|At an authentic lechonera like Los Gemelos, a perfect Puerto Rican plate might hold pork, arroz con gandules, and a pastele. (Eric Pyenson/For The Boston Globe)|
A pit stop along Puerto Rico’s ‘Pork Highway’
GUAVATE, Puerto Rico — The destination is a highway. And a drive to “La Ruta del Lechón,’’ also known as “Pork Highway,’’ is deliciously distant from the standard tourist activities that often go with trips to this island. Drive 30 to 45 minutes from the San Juan metro area, and you’ll find this stretch of road and its regional offerings.
In this mountainous central-eastern part of the island, traditional spit-roasted pork shacks, called lechoneras, pop up every few feet. Despite its relative closeness to the capital, the lush surroundings and unmistakably porcine smells seem far away from the strip malls and fast food chains that line the roads immediately outside San Juan. The second the aroma of well-marinated whole suckling pig hits — and this happens as soon as you turn onto Route 184 — you know you’re in for something special.
Everybody in Puerto Rico seems to have his or her favorite lechonera. Travel Channel viewers may have seen both Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern gorging themselves at lechoneras on this very road. Though not visited by either TV personality, Los Gemelos provides the kind of authentic atmosphere and mind-blowing food the experience should include.
Los Gemelos owner Rocky Santiago was born in Guavate and began working in lechoneras when he was young. After earning his college degree in chemistry, Santiago held a job in that field until he decided to switch courses. He bought Los Gemelos after its owner retired 11 years ago. Packed with hungry travelers on the ruta every weekend (it is only open from Thursday to Sunday), the roadside pork shack feels almost like a tree house built into the canopy of a rain forest.
An open-air room looks out onto a tropical backyard of plantain trees and other large-leafed greenery. The front of the room has side dishes on display and a large overhead menu, while the rotating suckling hogs are off to the side, hacked to order by a man with a machete.
An ideal lechonera experience should start with different kinds of local sausage, namely morcilla and longaniza. Morcilla is blood sausage, but don’t be squeamish; it’s rich and delicious. Longaniza, chicken and pork sausage spiced with paprika and coriander, is fatty and sweet with a pleasant kick from plentiful spicing.
Choosing the appropriate sides to lechón is as easy as pointing to what you want, but it’s also easy to want everything. The one must-have is arroz con gandules, one of Puerto Rico’s national dishes. This is rice flavored with achiote (annatto seed) and studded with pigeon peas and chunks of crispy lechón. Pasteles are another important accoutrement. These are little tamale-esque pockets of mashed plantain filled with, you guessed it, pork, and steamed in a big plantain leaf. They benefit from a healthy squirt of the island’s ubiquitous and somewhat watery hot sauce, pique. Other options run the gamut of native plantain preparations, from amarillos (fried ripe plantains) to tostones (squashed and fried green plantains), but loading up on sides isn’t smart when there’s so much pork to enjoy.
After marinating in its adobo (spice rub) for two to three days, and roasting for four to five hours with strong accents of black pepper and oregano, the meat turns succulent and flavorful. For most diners, the star of the show is the skin, called cuerita in local slang. This has both the color and consistency of burnt caramel and a smoky, fatty, spicy taste that is so fabulous you’ll want to hug the man who hacked it up for you (until you remember that he has a machete).
Forget the cruise ships, the casinos, and most importantly, your diet. A slab of lechón may not be the best for your heart, but a visit to the ruta is an authentic Puerto Rican experience. If it makes you feel better, jog the 30 miles back to San Juan.
LA RUTA DEL LECHÓN From San Juan, take Highway 52 south, Exit 33 to Guavate. Turn left, and you’re there, on Route 184.