the water means you that may prefer to use a filter. Note also that after heavy rains some of the supply can get contaminated, so tap water is best avoided at these times. If in doubt, stick to bottled water, which is cheap and easily available.
Soft drinks and juices
The full range of soft drinks and carton juices are available from shops, cafés and supermarkets in Puerto Rico, but far more tempting are natural juices, such as jugo de china (orange juice), and batidas (fruit shakes), sold from stalls all over the island. Coconut juice (agua de coco) is also best experienced fresh, from small vendors at local markets or from private sellers and roadside stalls in the country. Other local drinks to watch out for are parcha (made from passion fruit) and tamarindo, the sour-sweet juice made from tamarind.
On a sweltering day, nothing provides relief like a piragua, shaved ice drizzled with syrup and sold for around $1 from brightly decorated carts all over the island. For a real local experience, seek out maví, a fermented drink made from tree bark and often described as root beer. Primarily a home-made drink sold at markets and food stalls in towns, or from private houses in the country, you’ll have to ask around to find the best supplier.
Puerto Rico has produced some of the best coffee in the world since the nineteenth century, and the island is beginning to win back international respect for its small gourmet brands. The lush Central Cordillera cradles over ten thousand coffee farms, most selling beans to just two large roasters: Grupo Jiménez (which produces Café Rico, Café Yauco Selecto, and the most successful brand, Café Yaucono) and Garrido & Co (Café Crema and Café Adjuntas). Collectively they control around ninety percent of the domestic market and often dominate supermarket shelves, but a growing number of smaller cooperatives cultivate, process and sell their own coffee. You can visit many of these mountain fincas and buy whole or ground beans directly from them, though drinking coffee in cafés and restaurants is another story: most of these are supplied by the mass producers, and sometimes you’ll be drinking coffee that hasn’t even been grown on the island. Café can be ordered con leche (with milk), negrito con azúcar (black with sugar) or just cortao (with a drop of milk) and puya (no sugar). For decaf, ask for sin cafeína or just descafeinado. Tea is available in some places, usually the imported black or herbal varieties you’d expect to find in the US, but Puerto Ricans are not big tea drinkers.
Puerto Rico’s favourite drink and one of its biggest exports is rum (ron), a potent spirit often served with Coke (rum and Coke with a wedge of lemon or lime is called a Cuba libre) and various liquors to create all sorts of mind-bending cocktails. Buying rum in supermarkets is much cheaper than in the US and Europe, with decent bottles of the main brands around $10.
Puerto Rico once had hundreds of small, family-owned distilleries, but only two operate today. The largest by far is Bacardi, which produces its signature Superior brand as well as various fruit- and coconut-laced flavours at its plant in Cataño. The other producer and only home-grown Puerto Rican distiller is Ponce-based Destilería Serrallés, which produces the Don Q brand of rums. Ron del Barrilito is now the most respected independent brand on the island, though it has to buy raw product from Bacardi.
Puerto Rico’s national cocktail is the piña colada, supposedly created in a San Juan hotel in the 1950s, and you’ll also see sangría served in bars and restaurants, particularly on the west coast: the Puerto Rican version is usually a potent rum cocktail mixed with fruit juices.
Puerto Rican beer is less appealing, now represented solely by the Medalla brand, produced in Mayagüez by Cervecería India, a light lager that’s refreshing enough on a hot day but nothing special. Presidente beer from the Dominican Republic is almost as prevalent. Imported beers tend to follow the traditional US school of light, Budweiser-type brews, and it’s hard to find a wider selection of real ales and microbrews, even in San Juan.
Note that the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18, but it is strictly forbidden to drink on the streets (the beach is fine).
Stay in Puerto Rico long enough, and you’ll come to either love or hate mofongo, the celebrated national dish that appears on almost every menu on the island. Made from fried plantains mashed with garlic and olive oil, the origins of mofongo are hazy (it’s also popular in Cuba and the Dominican Republic), but most experts think it was influenced primarily by the island’s African traditions. Puerto Ricans are addicted to the stuff but, because it can be time-consuming and hard to make, tend to eat it in restaurants rather than at home. After an initial taste, most foreign tourists tend to avoid mofongo, put off by its heavy, starchy base, but the secret is to know where to go: not all mofongo is made equal, and variations differ wildly from place to place. Mofongo can be served plain, shaped into balls as a side dish for fried meat, or stuffed (mofongo relleno) with pork, chicken or seafood such as shrimp, octopus or lobster. The mashed and fried base can vary, made with savoury green plantains or sweet bananas, while cooks tend to have their own interpretation of how to present the various components: some simply stuff the meat inside while others fill the plantain base like a giant bowl. Vegetarians should check before ordering plain mofongo, as traditionally the plantains are also mashed with pork crackling.