Food is an intrinsic part of Puerto Rican culture and the commonwealth offers a flavorsome array of dining options, from side-of-a-dusty-road food trucks to trendy farm-to-table bistros.
Puerto Rico's traditional cuisine hauls in influences from North America, its Caribbean neighbors, Africa and Spain, and is spliced together by the succulent dominance of lechón (pork) in as many forms as you could shake some barbecue tongs at. A network of experimental chefs is striving island-wide to spice up the food scene with their own bold influences, which run from European to Middle Eastern.
The variety of places to tuck into this medley of flavours is almost as far-ranging: munch with hungry hipsters at the latest fancy food truck or clink your glass overlooking the dreamy ocean in an elegant tablecloth-draped restaurant.
Seafood at Playa de Joyuda
Pork takes a backseat to seafood at the string of restaurants known island-wide as the Milla de Oro del Buen Comer (Gourmet Golden Mile) at Playa de Joyuda. Here the oysters, crab, shrimp and much more are ultra-fresh and served up in a dozen family-owned joints along a 3km oceanfront stretch of highway. And if your visit doesn't bring you to the west coast, you'll also find seafood stands and restaurants at Playa Luquillo in the east. All draw mobs of fans on weekends.
Book tables in advance in San Juan's posher joints; tip 15% island-wide for meals.
Friquitines Street vendors; ubiquitous.
Reposterías The place for a morning café con leche (coffee and steamed milk) and baked goodies is the local bakery: even small villages have them.
Food Trucks The island's latest culinary craze; generally serving more gourmet fast food than the friquitines – from trucks.
Cafes In myriad forms, from corner joints serving simple foods, to ornate eateries serving excellent Puerto Rico–grown coffees.
Restaurants Ranging from basic cafeterias rustling up cheap plates of local staples to grand seaside venues noted for fresh seafood.
Eat & Drink Like a Local
From hipster food-truck parks, smoked pork stalls of Guavate and wacky beach bars to mountain-top grill-ups and gourmet San Juan restaurants, Puerto Rico’s food is the Caribbean's best and most diverse. Comida criolla (traditional Puerto Rican cuisine) is an exciting blend of wide-ranging influences.
Year in Food
Opportunities to celebrate Puerto Rico's surprisingly varied food abound year-round.
Continued Christmas festivities keep treats like coquito (a rum-and-coconut drink) a-coming. Three Kings Day ushers in three days of feasting.
Coffee harvesting begins; Maricao and Jayuya celebrate coffee festivals.
Easter heralds in special delicacies, usually fish- or egg-based. The season hosts San Juan's rum festival, Barranquitas' celery festival and even a food-truck festival.
Sugarcane is celebrated in Hatillo, beer in San Juan and pineapples in Lajas.
Puerto Rico Restaurant Week and Lares' Banana Festival honor the start of summer.
Avocado season begins; Old San Juan throws a culinary festival.
Mayagüez reveres sangria, Luquillo coconuts and Corozal plantains in the autumn festival line-up.
Thanksgiving kick-starts a two-month Christmas party. How does binging commence? With mofongo-stuffed turkey! Watch for tembleque (coconut pudding) and pernil (roast pork shoulder), other typical seasonal offerings.
A Movable Feast
Cheap, cheerful and indisputably Puerto Rican, friquitines, also known as quioscos, kioskos, food trucks or just plain food stalls, offer some of the island’s best cheap snacks. Running the gamut from smoky holes-in-the-wall to mobile trucks parked up on the roadside, these cheap, informal eats offer fast food that is invariably homemade, locally sourced and tasty.
The island’s most famous cluster of permanent friquitines (more than 60 in all) lines the beachfront at Luquillo. Other more movable feasts operate at weekends in places such as Piñones near San Juan and Boquerón on the west coast, although you can come across them almost anywhere.
Among the favorites on offer:
- Surullitos (fried cornmeal and cheese sticks)
- Empanadillas (meat or fish turnovers)
- Alcapurrias (fritters made with mashed plantains and ground meat)
- Bacalaítos (salt-cod fritters seasoned with oregano, garlic and sweet chili peppers)
But don't think your choices are limited: everything from fabulous Mexican to smokey barbecue and much more is on offer.
When it’s hot, keep an eye out for piragüeros, vendors who sell syrupy piraguas (cones of shaved ice covered in sweet fruity sauces such as raspberry, guava, tamarind or coconut). Another treat are fresh smoothies made from your choice of an abundance of fruit.
