No Puerto Rican food guide would be complete without a rundown of our famous cuchifritos. The word comes to us from the name of a fried pork dish from southern Spain called cochifrito (shortened from “cochino frito”—fried pig), but in Puerto Rico, it means almost anything that’s fried. