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.
Esteban orders a variety of dishes for us to try. First up: morcilla, Puerto Rican blood sausage. Repulsed by the undeniably black color of the sausage, Carlos and I inch small pieces into our mouths. “Hey Mom, this isn’t bad!” He’s right, not bad at all.
Carlos polishes off the rest while I move on to the cuajito, a stew of pig’s ears and offal. One’s in a spicy tomato base, the other in garlic and spiced oil. I screw up my face (I can hear my mother’s voice in my head, “Ay Annie, don’t be such a drama queen”…wait, maybe that’s my uncle talking) and take a bite. I hate the tomato-based one. It’s rubbery and doesn’t taste like any part of a pig I’ve ever had.
I move on to the other, wanting to get it over with. Under the oily, garlic base, this one isn’t entirely bad, but in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have any beyond the first taste. Perhaps it is the dining room’s mural depicting cute Disney-esque pigs frolicking about in a bucolic field. I mean, por favor! As if I need to be reminded of what I’m eating!
I wash down the stew with a mouthful of Medalla beer and steal some of my husband’s more “normal” food, including the succulent lechón asado (roasted pork) and delightful arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). No wonder the Puerto Rico Herald called El Mojito one of the best places to get lechón.
Tonight we meet my family at Escambrón, arguably the best seafood restaurant in the capital. In contrast to yesterday’s rustic location, Escambrón is an elegant, beachfront restaurant a few doors down from the Caribe Hilton. Tucked under a viaduct, the building has a wave-like shape and circular ship windows in front. The service is impeccable and the menu includes traditional Puerto Rican fare as well as more universal surf and turf dishes.
My cousin Carlos convinces me to sample their octopus salad, to get an idea of different preparations. To my surprise, the large piece he foists upon me is tasty, not at all rubbery, and smacks of garlic and delicate spices. However, I happily return to my Caesar salad criollo style, and wash it down with a frosty mojito (the rum version this time).
The drive south to Humacao along the eastern coast reminds us of Vermont with its rolling, green, cow-dotted hills. We walk along the beautiful shore at Punta Santiago, but as it is off-season, the beaches are filled with seaweed, so we don’t linger.
Our quest for shark — something Punta Santiago is known for — leads us to Bajo El Arbol de la Frescura (beneath the refreshing tree), a small kiosko on Route 3. There, Carlos and I sample the pastelillos de tiburón, shark turnovers. Served on white Styrofoam plates, the fish is lightly spiced and oiled, and served in delicious, piping hot crust. These we eagerly finish.
I ask the proprietor where we might buy some mavi – a sweet fermented drink made from the bark of the colubrina tree that people either love or hate. He gives us directions, and several exits north in Ceiba, we find our way to a dilapidated shack tucked into a side street.
There’s just one customer and apparently, no product. When I ask the ancient woman behind the counter if she carries mavi, she looks me up and down (I’m certain I’m the first tourist who’s ever asked for the quintessentially Puerto Rican home-brew).
Apparently I pass muster as she shuffles out back into the dirt yard and returns with a small plastic cup filled with a urine-colored liquid over ice. She scrutinizes me as I take a sip — there’s no turning back now — and a smile spreads across my face. Its taste is a combination of ginger ale, light beer, and maple syrup, a pleasant surprise in an unexpected setting.
The last day of our culinary experiment involves a dish called mondongo (it’s fun to say, try it with me: mon-don-go), that Tío Esteban brings us from Restaurante La Fama in my mother’s hometown, the San Juan suburb of Bayamón. Interestingly, mondongo (there, I said it again), is usually only made on weekends as a hangover cure.
Often served with white rice, it is a tomato-based stew with vegetables such as yucca, plantain, potatoes, carrots, as well as (Lord help me) pig’s intestines and feet. As I grimace down into my bowl of mondongo, I wonder whether my problem is that I only had two margaritas last night: perhaps I’m not hung over enough.
I take a deep breath and dig in. My first spoonful has only vegetables, rice, and broth. Not bad, perfectly cooked veggies and delicious stock – but there is no avoiding it; I have to taste the “meat.” I find the smallest piece of intestine and chew as little as possible. It’s slimy. As I make faces, Tío points out a piece of patita (the Spanish word sounds so much cuter than pig’s feet), so I shove that in my mouth next. Okay, even slimier. As I choke it down, I look heavenward and thank Dios that this is the last day of the experiment.
As we head home to Vermont (with, as my uncle put it, “intestines in our intestines”…blech!) after our unique culinary tour and visit to my mother’s isla bonita, I wonder: would I eat any of these foods again? I have to be honest, it’s doubtful. However, I leave proud of having tried these dishes that I rejected out of hand all these years.
The question of where my Puerto Rican half begins and the gringa part ends is something I will always struggle with – and my omnivorous tour only reinforced my otherness. The experience of tracking these foods down funky side streets, and of using my rusty Spanish to talk to people who were impressed with this pale-skinned Latina’s willingness to eat the least touristy of their dishes, was invaluable.
For me, that is what the island is all about: the richness of its food, the warmth of its people, and its ability to bring me closer to my mother. However, Mamí, forgive me, but the next time we come down, I think I’ll stick to the arroz con pollo.
#276 Calle Fernandez García, Luquillo
Open for lunch and dinner – $$
Lechonera El Mojito
Carretera 184, Cayey
Open for lunch and dinner – $