Puerto Rico is not only known for its stunning beaches and upbeat music — we also put that vibrant energy and color into our food. Much like our history, our cuisine is diverse: West Africa, the U.S., and indigenous Taino all come together at the Puerto Rican table. You can expect rice and pork from the Spaniards, plantains from West Africa, spam and Vienna sausages from the U.S., and yuca from our Taino ancestors.
Though there’s no shortage of delicious food to fuel up on while on the island, we put together a list of six traditional dishes and ingredients to eat on your next trip to Puerto Rico.
Gandules (pigeon peas) are the protagonist in arroz con gandules, one of the best-known rice dishes in Puerto Rico. A classic side, arroz con gandules is typically served with lechón (roasted pork), and you can find it at almost any Puerto Rican restaurant. However, there are more creative ways to have it. Gandules guisados (stewed pigeon peas) with green plantain dumplings, for example, is a countryside favorite. Risotto de gandules has also become a popular dish — you can find it at Wilo Eatery & Bar in Guaynabo. The creamy rice topped with crispy chicharrones (pork rinds) is a must.
If you’re in Puerto Rico during the holidays, you’re in luck. Puerto Ricans love a good party, and we have the most extended holiday season in the world, beginning on Thanksgiving and ending in mid-January. A quintessential holiday dish, pasteles are made with a masa of root vegetables and green bananas, filled with stewed meat, and wrapped in a banana leaf. Top it off with locally made hot sauce (a.k.a. pique) for that extra kick. (I love the hot tamarind sauce from Artesania Gourmet, but you can find it at most local supermarkets. It also makes for a perfect souvenir.) For a taste of the dish all year round, head to Casa Vieja in Ciales and order their famous deconstructed pastel al caldero.
Ensalada de Pulpo
Being from the southern coast of Puerto Rico, I grew up on ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad). Chewy octopus with tart vinegar and a side of crispy tostones (fried plantains) is the perfect beachside treat. This refreshing dish, made with cooked octopus, onions, olives, olive oil, and vinegar, is a mainstay at every seafood restaurant on the island. And one of my favorites can be had at El Dorado in Salinas.
Passion Fruit, Mango, and Papayas
With average temperatures hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, Puerto Rico is a hotbed for tropical fruit — coconut, mango, papaya, guava, and passion fruit, to name a few. And these bold-flavored fruits often make their way onto the island’s menus, too. Try the passion fruit pie at Lulo’s Sweet & Savory in Santurce. And down south, in my hometown of Guayama, chef Angel David Moreno makes mango marmalade for his new restaurant, El Gallo Pinto.
No trip to Puerto Rico is complete without sampling mofongo, one of the destination’s most popular dishes. What I love about mofongo is its versatility. With fried plantains as its star, it can be served as a side or a main dish. You can have it vegan, or opt for a serving of carne frita (fried pork meat). Enjoy your mofongo with a view at Casa Bavaria, a German-Puerto Rican restaurant in the mountainous town of Morovis. I love the Jägerschnitzel mofongo, which is topped with creamy German-style pork and mushroom sauce.
For those with a sweet tooth, add tembleque (coconut milk custard) to your list. When I arrive midday in Puerto Rico, I head straight to a panadería (bakery) and indulge in a medianoche sandwich and dessert — one of my favorites is tembleque. Tembleque (which means to shake) is a coconut dessert that’s usually topped with coconut flakes and cinnamon, and bakeries like La Ceiba in San Juan always have them for sale.
Jessica van Dop DeJesus is a travel content creator, founder of the popular foodie travel website The Dining Traveler, and the author of the coffee table book “The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico.” You can find her cooking videos on YouTube at The Dining Traveler Cooking Series.