Puerto Rican cuisine is a hearty fare called cocina criolla, which means creole cooking. A typical criolla dish contains fried or stewed meat, chicken, or seafood, combined with or accompanied by rice and beans. Stewed dishes usually begin with a seasoning mix called sofrito, which includes salt pork, ham, lard, onions, green peppers, chili peppers, cilantro, and garlic. Adobo, a seasoning mix comprising peppercorn, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, and vinegar or fresh lime juice, is rubbed into meats and poultry before frying or grilling. Tomato sauce, capers, pimento-stuffed olives, and raisins are also common ingredients in Puerto Rican cuisine. Two items are integral to the preparation of cocina criolla—a caldero, a cast-iron or cast-aluminum cauldron with a round base, straight sides, and a lid; and a mortar and pestle, which is used to grind herbs and seeds.
The plantain is a major staple of the Puerto Rican diet. Similar to a banana but larger, firmer, and less sweet, it is prepared in a variety of ways. Tostones is a popular plantain dish. The fruit is sliced into rounds, fried until soft, mashed flat, and fried again until crisp. They’re typically eaten like bread, as a starchy accompaniment to a meal. It’s sometimes served with a tomato-garlic dipping sauce or something akin to Thousand Island dressing.
But probably the most popular way plantain is served is in mofongo, a mashed mound of fried, unripe plantain, garlic, olive oil, and chicharrón (pork crackling). Mofongo relleno is mofongo stuffed with meat, poultry, or seafood, and piononos are appetizer-size stuffed mofongo. Amarillos, which translates as “yellows,” is the same thing as the Cuban maduras and is made from overripe plantains that have been sliced lengthwise and fried in oil until soft and sweetly caramelized. Bananas are also popular in cocina criolla, especially guineitos en escabeche, a green-banana salad marinated with pimento-stuffed olives in vinegar and lime juice.
Rice also figures prominently in Puerto Rican food. Most restaurants serving comida criolla will list several arroz (rice) dishes such as arroz con habichuelas (beans), arroz con pollo (chicken), arroz con juyeyes (crab), arroz con camarones (shrimp), and arroz con gandules (pigeon peas). Typically in this dish the ingredients have been stewed until damp and sticky in a mixture of tomatoes and sofrito. A similar dish is paella, a Spanish import featuring an assortment of seafood. Asopao, a thick stew, is another popular rice dish, and arroz con leche (milk) is a favorite dessert similar to rice pudding.
Pork is very popular in Puerto Rico , and it has a variety of names: lechon, pernil, cerdo. But chicken and beef are common, and occasionally you’ll come across cabro (goat) and guinea hen. Popular meat dishes include carne guisada (beef stew), chuletas fritas (fried pork chops), carne empanado (breaded and fried steak), carne encebollado (fried steak smothered in cooked onions), and churrasco, an Argentine-style grilled skirt steak. Restaurants along the coast usually specialize in a wide range of seafood, including camarones (shrimp), langosta (lobster), pulpo (octopus), and carrucho (conch). Fish—typically fried whole—can be found on nearly every menu, the choices usually being chillo (red snapper), dorado (mahimahi), or occasionally bacalao (dried salted cod).
Interestingly, you’ll usually find the exact same dessert options at most restaurants. They will include flan (a baked caramel custard), helados (ice cream), and dulce de guayaba (guava in syrup) or dulce de lechosa (papaya in syrup) served with queso del pais, a soft white cheese. Occasionally restaurants will offer tembleque, a coconut custard, particularly around the Christmas holidays.
An American-style breakfast is fairly commonly found, although Puerto Ricans often eat their eggs and ham in toasted sandwiches called bocadillos. American coffee can sometimes be found, but the traditional café con leche, a strong brew with steamed milk, is highly recommended. Bocadillos are often eaten for lunch, particularly the Cubano, a toasted sandwich with ham, roasted pork, and cheese. The media noche is similar to the Cubano, but it’s served on a softer, sweeter bread.
Although American fast-food restaurant chains can be found in Puerto Rico , the island has its own traditional style of fast-food fare often sold from roadside kiosks. Offerings usually include fried savory pies and fritters made from various combinations of plantain, meat, chicken, cheese, crab, potato, and fish.
The legal drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18. Although all types of alcoholic beverages are available, rum is the number 1 seller. There are three types of rum: white or silver, which are dry, pale, and light-bodied; gold, which is amber-colored and aged in charred oak casks; and black, a strong, 151-proof variety often used in flambés. Favorite rum drinks are Cuba Libre, a simple mix of rum and Coke with a wedge of lime; piña colada, a frozen blended combination of rum, cream of coco, and pineapple juice; and mojito, a Cuban import made from rum, simple syrup, club soda, fresh lime juice, and tons of fresh muddled mint.
When it comes to beer, Puerto Ricans prefer a light pilsner, and you can’t go wrong with Medalla. It’s brewed in Mayagüez and won the bronze in its class at the World Beer Cup 1999. Presidente beer, made in the Dominican Republic, is also popular.