Puerto Rico's cuisine is a unique amalgamation of ingredients, cultures, and recipes. The native Taíno Indians, the Spanish conquistadores, and the African slaves have all historically influenced what has come to be known around the island as cocina criolla, or Creole cooking. The local dishes usually incorporate different types of meat, garlic, olive oil, and rice. They also often contain a starchy regional staple—plantains—whose taste can be compared to a cross between a banana and a potato. Most notably, however, are the spice characteristics that mimic the vibrant Puerto Rican culture, making the island's most distinctive and representative foods worth a try.
Mofongo is the unofficial king of Puerto Rican cuisine. This tasty concoction of mashed plantains, seasonings, and an unlimited choice of fillings—including vegetables, shrimp, steak, pork, and seafood— graces the menu of nearly every Puerto Rican restaurant. The plantains themselves are picked green, then fried, then mashed to form a ball around a savory middle. Roadside shacks, as well as the island's most refined local eateries, all have their own version of mofongo and there is little agreement as to what constitutes a traditional presentation.
Lechón asado—or spit-roasted suckling pig—is one of the many traditional delicacies worth traveling to Puerto Rico for. In fact, it's such a beloved dish that there is a road in Guavate, Puerto Rico—the Ruta del Lechón (Pork Highway) dedicated to this dish. Along this road, which is roughly an hour south of San Juan via Highway 52, you'll see (and smell) the delicious lechoneras, or rustic, open-air roadside eateries. This dish is prepared by slow roasting the whole swine—swaddled in salt, pepper, oregano, garlic, and ajíes dulces (small sweet cooking peppers)—over a wood charcoal fire and is served cafeteria style with people taking their place in line to sample their favorite cuts.
While mofongo may be the unofficial cuisine staple in Puerto Rico, arroz con gandules (Puerto Rican rice with pigeon peas) is the island's national dish. And while this ensemble has distinctively Caribbean roots, the Puerto Rican twist is in the secret sauce known as sofrito. This sauce, made with aromatic ingredients, is sautéed or braised beforehand and gives the dish it's zesty flavor. Arroz con gandules is typically made with pork, chorizo, red peppers, and olives, indicative of its Spanish influence (the Spaniards first introduced olives and other spices to the island).
Tip: If you'd rather eat a plate of rice and beans, do not ask for arroz con gandules. Instead, order arroz con habichuelas.
Asopao de Pollo is Puerto Rico's answer to chicken noodle soup. This homemade savory soup—made with chicken and rice—usually graces the holiday or Sunday tables of many Puerto Rican families. Most restaurants have it on their menu, too, as it is a perennial favorite with the Islanders. Asopao de pollo is actually more like a gumbo than a soup and it can come in several variations (depending on familial recipes) that include chicken, shellfish, or pork alongside peppers, pigeon peas, olives, and tomatoes.
Alcapurrias (or Puerto Rican stuffed fritters) can be found as street food all over the island. A beach food staple, these delights are usually made with a batter of green (underripe) bananas and stuffed with crab, shrimp, or lobster. Other variations include cuchifritos (stuffed with pork), almojábanas (cheese-filled rice fritters), bacalaítos (codfish fritters), and buñuelos (yam fritters). Most restaurants will have a sample of these fried delicacies for you to taste or pick them up roadside for a picnic lunch by the shore.