By Andrea Pyenson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2010; F01
"This is not going to be our typical beach vacation," declared my 19-year-old son, Luke, a few days before we left for Puerto Rico in January.
I humored him. While my thoughts were firmly fixed on a beach chair in the sand, I knew that he had other ideas.
Luke had been talking about "La Ruta del Lechon," or the Pork Highway, ever since he'd watched a Travel Channel show about it six months earlier. But as we flew out of a miserable snowstorm early one Saturday morning, I had no idea how prophetic Luke's words would be -- or how much our family would enjoy the vacation we hadn't really planned.
It would be easy to visit San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, and remain cloistered in any one of a number of beach resorts. You could relax, enjoy the sun and lose your winter pallor. But by not venturing beyond the confines of the everything-you-need (plus casino) environment, you'd miss the essence of this beautiful Caribbean island, a U.S. territory since 1898, and its rich Spanish history. Not to mention the best of its delicious and varied local cuisine.
On this, our first visit to the island, we stayed in Old San Juan. Our hotel, El Convento, was an intimate property of 58 rooms in a restored 350-year-old Carmelite convent. A rooftop pool and hot tub offered views of San Juan Bay. On the other side of the building, there was a rooftop vegetable-and-herb garden with more lounge chairs. The well-attended daily happy hour in the third-floor library spilled out onto the adjacent terrace, offering a chance for guests to gather, trade sightseeing and restaurant tips and talk about the frigid weather they were avoiding back home. Though it wasn't on the beach, the hotel had sister properties in the popular Condado and Isla Verde beach neighborhoods, so we could explore the city and enjoy as much oceanside time as we wanted.
Across the street from the hotel stood the unassumingly beautiful San Juan Cathedral. Built in 1521, it's the oldest church in the city and the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere, and houses Ponce de Leon's remains. But Old San Juan, a roughly six-by-seven-block metropolis, is hardly dominated by churches and convents. There is a lively street scene, especially at night. Following the crowds inevitably takes you to Calle Fortaleza, a trove of restaurants and some nightclubs, many offering live music and dancing.
As soon as we checked in and had changed into shorts and T-shirts, we set out to explore the labyrinthine blue-cobblestoned streets. The sidewalks are so narrow that it was frequently necessary to walk single file. We were captivated by the pastel-colored Spanish colonial buildings lining the roads. Okay, we had to force ourselves to look past the fast-food outlets at every corner, as well as the surprising number of U.S.-based outlet stores. But at least even they were housed in those charming pastel buildings.
Though our decision to come to Puerto Rico had been driven in part by Luke's desire to visit the Pork Highway, he's hardly the only food-obsessed member of our family. We were all determined to find the best of the local cocina. Some pre-departure research had identified mofongo -- mashed and fried plantains, sometimes mounded as a base for meat, seafood or vegetables -- as a local specialty. We were also after the omnipresent fried snacks alcapurrias (root vegetable fritters, sometimes with pork), bacalaítos (salt cod fritters) and chicharrones (fried pork skin), which we found everywhere, from the street carts by the harbor to diners to the finest restaurants. We sampled many of the latter and concluded that while it's hard for anything fried to taste too bad, preparation matters.
Mofongo was another story. Serious plantain fans, we really wanted to like it. Our first exposure, at a restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge, was a disappointment, but we chalked it up to bad mofongo. Several iterations later, we reluctantly concluded that it just wasn't our thing. But we couldn't get enough amarillos, sliced ripe yellow plantains sautéed in oil or butter. We were partial to those served at the Parrot Club, which were sweet, doused in a molasses-y syrup.
And we didn't waste any time getting to the Pork Highway. On our first morning (which happened to be a perfect beach day), one of Luke's college friends, who lives in a San Juan suburb, picked us up at 11 to accompany his extended family to Guavate, in the Sierra de Cayey mountain range about 45 minutes outside San Juan. Route 184, "La Ruta del Lechon," is home to the island's highest concentration of open-air roadside cafeterias (lechoneras) serving to-die-for roasted pork.
Visiting a lechonera is a popular family activity, especially on Sunday afternoon. Thanks in part to the Travel Channel, it is becoming increasingly popular among tourists as well. We were the first group to arrive at Los Gemelos, at about 12:30 p.m., but when we left roughly two hours later, the place was hopping. And the traffic heading up the mountain as we drove down was bumper-to-bumper. The route from San Juan is easy, and going early is definitely a good idea.
Lechon means suckling pig, and the first thing you'll notice at most lechoneras are the pigs turning on spits, tended by a man with a machete. The lechoneras also roast turkeys, ducks and chickens. As appetizers, we tried morcilla, or blood sausage, and longaniza, a chicken sausage flavored with fresh cilantro and other spices. With so much pork coming, the chicken was a nice touch.
The pork was delicious, with a slab of crackling golden skin that for many is the best part. We ordered it with two traditional sides: arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and pasteles. In the first dish, a version of rice and beans with roast pork, the rice is tinted yellow from annatto seed. Pasteles are mashed plantain and roast pork (detect a theme?), wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled. Seated in an open room, with lush greenery all around, we hardly missed the beach.
Which is not to say that we didn't go. We spent the next two days visiting first the beach at Condado and next Isla Verde. If sitting on the beach within sight of a Cartier jewelry shop or around the corner from a Starbucks gives you comfort, I recommend Condado, a crescent-shaped beach lined with high-rise resorts. The water was beautiful, but the high surf made it dangerous for swimming. Isla Verde is a prettier, longer beach with softer, cleaner sand, but it's a stone's throw from the airport. On the sound scale, airplanes taking off trump crashing waves. We never quite got past that unwelcome intrusion into our attempt at relaxing in the sun.
We spent half a day in El Yunque National Forest, the only subtropical rain forest maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Less than an hour's drive from San Juan, it feels like another country. A variety of bus, hiking and snorkeling tours are available to and through the forest, but we were lucky enough to visit with our new Puerto Rican friends. The highlight of our tour was a four-mile hike to and from the spectacular La Mina waterfall.
Driving back to San Juan, we stopped for dinner in Piñones, a small beach community known for its local seafood. This shouldn't be such a big deal on an island, but we'd been surprised to learn, when we first arrived, that very little of the seafood on Puerto Rico is drawn from the surrounding waters. Nobody seems to know exactly why. At Donde Olga, where we sat at picnic tables on an outdoor patio, our group of seven feasted on chillo (red snapper), served, in most cases, with head and tail intact. It was accompanied by tostones, another favorite plantain dish. Fried slices of the fruit, these are crunchier than amarillos, and not as sweet.
Throughout our stay, one constant got us going in the morning: La Bombonera, a family-run bakery and coffee shop, has been an institution in Old San Juan since 1902. After discovering it on our third morning, we returned daily for its famous mallorcas. These sweet rolls are something like overgrown brioche buns, dusted with powdered sugar. La Bombonera serves them toasted, with lots (and lots) of butter; or as the foundation of a breakfast sandwich, surrounding eggs, ham or cheese or all three. A steady diet of these addictive, probably artery-clogging indulgences would not be a good thing. But with rich, strong Puerto Rican coffee, a crowd of locals filling the red Naugahyde settees, and a few gruff waiters who looked as though they've been there since the place opened, they were a perfect way to start the day.
Not part of your typical beach vacation at all.
Pyenson is a food and travel writer in Boston.