For every person I spoke with on an eating trip in Puerto Rico’s southern shore there were dozens of recipes I couldn’t even get to, like a place that serves sandwiches using flattened plantains as bread. There is one meal that nearly everyone recommended: Chuletas Can Can. These fried pork chops with the fat cap left on appear on a few menus near the town of Yauco, most famously at La Guardarray, a 50-year-old Meson that invented the dish to serve to visiting cockfighters. The old place is big now. They’ve expanded beyond the original room, adding several new open-air dining rooms and a stage for live music and dancing.
Guavate, the name just sounds flavorful. From Ponce it’s a quick hop on the San Juan highway to the rural, hilly village beside the Carite Forest Reserve. Once you turn onto Route 184, Puerto Rico’s Pork Highway, you can smell the burning flesh. Large open-air restaurants each with an entire hog roasting in the front called lechoneras sit side by side for several miles. Most are open only on the weekends and by the afternoon turn into dance parties. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations was here, as was Andrew Zimmern and every other adventurous eating show. Tourists however, rarely make the trip.
Few realize that Cochinita Pibil is actually a Mayan dish. It’s quite common now all over Mexico, especially in the Yucatan where it originated, and I see it often at Mexican restaurants and Taquerias in New York and around the States. Traditionally, cochinita refers to a slow roasted baby pig, though pork shoulder (which is actually pork butt) is more common now. The signature spice in the seasoning is achiote, the orangish-red seeds that give off a deep, earthy flavor and are used habitually in Mayan cooking. Cochinita Pibil is the dish that Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters with (and his recipe from Mexico One Plate At A Time was very influential in this one).