You’re driving on a dirt road with the windows down and salsa music playing on the radio. You are looking for a local restaurant at the top of a mountain, where bacon rice, spit-roasted pig, and piña coladas await. But right now you have to focus on the road—it’s bumpy and exhilarating. The colorful Flamboyan trees envelop the way with their bright orange flowers and to both sides of the road you see miles of impossibly green forest. It’s as though you’ve reached the very heart of Puerto Rico, and very soon, the very heart of Puerto Rican cuisine.
Francisco’s Caribbean Local Cuisine, Rincón
You arrive in Rincón, on the west coast, and instantly feel the surf town vibe. You take the famed 413 road that leads to the legendary beaches of Rincón, for a moment tempting you to go check out the waves. But at Francisco’s Caribbean Local Cuisine, mussels in coconut red curry, plantain-crusted chicharrones (fried pork), and jerk chicken wings are waiting for you in the open-air terrace restaurant, with scenic views to boot.
Buena Vibra, Cabo Rojo
As you continue your edible adventure, you head to the southern town of Cabo Rojo to a beach shack called Buena Vibra (which translates to “good vibes”). You sit down and order, with the salty breeze keeping you company. Suddenly, here comes a parade of jumbo-sized dishes. First up is a stack of local fritters: coconut shrimp, sorullitos, bolas de queso, chicharrones, and pastelillos. Next up is the mofongo con churrasco, a savory and moist plantain mash topped with seasoned skirt steak bits. And finally, a whole pineapple filled with shrimp and a heaping side of fried plantains arrives. You might not need to eat for a week after this.
El Mesón de Melquiades, Cayey
The drive now takes you inland to the mountain town of Cayey, and you notice how it can get a little chilly in the island’s countryside. You find the restaurant by a winding road and a verdant cliff behind it. You get inside and see that ostrich, deer, and buffalo are on the menu, but you go for plantain and bacon soup, guanimes con bacalao (corn tamales and cod in creole sauce), and coconut flan. You also order half a dozen alcapurrias (corned beef and green banana fritters) to go—you know, for the road.
Caficultura, San Juan
Your culinary road trip is almost over, but not without making a stop in the romantic city of Old San Juan. You reach San Francisco Street, a cobblestone avenue filled with charming eateries, and find Caficultura in one corner. You open the door and your eyes go straight to the massive antique chandelier hanging from the beamed ceiling, while your nose samples the delicious fragrance of local coffee beans being roasted. A youthful staff says “hello” in unison, and you take a menu to study the many varieties of local Puerto Rican cuisine. Even though it’s well after noon, you opt for the coconut-milk French toast with pineapple jam and, of course, a cup of that irresistible coffee.