Situated high in the Cayey mountain range of Puerto Rico, Guavate is a small town abutting the Bosque Estatal De Carite Mountain preserves. It is also the location of the famous “La Ruta del Lechon” or “Pork highway”, a stretch of Route 184 absolutely littered with Lechoneras, restaurants specializing in whole roasted suckling pig or, “Lechon”.
Most of the lechoneras are only open on weekends, when people flock to Guavate to enjoy the cool mountain temperatures, live music and, of course, copious amounts of roast pork. Despite being featured on both Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, Guavate is still a mostly local hangout.
We visited early in the week, and while most of the lechoneras were closed, a few of the bigger ones were open for business, with fresh spit-roasted pigs proudly on display.
On the advice of a friend, we found ourselves at one of the last establishments in town, El Rancho Original, the same one visited by Anthony Bourdain.
Historically, the pigs would be roasted over charcoal, however, like most lechoneras these days, El Rancho uses propane. El Rancho Original is set up cafeteria style, you tell them what you would like (or your Spanish isn’t so hot, you can just point at things, like we did) and pay by the pound.
The prices were incredibly reasonable; a pound of pork for example, cost eight dollars and could easily feed 2-3 people. There is a separate bar where you can order drinks both alcoholic and non.
There was a wide variety of food available, including a quite a few items we didn’t recognize, but we kept it simple, ordering pork (of course), rice & beans (pigeon-peas), and Morcilla, a Spanish-style blood sausage.
The rice & beans were very good, salty and satisfying, but you don’t come to Guavate for rice.
You come for the pork, and Rancho Original did not disappoint. This was easily one the best plates of pork we’ve ever had. The light meat was moist and sweet, while the dark meat was more deeply flavored, with a rich fattiness that coats the mouth.
And then there is the skin, dark, almost mahogany in color, and exceedingly crispy, like some sort of pork brittle. While almost all of the fat is rendered away, a thin layer clings to the skin, the succulent flavor and slight “give” complimenting the almost unearthly crunch in a way that really needs to be experienced to truly understand.
Yes, that sort of transcendent pork experience is hard to top, but we found ourselves pleasantly surprised by the Morcilla. Unlike other types of blood sausage, Morcilla doesn’t contain meat, usually being made from a combination of pig’s blood, rice, onions, garlic, peppers and spice. It had very little of the mineral, metallic taste usually associated with products made with blood, instead sporting a big peppery-garlic flavor. The texture of sausage was really interesting as well, with bits of veggies among the grains of rice. If you are afraid of blood sausage, a good morcilla just might change your mind.
Combined with a couple cold Medalla Lights, this was one of our favorite meals in Puerto Rico. In addition to the large covered dance floor and outdoor seating areas, Rancho has a sprawling “back yard” of sorts, with a bunch of gazebos and more intimate seating areas that are reached by crossing a stream via a wooden footbridge. It is reminiscent of a Japanese garden, but with more beer, palm trees and picnicking families. Roast pork is a big deal in Puerto Rico, and it was awesome to experience it in the place that is perhaps most famous for it. Next time, we hope to visit on a weekend, when all the lechoneras are open and the town is filled with the sounds of live music as well as the smell of roasting pork.
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