Gentle reader, consider yourself forewarned; this is not going to be a “where to get the best arroz con pollo in Puerto Rico” or “today’s trendiest restaurant in San Juan” type of article. No, this is more of a personal culinary journey, a way to get in touch with my Puerto Rican roots through the consumption of foods I refused to eat for the first 44 years of my life.
You see, my Puerto Rican mother was an omnivore. I used to think she ordered the most disgusting thing on the menu just to embarrass me, but really she was a culinary adventurer. I've visited my mother’s island every year of my life, but now that she is gone I feel I owe it to her to take some gastronomic chances.
Besides, I'm an adult. “Eewwww gross" should no longer be in my vocabulary.
To that end, my ten-year-old son and I made a deal. In general we love Puerto Rican food. There are some things we have avoided, but on this trip we agreed to taste them (my husband came along for the ride, but wimped out on the experiment).
Keep in mind, there might be dishes that you don’t consider “gross,” but the point is for us to try the parts of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine we would never dream of eating, all in honor of my mother and my roots.
Our first stop is a small storefront restaurant named Sandy’s, located in Luquillo, a town on the northeast side of the island. It’s brimming with locals — always a good sign — and I leave the ordering to my aunt and uncle. First, we try cocktail de pulpo (octopus cocktail). I would tell you the other ingredients, but I’m too traumatized by the sight of small suckers on the larger pieces. When I finally take a taste, I find it’s not as rubbery as anticipated, and the fishy taste isn’t overpowering.
Next, at my Tía Georgina’s suggestion, we try the pastelillos de chapín, a turnover stuffed with a small fish found only in the waters of Puerto Rico. The salty, tuna-like flavor is tasty, the surrounding deep-fried pastry shell delicious, and the contents — though not something we would normally try — are not disturbing. No, we’re saving that for tomorrow.
Today Tío Esteban guides us to Cayey, in the south of the island. On a narrow road just off highway 52, we arrive at Lechonera El Mojito. (The mojito of the name doesn’t refer to the Cuban rum drink, but rather a traditional Puerto Rican red sauce.) Put aside your expectations of fine china, low-calorie food, and unclogged arteries. Although the façade is humble, inside is served some of the best local food.