If it is Friday in Puerto Rico head to the highland village of San Sebastian near the northwest corner of the country, where the local Farmer’s Market is in full swing. It’s not nearly as well known or trendy as San Juan’s Santurce market, rather it’s a rural outdoor collection of stands nowhere near a luxury beach resort
Moving deeper into the mountains from Ponce, sticking to the famed Ruta Panorámica, Puerto Rico’s landscape takes a drastic turn. Buick size ferns grow out into the road and patches of green bamboo form a canopy over it. Avocadoes and oranges fall from trees and rot on the pavement, filling the air with a beautifully pungent aroma. The chirps of the coqui are constant. I have flashbacks of Dominica and Costa Rica.
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.
Tired of the banking industry, native Ponceño Alejandro Vélez Blasini set off for the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After a successful run with a tapas bar, in mid-2009 he opened Archipeilago, a restaurant on the sixth and seventh floors of a building overlooking Ponce’s Parque de Bombas and Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on Ponce’s Spanish style plaza. The rooftop view is stunning, one of the best of any restaurants I’ve ever seen. The town square below glows at night.
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.
About thriteen years ago I randomly went into a restaurant that just opened in Old San Juan. It was a Latin fusion place long before you could find a ceviche bar in Ohio. There was live jazz music, black and white tiles, a vibrant bar area, and an overall feeling that you had been swept away into Havana in the 1920’s. The restaurant was called the Parrot Club.
I was in Puerto Rico not long ago and someone was recommending to me traditional Puerto Rican food and drinks and the Piña Colada came up.
“But that’s not from Puerto Rico though, right?”
“Yes, it is. A guy at some hotel in San Juan invented it.”
My entire life I thought the Piña Colada was just some generic beach cocktail recipe, probably created by a Rum company somewhere. Heading to San Juan a few days later I went to investigate.