To a gal like me who’s been raised on the wonderful pork dishes of the Philippines, the small village of Guavate in Cayey, Puerto Rico is as close to the promise land as I can get in the United States. Known affectionately as La Ruta de Lechon (Roast Pork Highway), this hidden mountain town has more lechoneras within two to three miles than anywhere else on the island. Specializing in spit-roasted whole pig (lechon) and all the traditional fixin’s, these little shacks don’t look like much. Don’t be fooled. This will be one of the most memorable meals not only of your trip, but perhaps of your lifetime.
The pigs are raised on the island and contain a texture and flavor that I would consider a rarity in terms of continental U.S meat. They are marinated in sofrito and slowly roasted yielding an incredibly tender product with a beautifully crisp golden skin and juicy meat. Simply AMAZING. Lechon is a common dish in Filipino cuisine which we have relatively often, but lechon this melt-in-your-mouth good only comes around once every few years.
Guavate is only about 45 minutes away from San Juan, but with its winding roads and higher altitude, renting a car is an absolute necessity. The scenery in this area is stunning; very lush and green. We even saw some bamboo scattered about in some areas. While there are so many lechoneras to choose from when you approach the town, we decided to stop in on some of the most popular ones that were featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. As a precaution on over-hyped TV tourist traps, we made sure to consult with locals to make sure this was a good choice. The response was unanimous.
There are two benefits to choosing to go with Los Pinos or its neighboring El Rancho Original (which was featured on Bizarre Foods). 1) The space is usually larger which means more seating, entertainment, and better facilities (restrooms are hard to come by in this area). 2) You will most likely be able to visit on a weekday as many lechoneras are only open Friday- Sunday. This entire village is very lively on the weekends, but there is also an added benefit of visiting on a week day; less crowds, more parking, and a calmer atmosphere. Either way, La Ruta de Lechon is something you cannot miss.
Make a note that English isn’t as prominent here as it is in larger cities. We were able to order without too much trouble, but this was the only place where we really started to feel the language barrier. Luckily, if all else fails, you can just point to what you want– everything is good. We went with lechon for two, a pint of arroz con habichuelas (rice with pigeon peas), an order of sweet roasted plantains, and two sodas. The rice here was especially tasty with chunks of pork and sausage tossed in for added flavor. The roasted plantains were perfectly carmelized and reminded me of Filipino turon minus the crispy shell. Servings were enormous and only cost $16!!
Some folks online have complained about this area being over-hyped, but in my opinion, if you pick the right lechonera, you are in for a treat. Follow the crowds, look for where the locals are hanging out, and let the porky goodness do the rest. I cannot wait to go back…