The Foodie's Travel Guide to Popular Puerto Rican Dishes

Traveling is all about discovering new cultures, and one of the best ways to get acquainted with a new destination is through its food.

Discover Puerto Rico's Rich Flavors

Puerto Rican cuisine is characterized by rich, salted meats like pork and ground beef, plantains used in almost every dish, and of course, light fluffy rice that the locals whip up in a variety of methods. When it comes to seasoning, it’s all about the flavor. Popular Puerto Rican food is sprinkled with garlic, onions, and pepper with hints of nuttiness and earthy tastes.

Influenced by Spanish, African, Caribbean, and American cuisines, the island’s food is a style of its own that demands to be sampled. From succulent slow-roasted pork and airy rice and peas to sweet fried plantains and finger-licking potato croquettes, all the famous Puerto Rico dishes should make their way onto your vacation menu.

It can be intimidating eating out in a new place, especially if you don’t know what you should order! Read on for some tidbits about Puerto Rico’s spicy and diverse cuisine, and you’ll be ordering at restaurants or grabbing a roadside treat like a local. Dig in!

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Rellenos de Papa (Papas Rellenas)

Not your average potatoes, rellenos de papa consist of mashed potato croquettes stuffed with picadillo (ground beef or pork seasoned with sofrito, a sauce made from peppers, onions, and garlic). Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, they’re a popular appetizer in Puerto Rico — but you just might want to make them a meal — especially when onion and cheese make their way into these savory potato balls.

If you’ve ever enjoyed shepherd’s pie, you’ll surely want to sink your teeth into this Puerto Rican street snack.

Empanadillas
Empanadillas

Similar to savory turnovers, empanadillas feature a crispy, golden-brown crust filled with a mouthwatering mix of potatoes and ground beef, and hopefully, a whole lot of cheese too, seasoned with sofrito and achiote, an earthy, sweet spice with hints of nuttiness. Popular fillings also include shrimp and lobster, but the possibilities are endless. A golden, crunchy shell gives way to the steaming hot, hearty filling that simply melts in your mouth.

You can even order a popular pizza version that’s filled with melted mozzarella, tomato sauce, and cheese. You’ll never look at pizza the same way again. Empanadillas are just a smaller version of empanadas — but don’t worry; that doesn’t mean you have to share.

Arroz-con-Gandules
Arroz con Gandules

You may have heard of arroz con pollo, but you haven’t truly experienced Puerto Rican cuisine until you’ve tried arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas. They say this meal is a Christmas Eve staple on the island, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sample this mouthwatering rice dish year-round. Light and fluffy rice, savory bacon drippings, salted pork, sofrito, and pigeon peas cooked in the same pot will you send you to culinary heaven.

Arroz con gandules might make you think of the rice and peas you ate growing up, but pigeon peas are a totally different experience — they’re small, dense legumes that are nutty in taste with a crispy crunch. Combined with medium-grain rice for the perfect fluffy texture, you’ll be piling seconds onto your plate in no time.

Pasteles-
Pasteles

Not to be confused with tamales, pasteles are traditionally made using green banana leaves stuffed with stewed pork meat, chicken, or salted cod. Sometimes yuca or other root vegetables are added to enhance the flavor of this local speciality. These tasty bites come together with masa, a corn dough that is pressed into the banana leaf.

Once the filling of choice is spooned into the center, the leaf is folded, tied with string, and covered in parchment paper before being boiled, unwrapped, and served. The resulting meal is soft and doughy with a rich flavor profile of hints of banana, salted meat, and of course, sofrito or achiote.

Amarillos
Amarillos

If you’re a plantain lover, you’re sure to enjoy amarillos, ripe plantains sliced into pieces and fried in oil until the outside is almost blackened, while the inside remains soft and sweet.

The trick to nailing this sweet, soft, and crunchy treat is choosing plantains that are nice and ripe, mostly brown and black on the outside. Add a little hint of flavor by sprinkling salt over them before serving. Amarillos are a staple snack or appetizer, but that you might as well make a meal out of them!

Mofongo-
Mofongo

Keep the plantains coming! Mofongo is Puerto Rican comfort food at its finest, traditionally made with deep-fried green plantains mashed with salt-cured pork, garlic, and butter. Not a pork fan? The meat and spice variations in this dish are endless, and some stuff mofongo with stewed chicken, octopus, crab meat, or stewed vegetables.

When you find it on a menu, it can either be served as a side or a full entree, and is often topped with shrimp. Each bite is hearty, rich, and filling, but we bet you’ll still manage to lick your plate clean.

Lechón-Asado
Lechón Asado

A true delicacy for meat lovers, lechón asado is a culinary feat like none other. First, a whole pig gets marinated in adobo, a zesty mix of oregano, black pepper, garlic, vinegar, and water. Then, the whole thing gets slowly roasted over coals for several hours until the skin is crispy and the meat is juicy and flavorful. This labor of love is well worth the reward: delicious, tender, fall-off-the-bone pork. Many restaurants in Puerto Rico use locally sourced pork, especially in Guavate. If you’re really searching for a unique foodie experience, don’t miss out on lechón asado.

Dessert

You saved room for dessert, right? The best part of the meal, dessert is not to be skipped during your time in Puerto Rico. (That’s what vacation is for, isn’t it?). These are a few of our favorites.

flan
Flan

A soft, vanilla custard cake with a texture like pudding. Often topped with caramel.

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Arroz con Dulce

Rice pudding with cinnamon and raisins. This dessert staple reminds us of the holidays with spices like cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.

Tembleque-
Tembleque

Another pudding-like dessert, tembleque is made from a coconut base with sugar, salt, and coconut milk. The best part? It’s vegan and gluten-free.

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Casquitos de Guayaba

Feeling adventurous? This unique dessert is made from guava paste paired with local white cheese. Its soft texture and light syrup make for the perfect end to your meal.

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Coquito

In need of a nightcap? Coquito is a white rum drink made from evaporated milk, condensed milk, coconut milk, and cinnamon. It’s similar to eggnog but with a Puerto Rican flair. It also comes in flavors like pistachio, guava, and chocolate.

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