On Puerto Rico’s ‘pork highway,’ 4 stops for spit-roasted bliss

The drive south of San Juan rewards travelers with lechón, pasteles and other criollo comfort foods

An employee of Lechonera Los Amigos cuts up pork to serve to customers on Sept. 12. (Photos by Gabriella N. Báez for The Washington Post)

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PUERTO RICO HIGHWAY 184 — The road to roast pork begins 30 minutes south of San Juan’s beaches. Paying the toll for Puerto Rico Highway 52 takes you deep into the interior of the island, past weathered houses, towering palms, bamboo forests and sprawls of banana trees.

Exit onto Route 184 near an area called Guavate, Cayey, and you will come upon La Ruta del Lechón, the “pork highway.”

Lechón is spit-roasted pig. When prepared properly, it is some of the juiciest, most flavorful meat on the planet. Pork lovers from all around the world have visited Guavate’s famous open-air lechoneras.

Why is there so much roast pork along this road? Search for advice on YouTube, and you’ll hear travel gurus explain that these places were established to serve hungry locals driving from Ponce at the southern end of the island to the capital in the north — or vice versa.

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Lechonera workers here say many of those commuters were actually in the region because of a penitentiary camp (now closed) just a few miles away. Food historian and professor Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, author of “Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity,” says the lechoneras benefited from their proximity to the prison, which included a farm that raised hogs for surrounding communities. The local pork boasts a distinctly Puerto Rican taste, because pigs on the island consume native fruits and vegetables.

Over time, Guavate became the capital of lechoneras.

“Probably it became a very important place to go as a frugal family,” Ortíz says. On holidays and special occasions, families would come for communal feasts of reasonably priced meat.

Small shacks equipped with little beyond a machete and a scale evolved into sprawling, well-maintained properties with bars and dance floors. As they grew, they held on to the food that made them so popular — and the jungle-style meat cleavers.

When Hurricane Fiona landed in September, it brought flash floods and mudslides while knocking out power to the entire island. Around Guavate, the downpour flooded the subtropical terrain and toppled trees. Most of Guavate’s routes have been cleared, residents say, and power has been restored to most of the population. The lechoneras seem to be back to full service, although some relied on generators to function for weeks after the storm.

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On Highway 184, there are plenty of lechoneras worth a stop. You could simply follow the aroma of the rotisseries until you land at a place you like. On your first visit, though, you should consider one of the most popular.


Lechonera Los Amigos

As drivers come off the toll road and onto Highway 184, Los Amigos is there to greet them. An array of picnic tables has front-row seats to the restaurant’s main event: whole roasted pig.

A worker standing behind glass uses a giant blade to hack off chunks of meat for customers. The pork, other meats and sides steam on a hot table as guests scoot past.

A typical plate might contain lechón, arroz con gandules and a chilled Medalla Light beer. That can run you anywhere between $11 to $13.

Nearly every lechonera serves tasty pasteles, and Los Amigos is no exception. The traditional dish, comparable to tamales, is a staple on La Ruta associated with holidays such as Thanksgiving, Three Kings Day and New Year’s. During Christmas, Los Amigos sees thousands of customers, and owner Luis Prieto says he cooks more than three dozen pigs just to keep up with demand.

Look around, and there are life-size likenesses of the owner with one of his former employees on the walls. A photo stand-in of a pair of cartoon piglets is propped up near the entrance for a TikTok-worthy shot. Top 40 hits pump through speakers, as people take their food to one of the restaurant’s 150 seats.

Although some lechoneras have an online presence of some kind, Prieto takes his business to another level. He has recorded a video on YouTube nearly every day for years. He often reveals where food is being cooked or shows members of his smiling staff who are restocking or making coffee.

Waiting just outside the lechonera is Café Prieto, which serves espresso drinks and pastries. The shop is open for business, but the owner says there hasn’t been seating inside amid the pandemic. He does plan to reopen the space at some point as he works on the next phase of his venture.

In 2023, Prieto hopes to open an expansion. He’s calling it Señora Barra and says the new space will operate with a separate kitchen that offers tapas-style appetizers. Señora Barra will also feature cocktails and artisanal beer from Puerto Rican brands such as Ocean Lab, Old Harbor, Del Oeste and Zurc.

At some point next year, Prieto says he even hopes to open a tasting room and wine cellar nearby for members-only clientele.

Address: Carr. 184 Km 33.2 Bo, 00739, Puerto Rico

Website: lechoneralosamigos.com


Lechonera El Mojito

According to El Mojito manager David Flores, founder Jose “Pepe” Colon began the business cooking one pig a day. In less than 10 years, the place became a must-visit destination on La Ruta. A framed photograph from 1984 has an inscription calling the lechonera “la puerta” (the door) of Guavate.

The name Mojito derives from the spicy, zesty sauce served as a condiment to the pork. Pepe concocted it and was inspired by the red sauces made in Salinas on the southern coast — not the Cuban cocktail, though the restaurant serves that, too.

A meal will run you about $10 to $12 per person including a drink, such as a refreshing Coco Rico soda. Besides pork, chicken and turkey, options include morcilla (blood sausage), batatas (sweet potato), yuca, tostones and more.