The food truck is the latest trendy reincarnation of the Puerto Rican moveable feast and, truth be told, it's a step up in class from the friquitines. Whilst a fairly familiar concept across the western world, Puerto Rico's food trucks are a reaction against the plethora of fast-food chains and mediocre supermarket fare in many parts of the island. Now they are generally parked in specific areas of towns with their own chairs, tables and awnings, and resound to the animated buzz of Puerto Rico's bright young hipster crowd, as well as a fair few families and in-the-know foreigners. Food trucks found their reputation on offering great, cheap meals (you'll fill your belly for under $5 sometimes and never more than $10). Alcohol is not permitted in food truck parks, so the fun all revolves around the taste buds.
Favorite food trucks:
Somewhat off the beaten path, Puerto Rico’s historic coffee plantations let you enjoy a fresh brew amid trees laden with beans and with stunning scenery. The tortuous Ruta Panorámica takes travelers past one mountainside plantation after another. Among our favorites there and elsewhere:
Simply put, ron (rum) is the national drink. Puerto Rico is the largest producer of rum in the world and distilleries prop up the island’s economy. The headquarters of the Bacardí Rum Factory is in Cataño, but most Puerto Ricans drink locally made Don Q or Castillo. Sipping a fine rum (flavors can include a rich medley of caramel and molasses) is a treat in many bars; Barrilito Three Star is aged in old sherry barrels for up to 10 years and is much lauded. Of course, many prefer their rum in one of the island's ubiquitous cocktails: piña colada and rum punch.
To really get into the spirit of things in San Juan, try a tour of the Casa Bacardí Rum Factory, which even runs mixology classes, or a trip to the bar where the piña colada was purportedly first invented, the Caribe Hilton.
But a beer revolution is sparking across the island. Medalla Light might be still the most popular beer locals knock back (it usually costs no more than $2 in bars and cafes) but a new breed of discerning small breweries are ratcheting up the quality and international perception of Puerto Rican beer. Breweries to look out for include the Boquerón Brewing Company in Cabo Rojo and the Old Harbor Brewery in San Juan.
Coffee, grown in Adjuntas, Jayuya and many other mountain regions, is a staple at all hours. In fact Puerto Rico is fast gaining a reputation for some of the best coffee in the hemisphere. Locally owned coffee houses are springing up, with an especially impressive collection in Old San Juan.
Cafe con leche (coffee with milk) is a Puerto Rican version of a cafe latte and is a staple at breakfast. Easily tossed back, it's the perfect start to a day.
Fruit juices, such as guanábana juice, are locally made in both carbonated and noncarbonated varieties. Mavi is something like root beer, made from the bark of the ironwood tree. As in much of the tropics, beach and street vendors sell cocos fríos (chilled green coconuts) with tops lopped off on the spot and straws inserted to reach the uber-refreshing juice inside.
Meals of a Lifetime
- El Rancho Original Locals and visitors alike will always argue over which of Guavate's lechoneras is the best – but this place will almost certainly always be a contender.
- El Gato Negro Join local families – from tiny nippers to gossiping grandparents – at this authentic waterside diner at Playa Joyuda for some of the freshest and tastiest seafood you will ever eat.
- José Enrique For San Juan's best cuisine, head to Santurce, and for Santurce's best cuisine, head to José Enrique's eponymous restaurant to discover some of the best food Puerto Rico, and indeed, the Americas, has to offer.
- Kasalta A classic San Juan cafe and restaurant with every local specialty you can imagine, from the soups to the superb desserts.
- Restaurante La Guardarraya This esoteric old wooden house on stilts near Yauco invented one of the Commonwealth's best culinary dalliances: chuletas can can, or pork prepared with ribs and fat left on so that it blows up when cooked to resemble a cancan dancer's skirt.
Staples & Specialties
Puerto Ricans love their sweets and even the smallest town will usually have a bakery where you can get fresh cakes and other treats. In larger cities, stylish cafes will have their own bakery section where you can choose from an array of temptations.
Look for the flavors of passion fruit and other tropical treats in desserts like flan. In fact this version of custard is customized in myriad ways; versions with chocolate are highly prized. Arroz con leche (rice pudding) is best when topped with a dusting of freshly ground cinnamon. Some sweet treats only really come out at festival time, like tembleque, a coconut pudding with a consistency like pannacotta.
