Ask any Puerto Rican what island life has been like over the past year and a response you might get is that Puerto Rico always bounces back. “We Puerto Ricans are known for our tenacity,” says Nicole Olmeda, a Puerto Rico native and communication coordinator at Discover Puerto Rico. “No matter what is thrown our way, we know how to handle it and move forward." This sentiment is something many visitors can feel, now more than ever—in the arts, through budding mural projects like Yaucromatic, in entrepreneurship, with collaborative efforts like Brands of Puerto Rico designed to band local businesses together, and especially in community gathering places, like the chinchorros that dot the island.
A chinchorro is like a dive bar—known for its cheap drinks and typical bar snacks. But these casual restaurants represent something greater than just a place to grab a drink or late-night bite. “It's a culinary adventure, or chinchorrear, where we rent a party bus and go on a road trip into the mountains or along the coast, stopping at different restaurants," Olmeda says.
Often owned by the same family for generations, these chinchorros are also playing an important role preserving food culture and culinary traditions for the long haul—while acting as meaningful centers for social enterprise.
This is the case at Las Cabañas Doña Juana, a chinchorreo close to Toro Negro State Forest. Las Cabañas has been in Enid Baez’s family since 1970. Her father, Jose Ramon Baez, used to guide people to the swimming pools inside Toro Negro.
“Vacationers would complain about the lack of good food as they came down from their hikes and my father saw an incredible opportunity,” says Enid. “He opened Las Cabañas as a chinchorro serving slow cooked ribs and drinks. Now I am keeping the food culture going.”
Las Cabañas’ ribs are marinated in a family recipe of special seasonings, and then grilled over a brick fire pit for about 45 minutes, the same way Enid’s father prepared them years ago. Sundays are her busiest days, with long lines of customers who come just for that signature dish.
Enid recently opened a café serving local coffee and baked goods, in the same house her parents used to live in next door to Las Cabañas. She also recently started Amigos del Bosque Toro Negro (Friends of Toro Negro), a non-profit organization that provides naturalists and guides for visitors who want to hike and explore the forest. “These forests and hills are unique to Puerto Rico, and many edible native plants like cilantro, ginger root, and wild berries grow here,” she says. “I want to share that knowledge. All my employees and guides are from the neighborhood and most of them are teenagers. This is how I help my community—and of course all visitors get to eat our famous ribs at the end of their trek.”
This sense of community engagement takes various forms, from one chinchorro to the next. Along another popular chinchorro road trip route, Ruta de la Longaniza ("the longaniza trail")—which follows the winding PR -155 highway from Coamo to Vega Baja, is La Sombra Longaniza, in the town of Orocovis. This is where longaniza—a local Puerto Rican style of sausage—was first made in 1934.
As the story goes, a woman named Doña Maria Ortiz hand-made pork and chicken sausages here, and sold them under the shade of a tree in the town square. Her recipe got so popular that her family eventually established a brick and mortar building for what is still known as La Sombra Longaniza (“sombra” meaning shade in Spanish).
Still owned by the Ortiz family, La Sombra offers a feel of what a chinchorro represents for local customers—a community gathering place with great food. On any given day, La Sombra is full of locals like Hector G. (who declined to share his full last name), who has been going there for 15 years. “The food is amazing, just like how I remember it from years ago,” he says. “ I come here every week to meet my friends, eat, and socialize.”
For Aracelys Ortiz and her siblings, the grandchildren of Doña Maria, managing the business is akin to taking care of family—from the people who work there, to the regular customers who frequent the restaurant. “From our bakery to our four kitchens, we provide support to many of the locals,” she says. “Even in difficult economic times we offer employment within our community. And that means so much more than just being a restaurant owner.”
Many chinchorros along the Ruta de la Longaniza support local farms by sourcing ingredients nearby, ensuring economic resources remain within the community. La Sombra even has their own farm in Orocovis where they grow seasonal produce that makes its way into their kitchen and signature dishes.
But this concept of food enterprises as centers of social and economic sustainability also extends to the coast, where the island's fishing community is. Olmeda remembers her favorite chinchorro in Fajardo, where she would go with her grandparents growing up, and the role it played in the seaside community. “[El Racar Sea Food] has been there for over 30 years,” she says. “It is no more than a shack by the water but it has such special memories for me.”
Being close to the tourist-attracting bioluminescent bay, El Racar Sea Food is ever-popular with locals and tourists. They even have a hook and cook option, which supports fishing charters in Fajardo. “The owners are very involved in the community by sourcing from local fishermen and helping promote tourism in the area,” says Olmeda. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the chinchorro was open and serving the community right from the get-go.”
While not a traditional chinchorro, Princesa in Old San Juan is proof that the cuisine they serve continues to have a place in newer establishments. Princesa’s mantra of ‘Tasting Puerto Rico’s history’ is executed by seeking inspiration from six different cookbooks dating from 1859 to 1950.
“Over the years the food scene has evolved with many outside influences of ingredients and techniques,” says Jan Daniel Diaz, one of the owners, “but we want to bring back that old world flavor by going back to the roots, and making people fall in love with the true essence of Puerto Rican cuisine.” Some of the crowd favorites include creole muffins, beef medallions with yam, and plantain tostones. They, too, have a farm outside San Juan that provides fresh and locally grown ingredients for their dishes.
“For us Puerto Ricans, food isn’t just to eat," says Ricardo Ojeda, a history teacher and food tour guide at Flavors Food Tours. The many roles chinchorros play, from preserving the first longaniza recipe to creating space for local enterprise, are proof.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler