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Along the Puerto Rican pork trail

Operators feeling the pain from high beef prices are looking for ways to menu proteins that are more profitable. They might take a few cues from Puerto Rico—a country that gives the pig a place of honor at the table. Although pork prices escalated during the first three quarters of 2014—the result of a porcine virus that depleted supply—the pig population is bouncing back now and prices are moderating. Besides, Puerto Rican chefs are snout-to-tail pros, making the most of every part of the animal in preparations ranging from rustic to luxurious.

On a recent culinary tour of San Juan and its rural outposts, I was lucky enough to try many of these preps. Puerto Rico was the location of this year’s annual Pork Crawl, an exercise in gluttony that foodservice editors happily indulge in. It’s a moveable feast with stops at restaurants, roadside eateries and venues where chefs cook their porky signatures. Stateside chefs may appreciate the way their Puerto Rican counterparts not only maximize flavor, but stretch the meat in dishes and cross-utilize ingredients to maximize profit.

Our first taste of this came at a traditional pig roast—a Caja China Comida Criolla—in which a whole pig is placed in a “Chinese box” made of metal and submerged in hot coals. There it cooks for several hours until the skin is burnished to a beautiful color and the pork is meltingly tender. Jose Enrique, a restaurateur in San Juan and our host chef, supervised the cooking that evening and showed us how to eat the pig: succulent pieces of pork layered with crisp skin on soft bread with pickled red onions, a white crumbly cheese known as queso de pais, buttery avocado slices and an herbal-citrusy-peppery sauce called “pique.” The most incredible pork sandwich ever: juicy, crisp, fragrant and pleasantly acidic with every bite. And you didn’t need a lot of meat to make it so satisfying.

Next day, we had plenty of eating ahead of us, with six restaurants to cover in the space of one afternoon and early evening.

Stop one was the classy Pikayo restaurant run by Wilo Benet, a high-profile chef credited with elevating Puerto Rican cuisine to fine-dining status. What he prepared was a peasant-style pig’s foot stew served with upscale flourishes. His Fricasee de Patitas de Cerdo featured tender morsels of pig’s foot and assorted organ meats in a sherry-fortified broth with an array of garnishes, including fried ham hock skin, that creamy, fruity-tasting Caribbean avocado and chicharrones (fried pork rinds). Pique was also in the presentation, this time infused in island rum and served in a shot glass.

I soon figured out that chicharrones and pique are recurring themes on the Puerto Rican table. Our second stop was Budatai, an Asian-Latin fusion spot run by Chef Roberto Trevino. Here we were presented with a Chinese takeout container filled with his addictive chiccharones—which Trevino calls “Puerto Rican bling”—to nibble while we sipped the house cocktail, a refreshing blend of white rum, sparkling wine and herbs. The chef prepared an appetizer trio, proving how well small amounts of various pork cuts can be stretched into an impressive starter. I made quick work of the profiterole layered with pork belly and drizzled with spiced caramel. Udon noodles topped with sake butter and pork jerky, and a dumpling made with a ground pork-and-plantain filling, rounded out the plate. Here, the pique appeared in a dipping sauce for the dumpling.

At Laurel Kitchen Art Bar in San Juan’s Museum of Art, we again witnessed how an inventive chef could extend a lesser amount of pork into a one-pot meal. Here, Chef Mario Pagan cooked pork belly, blood sausage and fennel together with rice to create his version of “dirty rice.” The rice developed a crunchy crust on the bottom, adding notes of caramelization. It was humble in appearance but complex in flavor.

Three down and three to go, and I was still craving pork. Our fourth stop was at an old-guard Spanish restaurant, Bodegas Compostela, where we sat surrounded by wine bottles. The wine is the draw here, but Chef Jose Rey Duran had a great way with suckling pig. He roasted it to rosy crispness and accompanied it with roasted mango slices. The mango cut the richness of the pork—as did a full-bodied red wine from the restaurant’s cellar. Although the food costs for this dish were higher, roast pig menued as a special could attract beef- and poultry-weary customers.

The urban-chic Santaella, our fifth stop, looks like a restaurant that could have been transplanted from Brooklyn. Chef Jose Santaella helms the kitchen at his namesake concept, where we sat at communal tables and chowed down roast pork sandwiches spread with pineapple jam on crusty bread. It was a gooey, delicious mess—something that could easily take the place of the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich in the States. The pork empanadas we ate at our last stop, Jose Enrique in San Juan’s lively Santurce neighborhood, were the perfect snack to end the night (along with the house special rum cocktails!)

Next morning, it was time to hit the Ruta de Lechon (literally, Pork Road), a drive that winds up into the mountains past lechoneras that specialize in spit-roasted pig. Lechoneras are open-air eateries sheltered by metal roofs—much like Southern BBQ joints—where customers sit at picnic tables in full view of the animal spinning over the coals. We stopped at La Ranchera Lechonera, owned by Apa—a pig master who is legendary among the chefs of Puerto Rico. His father opened the lechonera in the 1950s and Apa took it over in 1985.Apa rubs the whole pig with sweet chili peppers (aji dulce), garlic, salt and culintro—a relative of cilantro—and cooks it for six hours over wood from an indigenous tree. As the pig spins, it develops the crispiest skin and juiciest meat. The pork was sliced and heaped on platters set on the table with sides of pasteles made of pounded yuca, corn and green olives; blood sausage; malanga; sweet potatoes; rice and more of that buttery native avocado—all served family style. The pig’s crispy tail went to one lucky guest. Sorry it wasn’t me.

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