Your Guide to Street Food in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Your Guide to Street Food in San Juan, Puerto Rico

tostones-puerto-rico-street-food

While living in San Juan, Puerto Rico as an exchange student, I learned to surf, speak much better Spanish and befriend people while I was in an unfamiliar land. But the number one skill I picked up in PR (as you’ll see it abbreviated in many places), is how to find an amazing meal or snack with only a few dollars in my pocket at almost any time of day. Puerto Rico’s food, in general, is unforgettable, but I would venture to say that if you went to San Juan and you ONLY ate street food, you would come away having sampled some of the most famous and delicious offerings of the island.

If you don’t speak the language, approaching someone’s cart with an unknown menu and ordering can be really intimidating, especially if there’s a long line of people who know exactly what to order. I don’t want you to miss out on these flavors, so I’ve made you a quick list, with photos and a pronunciation guide, so you can spot the best delicacies and snap them up easily!

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Listing certain locations for all of these treats isn’t possible, as street food locations are often carts or kiosks that move around. Just keep your eyes peeled and a little cash in your pocket as most spots either don’t take cards or require a minimum purchase to accept them. Fritura (fried treat) spots always pop up near bars, nightclubs and beaches to feed hungry revelers!

The Special Sauce in Puerto Rico

Before we begin, a hot tip about sauce (from a sauce addict):

If you’re new to PR, you may notice large squeezy bottles of a pinkish-orange sauce at most food stands and restaurants. So what on earth is it? It’s Mayo-Ketchup! Yes, that is just what it sounds like—a blend of mayonnaise and ketchup with garlic. Puerto Ricans love to put this on most fried things and even salad and you can buy it pre-made in the store or mix your own easily. Don’t be afraid to add a generous saucing of Mayo-Ketchup to most salty snacks you find on your Puerto Rican adventure.

1

Pinchos

Pronounced: Peenchose

Pinchos are a fabulous snack or light meal with plenty of protein to sustain you. Pincho literally means “spike” and you’ll find different foods on kebabs called pinchos, but in Puerto Rico, it usually means chicken kebabs marinated in a blend of adobo, vinegar and barbeque sauce. Served with a slice of Puerto Rican toast (similar to Cuban bread) on the side, these little guys are perfect to grab and carry around while you check out a shopping area or head to a club.

2

Bacalaito

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#bereniceskitchen #bacalaitos

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Pronounced: Bah-cah-lye-eetoh

If you never thought a codfish fritter pancake would sound delicious, just try a bacalaito. Its salty, filling and only slightly fishy. The hot, crisp edges give way to a slightly chewy inside that will have you thinking about your next bacalaito fix after you finish your first one. After a day at the beach, I love to pair this snack with a Medalla beer and a dreamy sunset over the water.

3

Fresh coconuts chopped right in front of you

The Spanish word: coco

Yes there are many fried treats to savor in San Juan, but don’t worry, there are plenty of fresh, tropical fruits to balance out your diet. Coconuts abound, but the trick is to buy from someone chopping them with their own machete. They do all the work for you so you can sip the nutritious, refreshing coconut water and eat the flesh of the fruit with ease. Plus,  coconut water is a highly replenishing drink if you’ve been drinking on your trip.

4

Quenepas


Pronounced: Ken-ay-pahs

Quenepas are another tropical fruit of Puerto Rico. While you’ve probably tried coconut, quenepas are harder to find outside the Caribbean. They are small, round green fruits with a rigid skin that cracks almost like an egg, revealing the juicy pale tangerine colored flesh that contains a large, wood-like pit. Their sour sweetness is a staple among Puerto Rican vegetable carts which already have great prices, and quenepas are one of the least expensive offerings they have. The easiest way to eat them is to crack the skin open and pop the whole thing in your mouth, as this abuela will show you:

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😍😍😍 shes so cute lol #quenepas #mamoncillo

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Chew gently until you’ve gotten all the flesh and are just down to the pit, then spit that out. After a few, they have a drying effect on your mouth, so make sure you get a refreshing drink to go with them. As a great source of antioxidants Vitamin C and A, these little fruits can give your immune system a boost while traveling.

5

Empanadas

Pronounced: Im-pah-nah-da

Some form of meat and spice filled, dough wrapped fried empanada appears all over Latin America under different names, and each area has pride in their signature ways of creating them. Puerto Rico is no different, and they go under different names sometimes depending on who makes them. Whether you see them called pastelillos (meaning little cakes), empanadas (meaning bread-coated things), or empanadillas (meaning little breading-coated things), you can’t go wrong with a meat-filled fried pastry. Beef (carne), chicken (pollo), pork and shrimp (camarones) are popular Puerto Rican fillings of choice. Like their English counterpart the hand pie, empanadas are hand sized and convenient to hold while strolling through the shops of Old San Juan. One is a good snack, but you can easily try two or three if you find a vendor with different fillings.

6

Tostones

Pronounced: Toast-oh-nays

If you’ve never tried tostones, it’s hard to get the idea that plantains and bananas are sweet out of your head. These plantains are sliced green and double fried, so they haven’t had time for their sugars to develop and are full of starch like a potato. Their savory flavor and texture is closer to french fries than a banana! You’ll see these in food carts and as a side in restaurants.

A friend I met when I first got to PR took me to her great aunt’s house, and this sweet lady who had never heard of me before welcomed me in and taught me how to make tostones with a little tool for pressing the plantain slices. I remember how she made them as if she had done it 10,000 times (she probably had). Somehow she knew how to get her oil exactly the right temperature and sprinkled the salt liberally after the second fry. I don’t recall what else we ate, but I was shocked at how addicting the tostones were and had to force myself to leave some for everyone else.

I’m officially telling you, in case you hesitate: get in there and sauce it up with mayoketchup. Tostones and mayoketchup go together like peanut butter and jelly, just trust me.

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