Crawling Through Pork: Three Days in Puerto Rico
On the first night of the National Pork Board's annual Pork Crawl, held Oct. 9-12 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of my fellow travelers posed a question to me: "If you could eat only one meat for the rest of your life, which would it be?"
No offense to the Pork Board, but I chose chicken. It's been my favorite meat since I was a kid, and as a novice in the kitchen, it's the one I'm least likely to mess up. My friend had posed the question to the whole group that I was chatting with, though, and in a circle of about seven people, I was the only one pulling for poultry. A couple of my companions voted fish—salmon, specifically—while others shook their heads at us and went with pork.
It's little surprise that pork is so popular. Every part of the pig can be eaten, as lauded by the recent nose-to-tail movement, which encourages use of the entire animal and limits waste of the meat. What's more, each part of the pig, be it the feet or the skin, tastes spectacularly different, I learned. The crackly skin is crunchy and salty on its own, a crispy chip coming straight out of the oven, while pork belly lends itself to a myriad of dishes, from stew to a dirty rice, which is how we consumed it at Laurel Kitchen Art Bar, a high-end restaurant led by Chef Mario Pagán that is tucked inside Puerto Rico's Museum of Art.
The Pork Crawl took about 20 of us on a six-restaurant tour of various restaurants in San Juan, as well as a drive up the beautiful island mountains of Guavate on a trip through the pork trail, or La Ruta de Lechon. Chef Jose Enrique led the three-day tour, and the James Beard semifinalist was a knowledgeable guide, as was local chef Pedro Alvarez.
On the first night, before the restaurant-hopping and exploration of the pork trail truly began, Chef Enrique led us to a house at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort. There, he cooked a Caja China Comida Criolla Pig Roast dinner. The Caja China is a Chinese box, so this roast consists of a marinated pig sitting in a box that is topped with burning coals. After about an hour, the pig is flipped, and the cooking continues.
This method yielded the tastiest sandwich ever to enter my mouth. Chef Enrique pulled together well-known toppings—pickled onions, avocado, Feta cheese, lime—to create the sandwich, but despite the prominence of these simple ingredients, I'd never eaten a combination like this before. He pickles the onions himself in vinegar. The best addition is pique, Puerto Rican hot sauce, which adds a hint of flame and a burst of flavor.
Friday, Pork Crawl
Once the Pork Crawl began in earnest on Friday, I saw chefs taking creative license with pig in methods that are less prominent in the U.S. still. I'd expected to eat lots of bacon, ribs, and pulled pork. Instead, at the first stop of Pikayo, a restaurant led by Chef Wilo Benet, I feasted on pig's feet stew, or fricase de patitas. Not only was the stew rich and tasty, it came with delightful accompaniments, including avocado drizzled with olive oil and Hawaiian black salt and strips of fried hog skin. Chef Wilet paired the meal with his personal wine, Dobleú tempernillo from Spain.
Next, at Latin Asian restaurant Budatai, Chef/owner Roberto Trevino had created small plates, including a pork dumpling with plantains and udon noodles with salted butter topped with fried pig skin.
One aspect I noticed immediately was how inventively each chef paired his dish with alcohol. Chef Benet at Pikayo selected a robust and spicy red wine that dovetailed with his porcine stew, while Chef Trevino created a cocktail served in a champagne flute that tasted like a mix between champagne and a mojito. It even had shaved mint on top.
At Laurel, as noted above, Chef Pagán dreamed up a dirty pork rice with pork belly, blood sausage, avocado, caramelized fennel, and boiled egg whites. The paella-esque dish was crunchy and the crackling consistency offset the tender meat. Texture is clearly taken into account in creation of these plates. Chef Pagán paired the rice with a bright red cocktail that mixed coconut rum and champagne.
At the next stop, Chef/owner José Rey of Bodegas Compostela had two types of wine to serve. The first was a menthea, a crisp white from Spain that he said is not yet in demand in Puerto Rico. With the entrée, a crispy suckling pig with grilled mango and pineapple, he chose a bold red wine.
The last two stops were walking distance from each other. First came Santaella, the eponymous restaurant of Chef José Santaella, who served up a zesty pork sandwich with cucumber and greens, similar to banh mi. He paired it with a delightfully garnished pineapple cocktail that melded muddled pineapple, Don Q (the local rum), Ron del Barrilito rum, lime juice, and bitters.
We strolled the streets to end the Crawl at our guide Chef Enrique's own restaurant, Jose Enrique. Along the way, we passed couples salsa dancing in the streets, small bars with tables outside, and people enjoying the warm October night, with Medalla beers in hand. Medalla is the country's popular light lager, and patrons expect every bar to serve it, much as we treat Budweiser in the U.S.
Chef Enrique had for us empanadas as well as stew. Despite how full we were, it was tough to say no to the chef's specialties. I was delighted when I asked for extra pique hot sauce for the empanada and he squirted some from the bottle right on the back of my hand because the restaurant was standing room only and we didn't have plates. Empanadas are meant to be street food anyway; when in San Juan, right?
Saturday, Pork Trail
I only attended half of the Pork Trail festivities, with my flight back home scheduled for Saturday afternoon, but I’m glad I tagged along for the morning portion. We drove up a narrow, winding road to Guavate, situated in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, for a home-style pork experience at Lechonera La Ranchera, a hidden barbecue joint that reminds me of eating in the country.
Food was prepared outdoors in a covered kitchen with giant pots and pans sitting on earth. A full pig was in view for us, a wooden rod impelled through its mouth, and it was in the final moments of roasting before being sliced and served. The accompaniments with the pork are grand: there was the yellow rice with black beans and pork, the graciously large native avocado slices, potato salad with meat, blood sausage, and turnovers. Medallas were brought out by the 12-pack and served chilled.
From the Caja China pig roast on my first night through the Pork Trail, nothing I tasted was the same. What was also refreshing was the lack of mention of the word “local”; it was assumed rather than propagated. Puerto Rican chefs are trying and succeeding with meshing cultures on the plate, whether it’s pairing a Spanish wine or cooking pork into Asian dumplings, and they’re doing so in a way that is authentic to the Puerto Rican people and indigenous to their cooking style.
As for whether I’d still choose chicken to pork for my lifetime meat—I’d say it’s up for debate.
By Sonya Chudgar