Saturday, March 24, 2012

La Concha, the Kan Kan Pork Chop and Mofongo

I just returned from another trip to the sunny island of Puerto Rico and realized I have never made a blog post about the food of this beautiful place.  Puerto Rican cuisine has its roots in the cooking traditions and practices of Spain (who colonized it), Africa (whose people were brought here as slaves) and the Amerindian Taínos (the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamas and Antilles.)  Locals call their cuisine cocina criolla. What we think of as Puerto Rican cuisine today was well established by the end of the nineteenth century.

Likely the food most thought of as Puerto Rican is mofongo.  Mofongo is fried mashed green plantains, and something everyone should try during a visit to the island.  If you've been to other islands in the region you've found similar dishes, usually made by boiling (instead of frying) and mashing plantains, known as fufu de plátano in Cuban cuisine and Mangú in the Dominican Republic.  I find the mofongo in Puerto Rico to be more salty than the counterparts served on the other islands.  And while these dishes are all thought of as original to the Caribbean, they are actually of African origin and a variant of a dish called "fufu," which is made from any number of starchy vegetables and was introduced to the Caribbean by African slaves in the Spanish New World colonies.  In Puerto Rico the fried green plantains are cooked until soft, seasoned and then placed into a pilón (a sort of wooden mortar and pestle) and mashed, creating a center cavity which can be filled with the meat or seafood of your choice.  Of course it can also be turned out onto your plate, which is perhaps the most common way to serve it at home unless you have a Pilón de Madera available for every diner.

On this trip we had our first mofongo at Restaurante Raices in Old San Juan, which sets out to deliver a 1940's era style dining experience, including traditional mofongo served in the wooden pilón and drinks served in metal canteen-type cups.  Waiters are appropriately costumed.  Likely their most famous dish is the Kan Kan pork chop (sometimes also displayed as Chuletas Can-Can in other restaurants) shown above.  Several of us enjoyed this large, thinly pounded and fried chop with ribs, that is ringed with its own crispy pork rind.  It was nicely seasoned and not for the faint of heart due to its large portion and side of rice and beans.  Several of my dining colleagues ordered a side of the mofongo and to my amazement, finished the entire meal, including dessert.

We were told that the Kan Kan pork chop actually originated at La Guardarraya restaurant ("The Guardrail") in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico in 1957, when Don Juan Vera-Martínez started the Gallera Loma Bonita, a cockfight arena in the town of Yauco. There, he opened the restaurant where the famous pork chops first appeared at the request of a regular diner who described what he would like to eat. When the huge pork chop arrived with the fried rind it brought to mind the ruffled can-can type underskirt women wore in the 50's. The name was coined and the rest is history.

If you get to San Juan do check out Raices remembering that even on weeknights it is very busy and they do not accept reservations.  Go early for faster seating.
Another famous treat is the roast suckling pig of Puerto Rico, also known as lechón. People have come from far and wide to sample this delicacy, and I know at least one person who broke their vegetarian dining habit to try it.  It is often served by the locals during holidays.  If you are interested in trying this dish there is one road in Guavate, Puerto Rico that is known as the Ruta del Lechón. To get here, take Highway 52 south to exit 33 (Guavate). Turn left and head up Rd 184. You're now in lechón territory.

The last time I was in San Juan the historical resort "La Concha" in the fashionable Condado area was closed for renovations.  With renovations now completed, we booked a table in their famous clam shell restaurant call "Perla".  The resort originally opened in 1958 to rave reviews and was hailed as a shining moment in the Tropical Modernism movement’s heyday in Puerto Rico.  Perla, the signature seashell-shaped floating restaurant designed by internationally-renowned architect Mario Salvatori, was termed “a marvel of engineering and architecture” and “one of the high-water marks of Puerto Rico’s national architecture.”  I'm pleased to say it was restored to perfection and should be on your list of places to dine, if for nothing other than the architecture.  The original restaurant was open air, but has now be glassed in, actually improving the dining experience.  The food was generally well prepared, although the Spanish olive salad lacked a single olive, and the molten chocolate cake was over-baked and solid throughout.   But the lobster tail was nicely roasted (and not over-cooked as so often happens) and all of my dinner colleagues felt the meal and ambiance was quite nice and certainly unique.  If you are looking for a place for a romantic dinner, this is the restaurant of choice.  Ask for a table-for-two facing the sea.
Desserts are common in Puerto Rican cuisine and include items such as sweet rice pudding, bread pudding, Bienmesabe (little yellow cakes soaked in coconut cream), Puerto Rican style sponge cake with cream and/or fruit filling), coconut pudding, Flan (egg custard), and rum cake.  I enjoyed most of these on this trip, as I  have trouble saying no to a sweet treat at the end of dinner.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn't mention that upon my first trip to San Juan nearly 15 years ago, I was greeted at the Hilton hotel entrance with a piña colada.  This is significant and sticks in my mind because the piña colada was introduced on August 16, 1954 at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar in San Juan and has been the beverage of Puerto Rico since 1978.  As you know, I like to absorb as much local culture as possible on my travels, so I'm always sure to enjoy a number of these sweet, rum-based cocktails made with rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice.
Sitting by the beach enjoying a cocktail and the many foods of the island of Puerto Rico makes for a wonderful and memorably trip and I highly recommend it!!

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