I think it was 2002 when I first went to Puerto Rico. One of my girlfriends is in the navy and back then she could fly there for free and get a really cheap hotel right on the beach. Hell yes I was in.
Somehow my friend’s flight did not line up with mine, she flew in the day after. This would be her second visit to Puerto Rico, she had made a few friends on the last trip and called one to pick me up at the airport and have me stay at the small hotel he was doing some work at while I waited for her to arrive. She didn’t tell me this. I learned of this plan when there was some random Puerto Rican guy named Heri picking me up at the airport and bringing me to God knows where. Who the hell is this asking me to get in his car and how’d he know my name?
Heri brought me to his girlfriend’s grandma’s apartment. This women knew me from nowhere, could barely make a conversation with me, and in her tiny apartment with very modest belongings made me a meal I will never forget – patitas de cerdo. Pigs feet stewed in some sort of broth with beans and rice on the side. If I knew what patitas meant at the time I might not have eaten it. Thankfully my Spanish was too broken to translate because that meal was delicious. My stupid young self brought almost no money at all on this trip, I was starving, kinda freaked out being alone in what felt like a foreign country (Puerto Rico is a territory of the US, no passport needed), and this woman took me in for the day and fed me.
I’ve gone back to Puerto Rico probably 10 other times. Each time presented a situation that resulted from poor planning, stupidity, and a lack of funds on my part and each time someone there took me in, fed me, gave me a ride, let me sleep at their house, brought me to the airport, shared their family dinner, and just in general was very welcoming and happy to do what they could to help. I’m talking about sleeping at a taxi drivers house because we missed our ferry boat and had absolutely no place to sleep that night, he brought us out to eat, to a party, and gave us a free ride to the ferry the next morning. That is who Puerto Ricans are.
Puerto Rican food is unique to all other cuisines. Mofongo is pork rinds smashed up with fried plantains (large starchy bananas), and served like mashed potatoes. I like it topped with conch or octopus cooked in a red broth.
Quesitos are cheese danishes, never very sweet and sometimes topped with a little honey but I prefer mine plain with a cup of coffee and hot milk in the morning.
You might have to drive out of your way a little to get to a good Lechonera – whole pig roasted over a spit. If you can get some of the crispy skin hot damn you will love it.
In Luquillo there is a long line of about 60 different food kiosks you can stop and eat at right on the beach. They are humble shacks for the most part and don’t look like much from the street. This is one stop I have never missed every time I’ve gone to Puerto Rico, if I’m there you can bet I’ll stop at the Luquillo food kiosks, real authentic Puerto Rican food.
I don’t know if the kiosks survived hurricane Maria. I don’t know if my friends grandmother lost her apartment in the floods that followed. Puerto Rico’s government has been in a debt crisis and its infrastructure has been declining for years. Puerto Ricans have their own culture and identity but as a territory of the US they are American citizens and they need our help.
I’ve made a donation to Unidos por Puerto Rico, if you can I hope you will too. And when Puerto Rico is back on it’s feet again make a point to visit this amazing place to experience the food, people, history and unforgettable beaches.