Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Eating the Island, Part 6: La Ruta de Lechon

Puerto Ricans love to dine on the swine, so I of course wanted to sample some delicious pernil (roasted pork) at a lechonera (place that roasts piggies) while visiting.  My boyfriend's mom (they're Puerto Rican) makes pernil for parties and special occasions and it is juicy, well seasoned, and so tender that it falls of the bone.  With that said, my pernil bar is set pretty high.  We embarked on La Ruta de Lechon (the pork trail) in the pursuit of Puerto Rico's finest lechoneras and I was ready to eat pork parts and nab a bag of crispy pork rinds for the ride home.

After about a 45 minute drive we arrived in Guavate, Puerto Rico's pork capital.  We turned on Rte. 184 and there were more lechoneras on this road than McDonald's in the U.S., yes...there were that many. El Nuevo Rancho was the first lechonera that we stopped at on the trail.  Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel stopped at this one.  I ordered pork, pork stomach, rice, tostones, and a Medalla light.  I eagerly and greedily dived into the pork stomach first.  Being from the south, I don't consider pork stomachs to be a weird eat as I've eaten them at holidays since I was a little girl.  These were amazing! Perfectly stewed in a tomato based sauce and infused with the taste of red pepper, garlic, green olivies, and onions.  After finishing my pork tummy, I moved on to the pork and the rice.

The pork was a B- at best.  It was seasoned okay but was dry in some areas.  I tried to correct this with pique (Puerto Rican hot sauce), but it tasted more like Texas Pete than the spicy, garlicky, fire sauce that I understand to be Puerto Rican hot sauce.  Basically, I felt like our pig had been on the spit for far too long and died...twice.  The rice was dry and lacked seasoning and had very few pork pieces jazzing up things.  I took one bite of my tostones (smashed, fried plantains) and abandoned them because they were cold.  My beer was a bit warm and I was not thrilled that it was in a can, but there was no other option so I had to deal.  After subpar pork, rice, and tostones I wished that I'd ordered more stomach! Oh well...on to the next lechonera.

Less than a kilometer up the road sits Los Pinos, the lechonera that Anthony Bourdain dined at while taping No Reservations: Puerto Rico. This time we stuck to the pork and rice, the staples.  The pork at Los Pinos was hands down better than that at El Nuevo Rancho; the skin was crispier and better seasoned, and the meat was moist due to the fat dripping and marinating the meat.  The rice was also more flavorful than the competition, but a bit dry and not the best I've had.  I was happy that there is bottled beer at Los Pinos, and I'm convinced that made the pork taste better.  In terms of condiments Pinos has old school, homemade pique  as well as other saucy goodies that you can add to your meat, also a plus.

I will say that the pork trail has been hyped up in the food community and it is quite a trek from tourist centers such as San Juan and Fajardo.  I think you can get better pork in San Juan and skip the near hour long commute (and tolls).  I tested theory a few days later by trying the pernil at Bebo's BBQ.  The pork here tasted better and had greater depth than both Los Pinos and El Nuevo Rancho (I feel in part due to freshness and frequency given their location and hours of operation), and made me wish I had not burned a whole day to get pork in the mountains.  Oh well, you live, eat, and learn.

I would say go on the pork trail if you're in the area or if you really want to see it, but I do not think its worth making a special trek as there is plenty of pork on the island.  Los Pinos was okay, but I would have liked to see what other lechoneras had to offer...sadly on a Wednesday, midday, most of them were closed. I will say to skip El Nuevo Rancho all together.

La Ruta de Lechon
Take Highway 52 South (from San Juan), Exit 33 to Guavate, Left at the Exit
Follow Route 184 and stop at what looks good!

El Nuevo Rancho
Rte. 184, km marker: 27.3
Guavate, Cayey Puerto Rico

Los Pinos
Rte. 184, km marker: 27.4
Guavate, Cayey Puerto Rico


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