Most of us have tried mofongo, tostones and arroz con pollo. But ask Puerto Ricans for their favorite local dish, and nothing tops lechón (roasted pig) cooked slowly over an open fire. The meat’s smoky essence and tender chunks and the crackling (brown, crisp skin, the defining characteristic of lechon) comprise the island’s hallmark dish. On Sundays, carloads of Sanjuaneros trade the city’s urban hustle for the quiet green hillsides of Guavate, the land of roasted pork. It’s like the pilgrimage to Spain’s Compostela — not quite as long or spiritual, but doable in a day.
Lately, it’s not just Puerto Ricans making the trek. Visitors have caught on to following Route 18 south to what’s considered La Ruta del Lechon. But the island’s passion for roasted pork doesn’t end in Guavate; it only begins there. More surprising, it often leads back to San Juan proper or just beyond it — places anyone can access.
Joined by longtime San Juan resident and cookbook author Blanche Gelebert and our friend Viviana Vargas, I set out on a pork pilgrimage that led to the island’s king of lechon, to the world’s largest Cuban sandwich and to a world of criollo cooking that would impress any gourmand. Along the way, I marveled that Puerto Rico’s delicious obsession extends from the street to high-end hotels, ready and waiting for all.
Junior Rivera owns Angelito’s Place, located a 20-minute drive from San Juan in Trujillo Alto. Viviana declared it one of her favorite lechoneras, though she’s not alone. Locals consider Junior el rey de lechón asado (the king of roasted pork). This king, however, shares the keys to his castle. He says the flavor of pork is dictated by two key elements: the coals used to cook it and the pig’s diet. Coals provide the smoky flavor, and — for Junior — their origin must be natural wood. The pig’s eating habits contribute to the succulence of the cooked meat. The pigs Junior selects eat beans and rice. To him, that’s why Puerto Rican roasted pork is juicier and tastier than what you find in the States: The pigs eat what Puerto Ricans eat.
Faced with mounds of glistening pork in Junior’s outdoor kitchen, we headed to a table for the taste test. The pig was carved up with a massive cleaver, weighed and served with sides that included starches like arroz con gandules, white sweet potatoes and plantains. In no time, we were stuffed — savoring every bite of luscious pork and cuerito (the brittle skin). The feast made no secret of why after 22 years of roasting pig Junior won’t be dethroned from his reign over Angelito’s Place (and all things pork) anytime soon.
Word on the street was that La Ceiba was “the place” for the island’s best Cuban sandwiches, or more decidedly, the largest in San Juan. The massive sandwich is served on pan de aqua, a Puerto Rican baguette with a crunchy, hard crust. Unless you request otherwise, it eschews mustard and pickles in favor of layer after layer of freshly sliced roasted pork and serrano ham. Oh, and a rather lonely slice of cheese. The pig rules here too. We found the sandwich’s top billing to be spot on, though determining this required two sets of hands and two mouths.
La Ceiba is no stranger to overfeeding locals. The Spanish-owned panadería and dulcería has done so for decades, attracting an affluent and convivial crowd seven days a week. On weekdays, men and women show up in suits. On weekends, those same patrons reappear in relaxed dress to socialize with friends and family and to linger over a late breakfast or prolonged lunch — Puerto Rican style. And when it’s time to head home, glass display cases beckon with a dizzying array of pastries, from quesitos (phyllo dough filled with cream cheese) to pasteles packed with sweet guava paste. More than a bakery, La Ceiba sent us out the door in a caloric daze and sparked a bittersweet sensation of having had more than our fill but still wanting more.
San Juan Market
Every Saturday, the courtyard of Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico buzzes with activity from sunrise until well into the afternoon. Island vendors, farmers, families and cooks bring in organic produce, prepared foods, fresh-baked bread and artisanal cheeses to captivate tourists with tastes. They also support restaurants and homes in Old San Juan. For our sofrito, we found baskets of ají dulce — the sweet cap-shaped pepper without the heat of a habanero — cubanelle peppers, cilantro and culantro, which grows wild in many yards in Puerto Rico.
It’s all but impossible to prepare a Puerto Rican meal without sofrito. And while its ingredients vary throughout the Caribbean (and beyond), on this island, the culantro, aji dulce and cubanelle peppers mixed together are the magic of Puerto Rico’s cookery. You’ll find the trio’s all-purpose flavor in soups, stews and sauces, and it can make beans and rice delicious. Historically, chefs used a mortar and pestle to macerate the ingredients and blend the flavors. Today’s chefs chop, mince or surrender to the Cuisinart, which makes sofrito an easy addition to meals at home.
Every family adds a personal touch to sofrito. My local friend Blanche prefers to make hers with lots of garlic, while some add oregano or bell peppers in place of cubanelles. Water or oil can be added, while the cooked version includes pork and ham sauteed in annatto (achiote) oil. Serious cooks mix a batch once a week and freeze portions in small packets or ice-cube trays so they’re ready and waiting to add Puerto Rican soul to the week’s meals.
Set in San Juan’s Condado neighborhood, this two-story home turned restaurant sits atop a narrow strip of land. As a result, it boasts impressive views of the ocean (second floor) and the Condado lagoon (ground level). During our visit, paddle boarders and kayakers ambled by as we devoured a chuleta can-can (pork chop), listed on the menu as a “Chule-tón-ton” due to its enormous portion size. It includes roasted potatoes, carrots and onions and a healthy serving of tomato-and-lime demi-glace. Risotto fans should opt for El Clásico Risotto de Chicharrón Volao (pictured). The pork flavors penetrated each and every grain of rice, the dish riddled with crispy chicharrón and layered with sumptuous medallions of grilled pork.
Casa Lola is named after the cook who spent her life preparing meals for the Garcia family that once lived here. Lola’s spirit carries on in the recipes used now. She loved to cook and experiment with herbs and spices so much that when family members traveled abroad, they’d bring back spices from India and the Far East for her to play with. These led to the creation of some of today’s signature dishes, which were inspired by Lola’s secreted recipes, with imaginative touches from Roberto Trevino, Puerto Rico’s celebrated Iron Chef.