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A Year Past Hurricane Maria, Some Puerto Rican Relief Efforts Center Around Experiencing Their Cuisine

Plantains. That was the first image that came to mind when I heard the words “Puerto Rico,” followed closely by all-you-can-drink mojitos, tan butts, and an overwhelming sense of guilt at the mere idea of wanting these things in the post-Hurricane Maria climate. So when Bacardí invited me down to take a first-hand look at the crisis intervention and relief efforts happening in San Juan, I figured it would equally satisfy the appetites of the both the angel and the devil on my shoulders.

With Bacardí operating as the beating heart of San Juan — or, at least, its pacemaker — the liquor company’s sustainability efforts are impressive from all angles. An unused aging warehouse was converted into a Stop-and-Go Community Relief Center, where local residents could come for food, water, medical care, and uplifting activities such as movies. Then there’s the partnership with Lonely Whale, called “The Future Doesn’t Suck,” which seeks to eliminate one billion straws worldwide by 2020. I was horrified to see just how much plastic was scattered on a small patch of sand in Piñones, where our group donned workers’ gloves on shaky hangover hands and picked up garbage. When you consider how central beaches are as a respite to recovering locals and incentive for visiting tourists, the initiative seems doubly as important.  

There are also more specialized relief efforts being championed by extended members of the Bacardi family, based on their individual skill sets. Puerto Rican-born, internationally-acclaimed chef Manolo Lopez — who cooked one of the best meals of my life — flew back to San Juan immediately after Maria to feed two to three thousand people a day on-site. He also decided to pivot his Instagram platform from promotion of his various businesses to calls to action.

“We knew that once the media stopped talking about the disaster, we’d be invisible again,” he says. Almost a year a later, he laments that the time has come.  

“90% of food is still brought into Puerto Rico. There are still people on the island with no power and no water. Their roofs are completely open, and they’re taking showers and washing clothes outside.”

So, how can we North Americans do our part?

“Right now, it’s not about donating to these big funds, like Red Cross,” Manolo continues. “Visit the island. The culture is so rich, the food is amazing, the people are so warm. Come down here and just do it — it’s the best way possible.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Utilizing my world-revered (not) Spanglish skills, I broke away from the group and asked everyone who looked in my direction how I, or any foreigner, could ACTUALLY help. From headshop owners to Uber drivers, local restaurant managers to international brand ambassadors, the consensus was the same: visit. Cast aside your fear of the unknown, of places deemed “unruly” and “unsafe,” and come put your money where your mouth is. Eat, drink, and shop at small businesses.

And as for me, they all insisted, do not dwell on the devastation, because everyone already knows what went down. Instead, write about the Puerto Rico that lifts its people up — the passionate, soulful community I got to experience with all my senses.

 

Photos: Kadeem Cobham
Categories
Culture Restaurants

What It’s Like Inside An Authentic Lechonera In Puerto Rico

It figures you have to get out of your comfort zone to truly experience something life-changing. Like the time I tried an authentic Filipino breakfast, I was once again introduced to a traditional meal from a culture I’ve yet had the pleasure of experiencing completely with a brand-new pair of eyes.

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I was taken to a lechonera located in Trujillo Alto. A lechonera is essentially a South American restaurant that specializes in roasted pork from a spit.

Nearly an hour from San Juan, this spot was tucked away in the rolling green hills of the beautiful island. The drive didn’t feel nearly as long, however, as I pressed my chubby cheeks to the glass window and drooled over the breathtaking commute.

As my driver pulled over, he recalled tales of his youth fishing in the same lake that settled behind the restaurant we finally arrived at: Lechonera Angelito’s Place.

In the front of the establishment, there was a man hacking slices of pork with a machete. Every strike cut through the meat as if it were paper until the thud of the cutting board signaled the end of the motion.

I was hypnotized by the blade’s rhythmic movements and the entrancing aroma of the roasted meat.

The owner of the establishment, Yubetsy Toledo, asked if I would like to see how the pigs were roasted. I nodded eagerly, a veritable Augustus Gloop at the shiny gates of Willy Wonka’s factory.

Ms. Toledo took me to an area to the side of the restaurant with a giant cement sandbox covered with large pieces of sheet metal. She motioned for me to give her a hand lifting off the sheets, revealing an entire pig roasting in the space below.

Over a bed of charcoal, the pork rotates on a spit for six hours every day until the flesh is juicy and the skin reaches the pinnacle crispiness a pig can achieve. Six whole pigs could be roasted at a time, which are usually reserved for weekends when families and locals would visit the lechonera on their day off. Today, however, there were only two or three on the spit.

The pigs themselves are expertly seasoned before the roasting process and are free of any chemicals or hormones. I was told that their diet consists of leftovers from children’s lunches donated by a school in the area.

Noticing my amazement, she asked if I would like to go to see the pigs before they hit the spit. My boyhood innocence naturally assumed that I would be led to a pig pen where I could feed and pet and name my very own piglets. Cecil, I’d call him.

Once again, my naivety got the best of me and I was led to a basement freezer where full-grown pig corpses were hung from the ceilings. A truly sobering sight. Haunting and fascinating in one breath.

I was led back up to the restaurant where I was served a plate of fresh lechon asada (pork on a spit), arroz guisado con gandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas), guineito verde (boiled green bananas), morcillas (blood sausage), batata frita (fried sweet potato), and pastel (a tamale-like entrée typically stuffed with pork meat).

