The $20 a Day Eating Guide to Puerto Rico

My daughter, Jacqueline, is not yet a teenager. She isn't a world traveler yet either. We've come to Puerto Rico so she can experience a new culture not found on an iPad screen. This one we'll find in food. There will be no white napkins or fruit cocktails, just greasy fingers and a little fear. Plus a thin budget. — Robert Stephens

Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Pretzels
No More Pretzels
Our toughest food critic pauses before taking a giant step into Puerto Rico. For the next few days, she'll barely recognize the taste of her meals, let alone the surroundings.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Pincho
Most Trusted Pincho Stand
Between San Juan and Aguadilla, two traffic cops lead us on a police chase through Arecibo to Jorge’s Pincho Stand. We’re actually following Jorge’s trailer being hauled behind Jorge’s 1987 Mazda pickup to see where he’ll park the portable kitchen. He stops in a parking lot. The cops stop. We stop. And we wait 30 minutes while chicken kabobs sizzle on Jorge’s grill. Jacqueline will eat two before I finish one (total cost: $6). She already likes Puerto Rican food.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Jobos Beach
Board Shorts Welcome
We’re driving near Jobos Beach on the northwest coast and come across a place that looks fitting for our budget and attire: El Carey. There are surfboards over the doorways and mismatched furniture on the patio. Hector and Diana Vazquez are cooking up breakfast.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Breakfast
Puerto Rico's Best Breakfast
Acai fruit cups. Hector-squeezed juices. Diana-made hot sauces. I’m convinced the Oreo pancakes are fresh and healthy too. But it’s the arepas (eggs and whatever you want tucked inside Diana’s cornmeal bread) that has us licking our cardboard trays for less than $12.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Sunset
No. 1 Sunset in Puerto Rico
Just west of Isabela, at Middles Beach, we sit in the sand and drink this in — for free.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Lunch
Long Distance Lunch
Chef Jose Carles at Royal Isabela Resort told us to drive as far south as possible for lunch, to the town of Boqueron. Walking down the street we meet a man named Willie Pacheco, whose family is here from Ponce. “The best seaside town in the country,” he says, “and cheap.”Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Empanada
Just in Time
Jacqueline and I reach the walk-up window at El Schamar in Boqueron and order their last three chicken empanadillas, for a total of $5.25. "Now we only have hot dogs left," says the lady at the window. Phew! We didn't come all the way to the furthest tip of Puerto Rico for hot dogs.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Roadside Breakfast
Roadside Breakfast
Next morning we stop at a roadside stand for a couple fruit smoothies and coconut waters. A power breakfast for $5.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Ice Cream
The Road to Ice Cream
We decide to forego lunch and drive to Lares. We’re told that at the other end of this ribbon of road is a place where lunch is served inside the ice cream. Hmm. This we gotta try.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Heladeria
Heladeria Lares Means ...
“Jacqueline, you have no idea what you’re walking into.”Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Ice cream flavors
Strangest Flavor in Puerto Rico
At the end of that spoon is a cold refreshing taste of corn ice cream. Or maybe it’s sweet potato. It doesn’t look like garlic or rice and beans. Yes, those are ice-cream flavors, all made with natural ingredients by the owner of Heladeria Lares, including the codfish.Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Pork
Beyond the Pork Highway
We need a real meal tonight. So a friend leads us off the end of the famed Pork Highway, to a restaurant called El Pino, an hour south of San Juan. Upstairs, meat is carved in a band saw. Downstairs, owner Eugenio Colon shows us the pits where he’s roasted hogs for 57 years. “When pigs are fat, it means they’re loved,” he says. “If they’re loved, they’re sweet and juicy.”Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Dinner
Homestyle Puerto Rican Dinner
The long card table at El Pino is loaded with meat, rice and peas, boiled bananas, and sweet potatoes, a $20 feast. Outside, people travel through town on horseback, in the dark. “You want chitlins?” asks our friend. No thank you, the garlic ice cream earlier was exotic enough.Zach Stovall
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Streets on Fire
After church on Sunday, big-drum grills send up smoke on a mile-long stretch of road in Pinones, just east of San Juan. There are Puerto Rican tacos, pasteles heated in banana leaves, alcapurrias (sweet beef fritters), pinchos, and one burning question: which kiosko do we trust?Zach Stovall
Where to Eat in Puerto Rico | Best Puerto Rico Restaurants | Puerto Rico Travel Guide | Best Meal
Sunday's Best Meal
We notice one lady cooking food to order (or “at the moment” as they say here). She has no warming trays or heat lamps. A line has formed at her kiosko called Titi Lucy. When Jacqueline starts to take her piononos (like a beef burger wrapped in a sweet plantain), Lucy stops her. She sees a burnt spot and wants to remake it. But Jacqueline has taken a bite and pulls it back to herself. She hands Lucy $5 and says, "Gracias." She's beginning to fall for this place.Zach Stovall