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¡QUÉ RICO! Puerto Rican dishes embody craveable and familiar flavors that are ripe for mainland exploration

Puerto Rican street stalls and restaurants feature irresistible pinchos, skewered, grilled pork or chicken marinated in adobo seasoning.
PHOTO CREDIT: National Pork Board

At this year’s Flavor Experience, the Culinary Tides’ Suzy Badaracco called out Puerto Rican food as the “darling of the Caribbean.” And although Cuban still gets more play on American menus, Puerto Rican flavors and ingredients will make waves soon enough. Certainly, this island’s many dishes fit into today’s leading trends—street-food friendly, pork-centric, tropical, casual. Puerto Rican fare also boasts a trinity of global mash-ups: native Taínos, Spanish conquistadors and African slaves all lend character and culture to the island’s culinary story. Puerto Rico’s culinary scene has burned brightly recently, with its own shining stars, like José Enrique Montes of Restaurant José Enrique in San Juan, and Raul Correa of Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel. The opportunity for translation requires building the flavor bridge from the island to the mainland. Here are a dozen ways to make that Puerto Rican connection.

1. Island Fritters
Fritters are having a moment, loved for their crisp, salty exterior and flavorful interior, and they call many food cultures home. Puerto Rico boasts two iconic fritters: bacalaítos and alcapurrias. Bacalaítos are mini, crunchy salt cod fritters, and alcapurrias are fritters made from mashed tubers stuffed with picadillo, or spicy ground beef. Both are served as roadside snacks and sides. Beyond their rightful place among the fritter stars, the crossover potential springs from their reach into other food traditions, like Spain, Portugal and Cuba, and the ease with which they can be refined or tweaked. For the bacalaíto, make a beer batter to surround the cod, for instance, or add a tropical dipping sauce, or build a bar sandwich around it. For the alcapurria, feature local root vegetables in the dough, or fill it with seasoned vegetables, cheese or any other flavorful stuffing.

> Bacalao: Lightly salted grilled cod, bell pepper salad, warm scallion vinaigrette — Le Bernadin, New York City
> Alcapurrias of crispy taro root stuffed with beef picadillo — Sazon, New York City
> Buñuelos de Bacalao: Bite-sized fried salt cod fritters with honey aïoli — Jaleo, Washington, D.C.

2. Empanadilla
Puerto Rico’s mini empanada is a crescent-shaped turnover stuffed with beef, pork, crab, lobster, chicken or conch, then deep-fried until crisp, golden and utterly delicious. Its first cousin is the pastelillo, which differs only in the thinner, flakier dough that surrounds the filling. Both versions are common street-food items and have endless potential here. To place your empanadillas firmly in Puerto Rico—and not in a vague Latin/Caribbean space—make sure the sofrito you use to flavor the filling is authentic. The heart of many Puerto Rican dishes, sofrito is a sauté of garlic, onion, culantro (herb similar to coriander), sweet aji, cilantro, red bell pepper and spices.

> Carne Molida: Made-to-order turnover stuffed with seasoned all-natural ground beef simmered in sofrito and tomato sauce, served with a dipping sauce of ajilimojili — La Isla Cuisine, Seattle
> Chorizo and collard greens empanada — Seviche, Louisville, Ky.
> Beef Pastelillos — Mio, Washington, D.C.

3. Jibaritos
Introduced to the United States by San Juan native Juan Figueroa, the jibarito calls Chicago its home—but has clear Puerto Rican ties. This mini sandwich subs out bread with an island favorite of fried green plantains. The sandwich stars garlicky mayonnaise, meat, lettuce, tomato and onion. Since its Chicago debut, the jibarito has taken off, loved for its salty, crisp, sweet, tropical profile.

> Boricua Sandwich with marinated tofu and miso sauce, mushroom and brown rice served on a crispy plantain — Belly Shack, Chicago
> Jibarito de Pechuga con Arroz: Chicken breast jibarito with rice ­— Papa’s Cache Sabroso, Chicago

4. Rum
Puerto Rico produces nearly 35 million gallons of rum per year, of which more than 70 percent is consumed in the United States. Dishes and drinks infused with rum show off island flavor. Jumping on the coconut craze, change up the seasonal eggnog with Puerto Rico’s coquito, a rich blend of coconut cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk, warm spices and white rum. Or maybe add a boozy rum cake to your menu, where a baked yellow cake soaks up a dark rum glaze.

> Coquitini: Vejigantes’ signature drink; with coconut milk, cream and Don Q Coco Rum — Vejigantes Restaurant, Boston
> Coquito Cupcake: A coconut cupcake soaked in creamy coconut milk eggnog with a hint of rum, topped with mascarpone whipped cream — Brooklyn Cupcake, Brooklyn, N.Y.
> Rum-Soaked Ladyfingers, mascarpone, coffee, chocolate — 1919, San Juan, P.R.

5. Tostones
Another item with fantastic bar snack potential is the tostón, or fried plantain. Tostones are made with plantains that are harvested when green, ensuring a high starch content. They’re deep-fried, crisp and golden, and are served as a snack or side. A mojo, or garlic sauce, often accompanies the tostones, cutting through the rich, dense plantain with an acidic, vinegary snap. Tostones bring a Latin American vibe beyond Puerto Rico, too, as Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Haiti also boast fried plantains as a national treasure.