Initially, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to try any of the pork, having seen how the sausage was actually made. To my delight, I got over that pretty quickly and dove fork first into the salty flesh of the freshly roasted pork. Skipping breakfast played a pretty major role in this.

Tender and flavorful, this was arguably some of the best pork I’ve had in my life. The crunch from the pork skin echoed through the hills and over the valley like the crackling of thunder that heralds a storm.

Pork is considered one of the traditional staple foods in Puerto Rico’s diet, especially during the holiday season. While it’s readily available at most restaurants around the island, lechon is a little harder to come by.

Because preparing a whole pork on a spit requires space and time, many locals wait for the weekend to travel to the nearest lechonera to quell their pork cravings while enjoying a nice outing with the family. Many lechoneras are much more than a restaurant as they offer live music and a dance floor. Thus, a day at a lechonera can easily become a full blown party – especially if people invite friends and family along for the road trip.

A cold beer in hand, I enjoyed the rest of my meal and basked in the deliciousness of my Puerto Rican feast. As I eat, I notice crowds begin to form near the butcher, placing their orders faster than he can prepare them. Things were picking up on this bright Wednesday morning.

I can only imagine how packed this spot could be on the weekend. With pork that good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the lines went all the way down to the lake.

Categories
Adventures

5 Dishes That Show Puerto Rican Chefs Going Beyond American Expectations

American food culture loves its celebrity chefs and pioneers. And so do I, to a large degree. Chefs, like hundreds of other occupations in this country, deserve to be recognized for their hard work and artistry. And I’m ecstatic that larger media platforms exist, allowing chefs and food entrepreneurs to showcase talent and bring foods to new audiences. Especially because those media platforms are becoming increasingly diverse – outside of the traditional realm of magazines and TV including online pubs, social media, YouTube and smart phone applications. More voices. More spotlights.

But it’s also gone too far. And this comes from a guy who’s a fanboy of Anthony Bourdain and Roy Choi.

I give tons of respect to the everyday chefs competing their way though shows like Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped. But just because you won an episode doesn’t mean you should hire a publicist and slather ‘celebrity’ over the next dozen press releases.

That’s just one example of a peaking zeitgeist toward chef self-entitlement which have a number of negative consequences including: enormous, unapproachable egos and constant ‘hype’ around mundane topics. Which is exactly why it’s such a breath of fresh air when I had the chance to interact with some of the largest chefs in Puerto Rico and Latin America at the 2015 Saborea Food Festival in Puerto Rico. Less ego, less hype, more food, more conversation.

You think rare steak in your sushi is unfathomable? They don’t care, they want you to try it. You’ve never heard of Moqueca, a traditional Brazilian seafood stew? They don’t care, they want you to have some. It’s this focus, this dedication to doing what-they-want how-they-want, regardless of any American precedent, that made their dishes so bold. These are the highlights.

Photos by Geoffrey Kutnick.

Mamaposteao Puerto Rican Fried Rice & Rare Steak Sushi Roll

Puerto Rican Fried Rice Mamaposteao Rare Steak Sushi Roll

If you told your friends you were serving them Puerto Rican Fried Rice and Steak, they’d be elated. But if you told the same group of friends that you would be serving them steak sushi, odds are one of them would have a fit. ‘That’s preposterous! That’s absurd! But have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi? He wouldn’t do anything like that!’ Well, Joerick Rivera, a Puerto Rican chef in his mid-20s, doesn’t give a F%$&.

Moqueca: Traditional Brazilian Seafood & Okra Stew

Moqueca Brazil Brazillian Stew Jose Mendin

Jose Mendin, well-known for his eateries across Miami and San Juan roots, had a chance to lead a cooking seminar with anything he wanted to make. He chose Moqueca, a seafood stew with octopus, scallops, and okra. The base has 3 ingredients: dende oil (similar to a palm oil), onions and garlic. Respect.

Shrimp Corn Fritter with Chorizo & Eggplant Puree + Chicharron

Shrimp Corn Fritter-8100

When Chef Efrain Cruz of Hotel Intercontinental rattled off the ingredients in this bite-sized creation, I was floored. Wait, what with what? I ended up with a bite layered with 7 different layers (there’s avocado in that too!). I was skeptical, right until the flavor explosion on my tongue.

Seared Yellowfin Tuna With Eggplant Parmesan

Seared Tuna-8095

You’ve never tried or wanted to try this pairing? Well, you could here!

Mahé Mahé Empanada

Mahe Mahe Empanada-8071

Outside of the festival itself, on a culinary tour led by Spoon Food Tours, we went to a must stop in Old Town San Juan – La Cueva Del Mar. You have to order the fried fish tacos. And then if you still have room, try something new with this empanada. Make sure to try all the sauces.

 

Categories
Fast Food

Pizza Hut Puerto Rico Now Has Cheesy Crust Pizza with Bacon

pizzahutbacon

Back in April, Pizza Hut rolled out a “Crazy Cheesy Crust” pizza featuring mini-pools of cheese-filled breading baked right into the crust. Now for the holidays, Pizza Hut Puerto Rico has decided, in the spirit of Christmas and pure one-upmanship, to add bacon to the mix. Because they can.

Just like the U.S. version, Puerto Rico’s Bacon Crust pizza comes with pull-able cheese “jacuzzis” lining its circumference, except this time, the pockets also contain tiny piles of bacon bits. We presume they’d taste excellent with a side of buffalo wings and ranch dressing.

Feliz Navidad, indeed.

Picthx Pizza Hut