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Essential Dishes in Puerto Rico (and Where to Try Them)

By Jessica van Dop DeJesus

Mar 29, 2021

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The Taino Bowl at San Juan hotel the Dreamcatcher is a vegetarian feast.

Photo by Jessica van Dop DeJesus

The Taino Bowl at San Juan hotel the Dreamcatcher is a vegetarian feast.

Puerto Rican food is so much more than rice and beans.

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Puerto Rico has a rich, diverse culinary history. From the yuca with its indigenous Taino roots to plantains hailing from Africa, the food is as vibrant as the locals. Now more than ever, local chefs and restaurateurs are going back to their roots, using local ingredients and reinventing classic dishes.

Puerto Rican food might be known for its rice, beans, and mofongo, but there’s so much more to indulge in, especially when you get acquainted with tropical root vegetables and fruit. Make sure to try delicacies like a big buttery Caribbean avocado or a ripe, tart passion fruit off the vine too. Here are selected essential Puerto Rican dishes and some suggestions for where to try them.

Lechon asado

Lechón, roasted pork, is the quintessential Puerto Rican dish. There are even songs dedicated to this delicacy. Roasted for many hours over hot coals, lechón asado is a must try. Head to the center of the island, to the many lechoneras that come to life over the weekend with live music and heaps of roasted pork. The town of Cayey in the Guavate area is known for its many lechoneras. These lively restaurants line the winding roads along the mountains. Grab a bite of crunchy cuerito (pork crackling) and take in the views of the tropical landscape.

Guavate can get busy so if you prefer a quieter spot, head to El Cuñao in Cayey, 30 minutes west of Guavate on Route 1. If you want to stay closer to San Juan, try the iconic Rancho de Apa in Guaynabo, known for its roasted pork and rotisserie chicken.

Viandas includes a variety of root vegetables including yuca or yams.

Viandas

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Some people say that Puerto Rico is not a vegetarian-friendly destination, but we beg to differ. More people are adopting vegetarian and vegan diets, and many of the base recipes feature viandas. A vianda platter usually includes root vegetables such as yuca (cassava), malanga (taro), yautia (a version of taro), ñame root, and yams. You may also find green bananas and pumpkin in the mix. These vegetables are rich, versatile, and very filling. Viandas are a common side dish with lechón asado, but they can carry plenty of weight on their own.

Viandas are found throughout the island, but they’re associated with el campo, the countryside. From the classic boiled root vegetables with olive oil and vinegar to more creative dishes, you can find viandas all over the island. Bacoa, an inventive restaurant nestled in the mountains of the town Juncos, uses viandas uniquely on its menu. There, you can find a fire-roasted pumpkin or creative dips with root vegetables.

Plantains

No trip to Puerto Rico is complete without sampling plantains, which are omnipresent at the Puerto Rican dinner table. Plantains are versatile: You can have crispy tostones made with green plantains or pastelón, a lasagna-like dish that replaces noodles with sweet, ripe plantains. Mofongo, a decadent concoction made with fried green plantains, is a mainstay in most Puerto Rican restaurants. Usually filled with seafood, fried pork, or even stewed vegetables, mofongo is a beloved dish for locals and visitors alike.

Plantains can be found at nearly every restaurant featuring Puerto Rican cuisine. Fine dining hot spot Santaella features crunchy tostones next to its famous fried red snapper. Casual food truck Ricón del Sabor in Vieques serves a mofongo topped with an octopus salad.

A mallorca, a fluffy roll topped with powdered sugar, is a must try in Puerto Rico.

Mallorcas

One of the most underrated yet immersive culinary experiences in Puerto Rico involves panaderías (bakeries). Found in every municipality, bakeries are more than bread and pastries. Beyond the pan sobao (local bread) and pastelillos de guayaba (guava turnovers), there is so much to sample. When visiting a panadería, make sure you order a mallorca. These fluffy, sweetened rolls, topped with powdered sugar, are heavenly alone or as a sandwich. The perfect island breakfast involves a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich made with mallorca bread, pressed on the grill, and lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar.

A classic spot for mallorcas is Cafetería Mallorca, the historic bakery in Old San Juan. If you’re traveling along the west coast of the island, check out Ricomini, a local bakery chain known for its sandwiches.

Morcillas

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For the adventurous eaters: try morcillas, a savory blood sausage found in the mountainside restaurants. Morcillas are usually fried, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Some are filled with rice, and others are infused with spices for an extra kick. You can find them as roadside snacks or as side dishes. Also, many local families have their unique way of preparing morcillas.

You can find exquisite morcillas at Casa Vieja, a cozy restaurant in Ciales, served as an appetizer. Get a plate with a passion fruit sangria and take in the views.

Medianoche sandwich 

Although the medianoche has its roots in Cuba, it is a staple in every Puerto Rican bakery. The name “medianoche” (midnight) comes from the fact that it was served after midnight at Havana clubs. This indulgent sandwich features roasted pork, ham, and swiss cheese on a soft egg roll. The flavor profile is similar to the Cuban sandwich, but it is smaller and served on softer bread. 

Kasalta, a San Juan institution, serves one of the best medianoche sandwiches on the island. Locals and tourists line up for this tasty sandwich. 

Frituras

A delicious companion to a day at the beach are frituras. These fried snacks are found throughout the island, especially at the beach. There are several varieties of frituras. Whether it is bacalaítos, crispy codfish fritters or alcapurrias, fried masa of green bananas, or yuca filled with meat, there’s something for every taste. At many fritura stands, you can also find empanadas with various fillings. Seafood lovers will appreciate empanadas filled with local jueyes (crabmeat). 

Frituras are available at most beach areas in Puerto Rico. Some notable spots are Piñones located in Loíza outside San Juan, the Kiosks in Luquillo Beach, and La Guancha, a boardwalk in the southern town of Ponce. 

Jessica van Dop DeJesus grew up in Guyama, Puerto Rico. She’s the editor of The Dining Traveler and author of The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico. Want to try to make some of these dishes at home? Jessica shares some of her favorite Puerto Rican and other global recipes in her video series, The Dining Traveler Cooking Series.

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