I grew up in New England, where a common festive meal was the clambake. Simple, local food—fresh seafood and shellfish, vegetables and starches—steamed in a fire-heated pit of seaweed and seawater.
Thinking about clambakes makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside (not to mention hungry).
In many parts of the world, spit-roasted pig is the local version of a clambake. Called lechón in Spanish, it is a custom in Latin America, Cuba, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain, among other places. In Puerto Rico, it is the national dish, and locals will tell you that Puerto Rican lechón is the best!
According to San Juan culinary entrepreneur Gustavo Antonetti of Spoon Food Tours, the secret of Puerto Rican lechón is its traditional preparation. “We season it with a lot of garlic, oregano, pepper, salt, achiote oil (annatto oil) and other tasty herbs and spices according to individual recipes,” he says. “We roast it on a spit called a ‘varita’ (traditionally wood, but nowadays metal is more commonplace), over wood or coals for about 6 to 8 hours. The result is a moist, tender and delicious pork on the inside and a tasty, crispy skin.”
Christian Quiñones, executive sous chef at Trattoria Italiana at the InterContinental San Juan adds that sometimes orange juice is added, with the meat and mix marinated for a full day. “It is usually served with pasteles (our version of tamales but made out of plantain instead of corn), arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), sweet plantain and usually some boiled root vegetables,” he says.
Lechon Asado Recipe
In addition to being a Christmas tradition, lechón is a year-round treat for Puerto Ricans, enjoyed during events and family reunions. On Sundays, it is a common tradition for families to go to their local “lechonera” (lechón restaurant) for a big dinner and social time: lechoneras frequently have live bands and carnival games.
You can find lechón all over the island, but the most famous place to get it is at the lechoneras in Guavate, part of the town of Cayey, about an hour south of San Juan. Guavate, located amongst forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, is called “La Ruta del Lechón”—“the Pork Highway.”
I got the opportunity to take a trip down to Guavate during a recent visit to San Juan for the annual Saborea Puerto Rico, a three-day food festival and celebration of classic and modern Puerto Rican food and drink. We ate at El Rancho Original, one of the best-known lechóneras of the region, accompanied by renowned chef Robert Treviño, creator of the San Juan restaurants Budatai, Casa Lola, and Bar Gitano, and competitor on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef.
According to Treviño, lechón, specifically from Guavate, is Puerto Rico’s finest food—“unrefined in its fineness”—something that everyone who visits Puerto Rico must try.
El Rancho Original was quiet when we arrived -- a few families were having lunch on paper plates at picnic tables, but otherwise our small group had the run of the place. Within a few hours, however, the restaurant would be packed, and considering the amount of space, that’s impressive. There were two rooms filled with long picnic tables, and an outdoor seating area composed of small huts nestled against a rapid creek.
A pig was being roast in an open-air, barn-like outbuilding that held a brick structure that could roast six pigs at a time. In the kitchen, the rest of the food was being prepared: the rice, the sausage, the root vegetables. My mouth was watering.
The lechón was served with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), longaniza and morcilla (blood) sausages, sweet potato, cassava, and another softly boiled root vegetable or two I’ve forgotten the names of. It was delicious.
Simple, flavorful, filling, divine -- it was the ultimate comfort food, reminiscent in style to my beloved clambake. It washed down well with a local beer, and was the perfect food to eat outdoors, in good company, with the sound of the creek just beneath us the only sound competing with our laughter and good cheer.