Friday, March 11, 2011

Not all roads lead to roast pig (Guavate, Puerto Rico)

We stayed at the Sheraton in San Juan, located conveniently by the convention center but nowhere near a beach. While the pool area was large and very comfortable with many lounge chairs, pleasant pop music, and ample access to tropical drinks, it wasn't a beach. So on our first day, after exploring Old San Juan, our priority was to get to a beach. Here's the one we found:

Luquillo Beach, northeastern corner of the island
However, our major adventure for the day was a trip to the interior and the mountain town of Guavate. When we mentioned to our cab driver on the way to the car rental place that we were planning to head to this town, he exclaimed "lechon!", otherwise known as roast pig. Guess there's a reason why it's called "La Ruta des Los Lechones" or the road of roast pig. It's about an hour south of San Juan in the middle of nowhere, on a winding mountain road. After passing several lechoneras and traveling over a decent distance, we came to the one we were looking for - El Rancho Original.

The photos we took don't begin to capture the chaos in this one spot. There were 4 school buses parked on the road to the left. There are cars crawling along in both directions, trying to avoid pedestrians wandering on the road. There is a band playing and the music is blaring so loud, I can't hear myself think and we have to dodge people dancing on the side of the road. In the first picture below, that first tent that you see was some sort of gambling. It was a total zoo and it was only Saturday afternoon - apparently Sunday gets even crazier as the bigger day for family outings. But all that mattered to me was getting at the roast pig.

El Rancho Original

A view in the opposite direction
This is obviously a place where locals (in groups of huge extended families) come. There is no menu - it's served cafeteria style, with all the dishes on display behind glass with no descriptions. We don't speak Spanish beyond some rudimentary phrases and none of what we knew would help us navigate the ordering process. The husband started off by pointing at the foods we wanted to eat, but was promptly stumped when they started asking him specifics - like how much roast pig did he want? It turned out you order by weight. Luckily they found a staff member who spoke fluent English and got us set up with this impressive tray:
The star of the show is the roast pork with crispy skin - the server suggested a pound of meat for two people, and after trimming off the healthy amounts of fat, we nearly polished off the whole plate. By this point I was a) feeling better, and b) famished since I barely ate all day and it was close to 4pm by this point, so I could keep up my end of the eating. This was the best roast pork I've eaten in recent memory, and reminded me of Filipino lechon served at parties I went to as a kid. Roast suckling pig that I've eaten in and around Boston has been dry and flavourless with tough or limp skin, so I was thrilled to find moist, tender and flavourful pork in Puerto Rico with crispy salty skin.

It was a good thing that my queasiness had gone because the other meat product on the tray was morcilla, or blood sausage. This is something that I'd never had before, despite my adventurous culinary upbringing. It's essentially rice stained black because of the blood, with coagulated blood in and around the rice for good measure and heavily seasoned with fragrant herbs that I couldn't identify. The husband thought it was ok but certainly wasn't as enthusiastic about it as I was. I really liked the taste, but again that could be because I was starving or possibly because I'm slightly iron-deficient.

The side that the husband chose was rice since it was identifiable, but this version was seasoned with spices that turned it slightly orange (turmeric? saffron? I have no idea) and flat green beans that resembled plump lentils. We washed it down with Medalla Light, a local beer, and finished our meal off with a tasty flan - not too sweet, but creamy and rich. It was so worth it to trek into the interior where it was overcast and cooler - though by cooler we're talking about 75 degrees and not 90 degrees! It's all relative when you're in a tropical climate...


Jennifer said...

This roast pig looks SO good! And I love your description of the food...gosh...what heaven that must have been!!!!

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