Get a Taste of Puerto Rico with a Thick Slab of Slow–Roasted Pernil

There’s comfort in taking time you never had before to prepare a dish that’s guaranteed to transport you to another time and place. With BBQ season in mind, we bring you roast pork – Puerto Rican style.

The classic Puerto Rican pork roast (pernil) takes slow cooking to a whole new level. Getting a large pork shoulder cooked to crisp perfection can take a full day, but it’s worth the wait. And there will be leftovers.

Then, when we’re once again allowed to mingle, maybe a full pig roast will be in order. In Puerto Rico, there’s an entire highway devoted to just that.

April 22, 2020
The sun shining over the mountain peaks of Puerto Rico
   Photo: Ernesto Tapia (Unsplash)

The History of Puerto Rico’s Pork Highway

Native to Spain, lechón, or spit–roasted pig, is popular in most regions where Spanish colonists left their mark. But in Puerto Rico, lechón is a national dish – a family–style feast that’s traditionally served at festivals. Follow the snaking mountain roads south of San Juan, however, and you’ll find a highway where every weekend brings a party worthy of the best bbq pork.

La Ruta de Lechón, or the Pork Highway, is about a 45–minute drive from Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, in a rural area called Guavate. Here, a stretch of road spanning a few miles is hugged by a row of lechóneras (restaurants specializing in lechón).

Legend has it the Pork Highway began as a handful of neighbouring lechóneras and, as their numbers grew, so did the scale of their pig roast celebrations. Live music adds a party vibe to many of these spots, where Medalla beers flow on tap and diners spill out into the street, setting the scene for a massive community shindig.

A plate of slow cooked Puerto Rican pork
   Photo: Discover Puerto Rico

Slow Cooking Puerto Rican Style

In almost every restaurant window a golden roasted pig is displayed on a spit, each seasoned with a “secret” spice blend before being roasted over hot coals or an open flame for six to eight hours. (This technique gives the skin a crispy texture and a smoky flavour, while preserving the juicy tenderness of the inner meat.)

Most lechóneras serve their specialty cafeteria–style, with diners ordering at the counter. They also offer traditional Puerto Rican sides like pastelón (a layered casserole dish made with plantains, ground beef and cheese), which is also a dish worth trying at home.