> Tostones Relleno: Gluten-free, crispy green plantains shaped into a cup with your choice of filling — Coco, Chicago
> Pimento Cheese Tostones: Lightly fried plantain patties topped with house pimento, bacon, scallions — Jose and Sons, Raleigh, N.C.

6. Piraguas
For those looking for a fun menu addition, look to the piragua, a shaved ice cone drenched with fruit syrups such as coconut, guava, tamarind or pineapple. Street hawkers known as “piragueros” sell these outside of schools, playgrounds and beaches in Puerto Rico. Shaved ice also hails from other street-food traditions—in Mexico they’re called raspados, in Cuba they’re granizados, and in Louisiana, snowballs. Potential here lies in creative combinations, taking cues from the housemade soda trend. So, dust a tamarind piragua with chile-salt, for instance, or add a boozy bent with an infusion of Puerto Rican dark rum.

> Piraguas: Puerto Rican shaved-ice dessert topped with Puerto Rican coffee or fresh fruit syrups in flavors like tamarind, guava, coconut, mango, and lime; shot of Don Q Rum optional — Mio, Washington, D.C.

7. Mofongo
In this dish, fried plantains are mashed with pork cracklin’, garlic, olive oil, seasoning and pork lard. It’s then shaped and filled with delicious things, like seafood, pork, chicken or vegetables. Brought over by African slaves, mofongo speaks to Puerto Rican cuisine’s penchant for flavorful, soulful dishes. Its combination of sweet with rich and savory makes it a candidate for craveable status—it’s all in the prep and in the filling.

> Roasted Pork Mofongo over a plantain-bacon mash with an orange-garlic vinaigrette — Seviche, Louisville, Ky.
> Mini Mofongos: Garlic-mashed green plantain cups filled with beef, chicken and shrimp — Me Casa, Jersey City, N.J.
> Mofongo con Camarones: A mofongo served in a mortar and filled with Gulf shrimp sautéed in garlic and butter — Benny’s Seafood, Miami

8. Arroz con Gandules
Arroz con gandules is Puerto Rico’s answer to jambalaya. Starring pigeon peas and smoked ham, it starts with the quintessential island flavoring of sofrito and annatto oil. Green olives and capers add a briny note to this flagship dish, which is often partnered with lechón asado. Its crossover potential lies in its intense flavor, appealing to those looking for a solid side dish starring beans, or even a center-of-the-plate option.
> Fried Pork and Arroz con Gandules — Tex-Rican Bar-B-Que, Harker Heights, Texas
> Arroz con Gandules Amuse Bouche: Sofrito-infused rice chips topped with pigeon pea hummus and pigeon pea ceviche — Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel, San Juan, P.R.

9. Lechón Asado
No one does roast pig better. Those might be fighting words, but this reporter spent 14 years in Puerto Rico, and was the beneficiary of many whole-day outings that centered around The Pig Roast. The pig, spit-roasted to perfection, is typically basted with sour orange juice and achiote, and placed over peeled plantains that sit atop hot stones or coals. The skin is ridiculously crisp, crackling and rich. A sour garlic sauce often accompanies the feast, countering the unctuous, smoky, porky deliciousness. Lechón is the ambassador for the pork-happy food culture here, but many other dishes feature pork, too—from pinchos (skewers of grilled pork) to mondongo, a flavorful tripe stew.

> Lechón Asado con Arroz y Frijoles Rojo — Rincon Criollo, Corona, N.Y.
> Tacos de Lechón al Carbon: Three tacos stuffed with roasted pork, lettuce, tomato, Monterey Jack, guacamole and sour cream — La Esquina del Lechón, Miami

10. Coffee
Strong, aromatic, exotic—these are the markers of Puerto Rican coffee. With Cuban and Colombian coffee cornering the market here for so long, those looking for the next thing might just want to smell the Puerto Rican beans. And adding an authentic coffee drink can bring a premium note to your menu—café con leche and cortaditos (espresso with steamed milk) are two pathways to authentic Puerto Rican coffee drinking.

> Coconut Latte made with Puerto Rican espresso and steamed coconut milk — Sol Food, San Rafael, Calif.
> Puerto Rican Coffee — Starbucks

11. Tembleque
A classic Puerto Rican dessert, this creamy coconut pudding stars coconut milk, milk, cornstarch, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and sometimes nutmeg. Orange water can give it depth of flavor, and almonds or dried fruit add texture. It’s the island’s answer to blanc mange and panna cotta, and it has the potential to bring island adventure to dessert menus.

> Tembleque: Creamy coconut pudding with mango sauce — Sol Food, San Rafael, Calif.

12. Chicharrón
Heralded as “the chicharrón de Bayamon,” Puerto Rico claims this crispy fried pork rind as its native son. Cut from the pork rib—often marinated (lime juice, vinegar, pepper), always seasoned, then deep-fried—these salty, crispy porky “chips” are primed for bar snacks. In Puerto Rico, you can also find chicken-skin chicharrones, first marinated in dark rum, lemon zest, Tabasco and garlic overnight, then tossed in flour, seasoned with adobo and deep-fried. And although chicharrones—either pork or chicken—are perfect as a bar snack, they also make a fantastic garnish, as in the Barbacoa y Chicharrón Tacos at Tacos Los Gemelos in Houston.

> Gordita de Chicharrón — El Atoron, Dallas
> Barbecue Chicharrones — Farmhaus, St. Louis

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.