Puerto Rico has been the port of call for the western hemisphere for five centuries. The available food choices reflect the island’s “world view”. Cuisine of any imaginable variety is available in San Juan.
Local cuisine reflects the island’s rich cultural heritage. Traditional island cuisine is a combination of Spanish, native-american, and African influences. Most dishes in typical Puerto Rican cuisine are fried or ddep-fried in olive or vegetable oil.
A few of the better known traditional dishes are:
Alcapurrias – Deep fried plantain filled with meat or seafood
Arroz con gandules – Yellow rice with pigeon peas and capers stuff with beef or pork and seasoned wih oregano, sofrito, banana, thyme, cumin and bay leaf
Carne Guisada – Beef Stew
Empanadas – Breaded meat
Jibarito – Plantain sandwich with pork or steak
Mofongo – Fried mashed plantains, garlic,olive oil and pork cracklings
Pasteles – Fried dough wrapped in a banana leaf filled with meat and raises, spices, capers and sofrito
Quesitos –Cheese pastry food.
Where to Eat Locally
There are many Puerto Rican restaurants listed on the La Bochinchosa map. There are certain areas that are known for their local preparation. At Pinones, just to the east of San Juan, you will find firepits where meat (including whole pigs) is roasted and prepared for locals. Beware that Pinones is extremely dangerous at night. Also, La Placita in Santurce has been a farmer's market for decades. It is surrounded by mom and pop restaurants featuring local cuisine. Finally, most fairs and festivals will have a healthy splattering of locally prepared food. These events offer an opportunity for locals to earn extra cash on weekends selling food as well as crafts and art.
Vegetarians/Health Conscious Options
As mentioned, Puerto Rican cuisine is characterized by deep-frying. It also places heavy reliance on starchy products and meat. For tourists who dislike or are unaccustomed to fried food, mealtime can be difficult.
Most of the vegetable produce served in restaurants is imported from the United States. Be prepared for a typical “salad” to be comprised solely of wilted lettuce and under-ripe tomatoes. Vegans are advised to seek out one of the vegetable/fruit stands on Calle Loiza or visit one of the farmer’s markets in San Juan.
There are health-conscious options in San Juan, including middle-eastern cuisine, fruit stands, and sushi bars. Also, don't hestitate to ask your server about changing menu items to vegetarian or vegan-friendly dishes. Be mindful that previously prepared dishes such as rice and beans often contain meat although the menu doesn't list it as such.
The local grocery store, Supermax, is well-stocked with organic produce and a wide range of island grown fruits and vegetables.
Since Puerto Rico did not experiment with heavy farming techniqes in the 20th century, most soil on the island is pesticide free and most produce could qualify as organic. However, the stringent requirements that the USDA imposes for organic labeling if far beyond the budget of most local growers. For organic food lovers, the island is an undiscovered island of opportunity.
Puerto Rico has a an active Chabad in Isla Verde and a significant Jewish community in San Juan. Kosher may be difficult outside of the resort areas, however.
Puerto Rico has two types of oranges. The sweet orange familiar to most North Americans (called “una china”) originated in asia, hence its name. It has the recognizable bright orange peel. The sour orange (called “naranja) owes its origins to Persia. The oranges you see in Puerto Rican fruit stands with brown and blotchy peels aren’t rotten. They’re “naranjas”, incredibly sour oranges that taste a bit like grapefruit. Try one for a unique and flavorful experience.
Chironjas are a hybrid of the “china” and the “naranja”. This fruit originated in Puerto Rico. They are the size of grapefruit, but have an orange flavor. The skins are most often blotchy and brown. This fruit is unique to Puerto Rico with a flavor fruit lovers will appreciate. Prepare for a juicefest – this brown splotchy fruit is far more flavorful than grapefruit you find in North America.
Most North Americans are familiar with papayas. Forget the green flavorless papayas you will find in North America. The papayas you find at a local street vendor’s cart is fresh off the tree and packed with sweet papaya juice.
Yuccas are Puerto Rico’s answer to the common spud. The most common recipe for yucca calls for a heart-healthy mixture of olive oil and garlic. Yuccas are easily identifiable by their tubular root shape.
This is a common fruit (or vegetable, depending whom you ask) is a member of the gourd family. The chayote is eaten both raw and cooked. It is often mixed with other fruits and vegetables as a salad or side dish. It has a very mild (if not a non-existent) flavor, making it an easy choice to pair with a wide range of cooked and raw foods.
Coconuts are native to Puerto Rico. Visitors will be amused by Puerto Rico’s approach to properly consuming a coconut: lob off the top of the coconut (preferably chilled), pour in a generous serving of Johnny Walker Black, and sip through a straw.
Not much more can written about bananas, except that the difference between a freshly picked banana and one which was picked while green is striking. All bananas you will find in fruit stands on the island are fresh from the tree.
Don’t mistake plantains for green bananas. Plantains are much larger, and the skin much tougher to peel. Plantains are related to bananas, but taste completely differently. Plantains are another potato substitute, and the most common use for plantains is “tostones”, or mashed fried segments of a plantain served with salt or garlic and olive oil.
This unique fruit has a fleshy brown exterior and thick pink interior. It is most commonly used with ice and milk or cream to produce a delicious natural ice cream alternative. Simply carve out a few spoons of the fleshy interior, add ice and milk or cream, and blend. The fruit is naturally sweet, sugar is never added.
The Spanish term for avocado, aguacates are very popular fruit in Puerto Rico. A local favorite side dish is sliced avocado sprinkled with lemon juice and sea salt.
Small round fuit native to Puerto Rico. The fruit is generally chilld and eat as a snack. The outer green husk should be nibbled off, and a large seed inside is surrounded by a papaya-tasting tart fruit that has the appearance and consistency of raw oysters.