When you travel to Puerto Rico and decide to limit your stay to San Juan, the capital city, you may be missing out on one of the Island's best kept secrets. If you venture just 20 minutes from the San Juan International Airport you'll stumble upon a beach town known as Piñones. It is there that you will find what many consider to be the best food in Puerto Rico. Surrounded by blue waters that crash onto the shore, Piñones offers visitors the opportunity to bike or walk along the boardwalk that snakes through mangroves then refuel at one of the many eateries lining the streets.
It's not a fancy area by any means so don't expect five-star service. What you can expect are amazing frituras long adored by the locals that are sold at countless colorful shacks dotting the area. Frituras are fritters commonly made from indigenous ingredients like cassava, yautia (a root vegetable), malanga (local sweet potato), and plantains. The quintessential Puerto Rican street food, they are usually stuffed with either beef, chicken, pork or shellfish and are commonly served with hot sauce and washed down with an ice cold beer. The most famous frituras served in Piñones are alcapurrias (canoe-like fritters stuffed with ground beef or shellfish), bacalaítos (salt cold fritters), piononos (strips of deep-fried plantain stuffed with meat, and empanadas (stuffed pastries).
You'll also find the best shish-kebabs you'll ever taste. Piñones is located in the town of Loíza, which has the highest population Puerto Ricans of African descent on the island. Back in the 1600s, the town housed runaway slaves from the British colonies. This blend of African influences along with local Taíno traditions contributed to the town's unique style of cooking. While you bite into a crispy alcapurria don't be surprised to be serenaded by the sound of drums in the distance, a homage to the bomba y plena, an Afro-Puerto Rican style of music that originated in Loíza. With music in your ears, the ocean breeze caressing your face and wonderful flavors bursting in your mouth you may have to plan another trip to Puerto Rico.
You can't miss the opportunity to visit Donde Olga Restaurant, an eatery that's been whipping up fritters for more than 30 years. There you'll find Angie Ponce, a cook who uses the a sea grape leaf to help her mold alcapurrias. It's a technique she learned after many years of experience. ''At first I used to use plastic wrap but the leaf works much better,'' Ponce said as she dropped fritters into hot oil fueled by wood fire. This is the traditional manner of cooking fritters and one of the reasons why the ones made in Piñones tastes so different from ones you'll find the city streets of San Juan. Ponce said turists from all over the world venture to Piñones to sample the food. ''They come from Brazil, Greece, China…you name it. As long as they give me a thumbs up I know they liked the food.''
The hardest part of your visit to Piñones be finding parking but, this being the Caribbean, you are usually fine leaving the car tucked away on the side of the road. Since the fritters are ready to go you won't spend too much time eating and you'll be able to get back on the road in minutes.