Simply walk up to the line where a worker takes your order on a slip of paper, which then makes its way past an oversize plaster figure of a pig and to the cashier. Within minutes, you’re eating lechón in the dining area.

Look around, and you’ll see a verdant green space with a big mural on the wall that had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Maria. In it, a renowned farmer named Stephanie Rodríguez is carrying bananas or plantains. The owner, Leida Rivera (no relation), says the painting honors the hardship of the island’s agricultural workers in the wake of the storm.

The hogs are locally sourced, as certified by a seal on the wall that reads “Cerdo Rico.” That branding is linked to La Cooperativa de Porcicultores de Puerto Rico y el Caribe, a pig farm collective promoting meat produced exclusively on the island.

Rivera, who is Pepe’s niece, says El Mojito values a relaxed environment, so there is no dance floor or live music. That doesn’t stop locals from getting up and dancing to the music on the speakers.

Address: Carr. 184 Km 32.9 Bo, 00736, Puerto Rico

Website: lechoneraelmojito.com


Lechonera Los Pinos

Don’t be fooled by imitators carrying the same name. Los Pinos is the one and only lechonera that Anthony Bourdain raved about in his television show “No Reservations.” Since then, people as far away as Thailand have come to try the food.

Want to eat the comforting island cuisine Puerto Ricans call criollo? This is the place. The restaurant has been around in one form or another since the 1970s and has grown a few thousand square feet since it started, according to Erlíca Rodriguez, daughter of the original owner.

People say the food is very familiar if you grew up in places such as Cayey, Caguas or Ponce. Highlights include dishes such as gandinga (liver stew), guanimes (boiled cornmeal), guineitos en escabeche (green bananas and vegetables) or rice with a little pega’o (crunchy bits). Cold bottles of Malta, a Caribbean soft drink with a strong barley and molasses flavor, are just a few feet away. A meal will cost about $8 to $12 per person.

The open-air, cafeteria-style seating is common for these eateries. During the busy season, they serve thousands of people. Aside from a few days before Easter weekend, Los Pinos is always open.

Breakfast is available seven days a week. There are eggs and oatmeal, but also some of the dishes you’ll see in the afternoon, such as soups and alcapurrias. The restaurant hosts live music only on the weekends, holidays and special occasions.

Rodriguez says that just about everything they cook is sourced from the island. They also work with the pig-farming cooperative that’s behind the “Cerdo Rico” seal in the dining room.

Waiting in line, you’ll notice that women are the most visible workers. Rodriguez says 90 percent of the staff is female, and although it’s not intentional, in her experience, they’re masters at handling the grueling work.

It took Los Pinos a couple of weeks to open after Hurricane Maria. When it did, the business could support only a few people working. So Rodriguez’s father cooked in the kitchen, while she and her mother worked the counter.

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During that time, she noticed that people weren’t just purchasing food but were also asking for basics, such as water and ice. So Los Pinos stepped up to lend a hand when times were desperate.

Address: Carr. 184 Km 27.7 Bo, 00736, Puerto Rico

Website: lospinosguavate.com


Lechonera El Rancho Original

El Rancho Original isn’t just a nice name. The owners claim to run the very first lechonera on Route 184, with El Mojito and Los Pinos taking seniority somewhere behind.

Carlos Santos, who has been operating El Rancho for 17 years, says it began as a small shelter made of sheet metal. Today, the footprint is massive, spilling over both sides of the street.

A meal can cost one person anywhere from $9 to $12. Customers seek out dishes such as pasteles, cuajo (hog maw), roasted chicken and turkey. Some wash it all down with a cold can of Kola Champagne.

The lechonera has always been a local hot spot, Santos says. The restaurant hosts two live bands playing Puerto Rican music, and there’s plenty of space for dancing. Some from the area say a place such as El Rancho has everything they need to enjoy the weekends: food, drink, entertainment.

It isn’t unusual to see a large white egret hunt around river rocks while you’re eating.

Diners wish you “buen provecho,” or “enjoy your meal,” as they pass by, gleefully carrying theirs to any one of the gazebos and pavilions lining the calming waters of Rio Guavate. It isn’t unusual to see a large white egret hunt around river rocks while you’re eating.

The place opens early and closes at 5 p.m. on weekdays, and on the weekends, it stays open two hours longer. A few thousand people have been known to descend on the business between those times. Cars can be seen lining the street. The lechonera has to cook overnight to keep up with the demand on Christmas Eve.

Santos and his business partner say they can go through 35 pigs when busy, each weighing roughly 150 pounds and able to feed about 200 people.

El Rancho sources its hogs, which are already slaughtered and cleaned before delivery, from the nearby town of Aibonito. It, too, carries the “Cerdo Rico” sign in its dining area, and Santos goes out of his way to point out the Agriculture Department’s stamp of approval on the loin of the pigs in the fridge.

Breakfast and coffee are also served. Some locals are known to come nearly every day and make lechón their first meal.

“We’ve had a lot of people tell us, ‘I’ve had a lot of roasted pig in other places, but I didn’t know that this place existed,’ ” Santos says in Spanish. “They tell us that they prefer ours to any other place.”

Address: Carr. 184 Km 27.5 Bo, 00736, Puerto Rico

Website: elranchooriginalpr.com