For a relatively small island, Puerto Rico’s cuisine is big both in variety and taste. A product of its Spanish, Amerindian and African roots — with several international influences thrown in for good measure — cocina criolla relies on several staples that show up in countless recipes. One of these staples is the ubiquitous pork, the reigning source of meat in Puerto Rican cuisine.
Though virtually every restaurant that serves traditional Puerto Rican cuisine is bound to have pork on the menu, lechoneras are unanimously considered the go-to source.
Informal, quaint, animated and a bit messy, these eateries are a one-of-a-kind experience. They are found throughout the island, though they are most commonly associated with the rural areas of Puerto Rico. In them, you will come across the island’s signature pork dish: lechón asado, or roast pig. Lechón is more than just a delicious meal; it’s a cultural experience. The gregarious nature of sharing an 80- to 100-pound pig slowly cooked to perfection allows plenty of opportunity to mingle, dance and have a great time, and lechoneras offer the perfect setting to do all of the above.
Pernil (pork shoulder), virtually a reduced version of lechón asado, is common during the holidays. The dish is heavily spiced with garlic, black pepper, oregano, olive oil, vinegar and salt. Much like Thanksgiving turkey, pernil also lends itself to culinary reinvention, and can be enjoyed as a cold cut, in sandwiches or as croquettes.
Chicharrones (pork rinds) are also a widespread treat. Typical Puerto Rican recipes call for marinating the meat in rum, lemon juice, salt and garlic, and then tossing it in flour seasoned with adobo and paprika. Usually enjoyed as a snack, chicharrón can also be turned into a main course when mixed in with mofongo, a dish made with mashed green plantains. The town of Bayamón is widely considered the birthplace of Puerto Rican chicharrón, where you’ll also find variants made with chicken instead of pork.
When it comes to pork sausages, longaniza and morcilla are the dominant types. The former features ground pork rich in spices (its orange-red tinge is due to the use of achiote or annatto seeds). Morcilla (blood sausage) may be more daunting, since it’s essentially pork tripe stuffed with blood and rice, and heavily seasoned with garlic, chili peppers and culantro (a local herb similar to coriander). But adventurous palates will be rewarded with a spicy and succulent treat that differs from other Latin American and Spanish variants because it’s fried in vegetable oil.
Other pork-based dishes include pasteles (the local version of the pan-Latin American tamale, made with green plantain, green banana or cassava dough), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), frituras (fritters), sancocho (a hearty, tuber-based stew), mondongo (pork tripe stew), gandinga (stewed pork innards) and chuletas ahumadas (smoked cutlets). ¡Buen provecho!