Posted by: acooksca | 04/02/2009

Puertoriquenos and Pork

pork-3a“Our food is not spicy. It is seasoned. If you want spicy I can give you hot sauce” was our introduction to Puerto Rican cuisine. This pronouncement was delivered to us by our server at Restaurant Raices in the upscale dockside area of Old San Juan. The menu claimed the offerings are updates of authentic dishes.

She brought us a pair of tin cups, icy cold with Medalla. “This is Puerto Rican beer. Light, but very tasty” she claimed. It was lunchtime and we noticed the restaurant was full of professionals drinking their beers and slowly putting away enormous portions of meat and starch. We glanced around to see what looked good.

To our left a woman was neatly working through what we guessed was pork. It looked outstanding. We ordered it. “What do you want with it? Mofongo? Sweet Potato? Fried Plantain? Sweet Plantain…” The list went on to include four root vegetables with Spanish names I had never heard of. Or we could have all the root vegetables smashed together. To try and lighten this already too large lunch we chose rice studded with black beans.

What arrived was an unusual cut of pork. It was listed simply as Pork Chop on the menu. A center cut loin chop with attached rib was encircled by well crisped skin. The plate filling arc of pork had been rubbed with salt pepper and garlic and fried in annatto oil, a favorite seasoning of the island (see the following recipe Puerto Rican Pork Loin with Sofrito). There was a layer of fat between the meat and skin that had kept the meat succulent while cooking. It was easily scraped to the side to leave tender young meat and the firm crunch of salted crisp skin.

Well, that was such a winner we tried for another hit at a traditional Puertoriqueno pork experience. Heading South from San Juan by a four lane expressway you zip past the exit for The Lechoneras of Guavate. It is a town of pork taverns: bars with spit roasted whole pigs slowly turning over wood fires. Our mission the next day was to take a hike in El Yunque, the U.S. National Park Service rain forest, and then drive to Guavate for a late lunch.

We cruised the small road of Guavate peering from our car for a sign of pork cooking. “THAT ONE”, I shouted at Bruce pork-5awho did a quick turn into a bumpy parking area. There was smoke, a spit with a whole pig displayed and weathered outdoor seating. We asked for dos platos and watched a young man machete hunks of meat and skin off the spit. There was a list of starchy side dishes and some boiled greens available, but we chose fried plantains and a side of dark and smoky chicken sausage.

Again we delighted in the simple, honest preparation of pork. As we ate, people arrived at this popular stop to grab a package of smoky meat and side dishes to-go. Each was treated to a large bite of crispy skin to crunch while the carver packaged their order. I asked the proprietor how many Lechoneras were in Guavate. Twelve. And they were busy all the time. “Many American visitors know this place” she said. We were contented to be among that group.


Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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