If you want to experience the island of Puerto Rico by taste alone your taste buds will be tired, you’ll be fat, and your mouth will definitely be smiling.
Side Note - This isn’t a post about fruit but let me just say this… I know we were spoiled in California with the huge variety of produce we had easy access to but literally there are mangos rotting at the base of our driveway here because there are so many on the tree. They aren’t the large mangos we’re used to in CA but the smaller more fibrous ones. (The best way to eat them is to pick them when ripe, put them in the freezer, and then once frozen let them thaw a little, cut a hole in the top, then squeeze out your own mango sorbet.) Mangos, pineapples, bananas, guava, starfruit…so good!!
Back on subject, Comida Criolla. The best way to get the true flavor of Puerto Rican food is to head to one of the food stands you find EVERYWHERE on the side of the road. Some look more appealing than others, but it’s a matter of how adventurous you choose to be for which one you want to stop at. These stands are called Chinchorros or Friquitines. I think of the difference this way, Chinchorros tend to have a little more substance in that they usually have menus, real chairs, and your food tends to come on a plate (think Sol Food in San Rafael for the type of food). Friquitines are more of a quick stop for a beer and a little fried happiness in a napkin to help you fill your pants out a little better. Both are great depending on the mood you’re in and how healthy your heart is. You’ll find that a lot of the Chinchorros down by the beach will also sell friquitines that you can grab with a cold beer to enjoy on the beach.
You know we’ve tried a few since we’ve been here! (obviously on gym days only..) Here are the highlights of the three we’ve enjoyed so far.
Los Kioskos de Luquillo: Photo of these is the top picture in the post, shot horribly on an iPhone 6 at night... These are probably the most famous chinchorros of Puerto Rico and probably where you’ll find the most tourists, but its definitely a mix of locals and tourists. They are about an hour drive from Old San Juan and worth a day mixed with beach and sun.
You can literally crawl your way down the strip drinking beer, eating fried goodness like Bolitas de Papa con Res (Fried potato balls with beef) or Tacos de Jueyes (Fried dough with crab and cheese stuffed inside) or Surullos (little fried pieces of corn dough), the list goes on and on. If you want something with a little more substance, some have arroz con habichuella o gandules (rice with beans or pigeon peas), tostones (fried savory plantains), and some have pinchos (grilled meat on a stick, often with plantain between the meat chunks). There are even a few kioskos in Luquillo that offer other fare such as pizza, hamburgers, Peruvian ceviche. Something for everyone!
Every kiosko in Luquillo has some seating, it varies on the establishment if there is waiter service or just a table to plop at while you indulge. Most of them are open on either side so you can walk in from the street, buy something and walk out on to the beach. The beach in Luquillo is a pubic balenario in addition to all the kiosks. If you want to go for the day you can park at the beach parking lot and hang at the beach all day with easy kiosko access. Because nothing feels sexier than eating fried food in your bathing suit. If you want to read more on the Balenario de Luquillo you can get all the deets by clicking the link.
One note if you’re going specifically to the kioskos and the beach parking lot is closed for the day or you don't want to pay to park. Make sure you park in a true parking spot on the cement in front of the kioskos and not next to all the cars parked on the dirt. If you do park on the dirt, there is a good chance you’ll end up with a $100 ticket. We found out the hard way and you can’t pay parking tickets online here. Rather you have to go to the collectoria inside the DMV to give them your monies… Park on the cement!!
Kioskos de Piñones: These kioskos we found one evening when heading down to check out the Playa Rocosa De Piñones. We didn’t actually get to the beach part, but I’ll be going back to check it out. These Kioskos are more a mix of chinchorros with friquitines whereas the Kioskos de Luquillo are more friquitines with some chinchorro type options.
We stopped in at Restaurante Carmín for dinner. When I say “stopped in” I mean we walked past the waist high wall that separates the establishment from the parking area. Chinchorros and friquitines are for the most part open air eateries so don’t go to them expecting air conditioning and mood lighting (though some do have that too). Most have a nice breeze if they are by the water and ceiling fans to keep the air moving.
Restaurante Carmín had a nice standard fare menu offering Asopaos (Puerto Rican rice stews); Carne Fritas (fried pork meat); Pollo a la Plancha (grilled chicken); Camarones o Pulpo con salsa Criolla o Ajillo (Sautéed shrimp or octopus with creole sauce or garlic sauce); Chulettas Kan Kan (Puerto Rican pork chop with chicharron) - click link!; Mofongos of various assortments (click link), YOU MUST HAVE MOFONGO BEFORE LEAVING PUERTO RICO. All of these various meals, with the exception of Mofongo, come with a side of either Arroz con habichuelas or gandules; tostones; vegetables; or salad - mind you salad here is usually iceberg lettuce and a slice of sad tomato (don’t have high expectations of anything nutritious for your salad - I'll be growing my own tomatoes).
An interesting note, with every meal we’ve had at a chinchorro a squeeze bottle of pink substance has been brought out to go with our food. It's called Mayoketchup and is somewhat similar to thousand island dressing although not as thick and without relish or onions. People tend to put it on their salads or dip tostones in it. I actually like it as a dip (not dressing), but I’m a mayo lover so if mayo isn’t your thing you might want to steer clear of the pink sauce (but you should try everything once right??).
At Carmín’s we had Carne Frita con Tostones (Alejandro) and Camarones Criollo con Arroz y Habichuelas (Cassandra).
Chinchorro in Humacao: The last chinchorro on the list only has a location as we were so hungry when we got there and so stuffed when we left we didn’t note the name. Sadly, it was probably some of the most gourmet comida criolla from a chinchorro either of us have ever had (my list is short mind you). It was just to the south of Playa Punta Santiago on the old Hwy 3 in Humacao and next to the Humacao Nature Reserve (I’ll be going back to check that out).
We shared tostones shaped into little cups and stuffed with shrimp and we each had a Mofongo de Pulpo - Alejandro had Ajillo (garlic) salsa and I had salsa criolla. We were so hungry our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs so we had plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day. If you get pulpo, don’t reheat it in the microwave the next day, it will turn into tire rubber. The food at this chinchorro was beautifully plated and wonderfully cooked. It goes to show, not to judge a chinchorro by its many large banners for Medalla and Sangrrrriiaa!! This place had maybe 5 plastic tables, a bar and a pool table but it was fantastic. They also had a variety of pizzas if you’re not in the mood for comida criolla. The American family next to us shared one and it looked pretty good and homemade. Sadly our temporary hunger blindness prevented photos so you’ll just have to come visit and we’ll take you there.
I'm sure there will be many more chinchorro and friquitine visits and while I don’t recommend Comida Criolla as a daily meal unless you’re an ultra-marathoner with a high metabolism and good coronary genetics, I do suggest you make a trip to try these for a little taste of the island.
Logistical Notes: Ask for any specials they might have, as they all have a secret menu of offerings. Probably not the best place to try and eat if you're vegan. Bring cash although many do take card if you spend a certain amount. Feel free to share a main dish as its a lot of food. Also, don’t be afraid to drink the water, ice, or eat the fresh produce - being a frequenter of Mexico it's usually something I wonder about, but the water systems here are regulated the same as the states so you don’t have to worry about any Caribbean version of Montezuma’s.