Puerto Rico grows and exports bananas, papayas, fresh and processed pineapples, as well as a bewildering variety of exotic tropical fruits. It’s also one of the planet's largest producers of citron and you’ll see a long swath of fields around Adjuntas dedicated to this fruit. Markets and stalls selling fruits (and fresh vegetables like perfect ripe tomatoes) are common.
First things first: Puerto Ricans adore meat. They smoke it, stew it, fry it and fillet it. They make bold claims about it (apparently modern barbecue descends from the roast pork that the Taíno called barbicoa), they mash it up with all kinds of starches (mofongo, anyone?) and they form it into outlandish designs (such as chuletas can-can, fringed like a showgirl’s skirt).
But fancy or no-frills, the top of the Puerto Rican food chain is a smoky, savory lechón asado, which is cooked on a spit over a charcoal fire. When it’s done right, the pig is liberally seasoned with a distinctive seasoning called adobo (garlic, oregano, paprika, peppercorns, salt, olive, lime juice and vinegar worked into a paste). Adobo comes from Spain and is often associated with Filipino food. The meat is then basted with achiote (annatio seeds) and juice from naranjas (the island’s sour oranges). Finally, after it’s cooked to crispness, the meat is served with ajili-mójili (tangy garlic sauce).
For less festive occasions, Puerto Rican dinners include roast cabro (kid goat), ternera (veal), pollo (chicken) or carne mechada (roast beef).
Despite all that ocean, seafood takes a second place to pork on Puerto Rican menus. But that doesn't mean that it's not popular. A favored way to prepare seafood – from pulpo (octopus) to mero (sea bass) – is en escabeche. This technique yields a fried then chilled seafood, pickled in vinegar, oil, peppercorns, salt, onions, bay leaves and lime juice. Be warned this is not the same as ceviche, which uses a different preparation technique, but is often mis-translated as such on menus.
Fried fish is popular at beachside stalls and cafes. It's often topped with mojo isleño (a piquant sauce of vinegar, tomato sauce, capers and spices). If you're passing by Arecibo, be sure to try the local delicacy of ceti (small transparent fish often fried and piled into an empanada). Cheap and tasty, bacalaitos (fried codfish fritters) are ubiquitous. The fritters are often made with other seafood, like conch (sea snail).
Jueyes (land crabs) have long been a staple of islanders who can simply gather them from the beaches. An easy way to enjoy the taste is to eat empanadillas de jueyes (crab meat is picked from the shells, seasoned and baked in a wrap with casabe paste, which is made from yucca). Fish lovers should also try a bowl of sopón de pescado (fish soup), with its scent of onions, garlic and a subtle taste of sherry.
Shrimp and prawns are often marinated in garlic, grilled and served with mofongo, a heavenly pairing.
Soups & Stews
Soups and stews fill the humble cafeterias serving comida criolla and offer a genuine fusion of Taíno, European and African flavors. Many include island vegetables for texture: yautia (tanier; a starchy tuber that is very similar to taro), batata (sweet potato), yucca, chayote squash and grelos (turnip greens). Sancocho (Caribbean soup) blends these vegetables with plantains – peeled and diced – and coarsely chopped tomatoes, green pepper, chilis, cilantro, onion and corn. Cooks then add water, tomato sauce, chopped beef and pork ribs for flavoring.
Another delicious, common dish is asopao de pollo, a rich and spicy chicken stew soaked in adobo.
Sidebar: Puerto Rico's Favorite Food & Drink
The Commonwealth's delicious staple, mofongo is made from plantains mashed and cooked with garlic, spices, broth and bits of pork for richness and flavor. No two versions are the same; it's so popular that plantains are imported from the Dominican Republic to meet demand.
- Lechón Asado
The heavenly smell of lechón asado (roast suckling pig) wafts from countless stalls and simple open-air restaurants. Succulent, juicy and lavishly seasoned, it's always popular. In fact, many make the pilgrimage to Guavate, where scores of outlets compete for business, just for a plate or two.
As the home of Bacardi, the world's largest producer of rum, it's no surprise that Puerto Rico loves the spirit in its many forms, from crystal clear to amber, mild to complex. Look for sipping varieties in bars or just enjoy that perennial crowd pleaser, a fruity rum punch.