The first thing you should know about Puerto Rico’s pork highway is that it almost doesn’t exist at all. This is hard to believe after seeing both Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern salivate so much they needed to rehydrate intravenously, but it’s true.
The problem is that Puerto Rican food is now hard to find in Puerto Rico. Very true, and very depressing. The food was a major draw for us, and we were very excited to start sampling the local cuisine when we arrived in San Juan, but alas! It was not to be.
Pull over to park, sharpen your knife, and unbutton your pants…
In the city, there are Popeye’s Chicken and Burger Kings as far as the eye can see. Wendy’s, Applebee’s, and Outback Steakhouse were no problem to find, same with high quality but non-Puerto Rican restaurants you can get back home(i.e. “should we get Mexican tonight, or Italian? Ooh, maybe sushi??”) but local food places were nowhere to be found.
Even the coffee – something every guide book told us was a matter of national pride – was of an unknown provenance. If you ask someone in San Juan if the breakfast place down the street serves Puerto Rican coffee, the answer you’ll get is most likely along the lines of “well you’re in Puerto Rico, and it’s coffee, soooo…..”
You’re Going to Need A Car
Luckily for us, the answer lay with our trusty wheels. If you’re going to find real Puerto Rican food, you’re going to have to get away from the cities and head for the mountainous interior. This is where you’ll find your Puerto Rican Foodie destination: the porcine nirvana – La Ruta del Lechón, aka the Pork Highway.
In general, to find the real deal you’re going to have to get off the main highways and onto the serious mountain roads. If you’re lost, have motion sickness, and have nearly driven off a mountain, you’ll find some authentic food. Luckily, the Pork Highway is much easier to get to than other authentic foods.
What you’re looking for is Hwy 184 heading towards Guavate. Guavate is the town the Pork Highway leads to, but make no mistake – the highway is your destination, not the town.
We took Hwy 1 to Hwy 18 to get out of San Juan, then Hwy 18 to 52, and 52 all the way down to Hwy 184 towards Guavate. There are tolls on these roads, so heed our warning well: for God’s sake, when you’re renting your car, just get a AutoExpresso pass to deal with the accursed tolls of Puerto Rico!
As soon as you turn off of Hwy 52 to 184, you’ll find lechoneras all along the road serving the most delicious spit-roasted pork you’ve ever come across. If there is a pig on a metal tube in the window, chances are good you’ve found a lechonera. If there is a person on a metal tube in the window, chances are good you should leave immediately – I don’t care if it smells good, just leave. Pull over to park, sharpen your knife, and unbutton your pants – it’s time for some pork!
What to Expect at Your Lechonera
Whether getting it to go or staying there, the pork is measured by the pound. Just let them know at the counter how much you want, and they’ll do the rest. They’ll hack off a good mix of magical meat for you covering all the major demographics (shoulder, butt, face, skin, etc.), so all you have to do is just sit back and enjoy yourself.
Now, there’s more than just roasted pig at these places. Morcilla – their own version of blood sausage – is available, as are a few other pieces of meat in tube form. I didn’t care for the Morcilla though as it was surprisingly way too dry. Andy needz moar blawd!
Arroz con gandules is spiced rice with pigeon peas and – you guessed it – pork. This was a good side and the rice helped soak up the pork fat.
Really though, the main event is the pig. We split a pound while we were there, and brought a pound back with us for breakfast the next day, along with some rice. It was a big, wonderful breakfast that filled us up for our return travels back home.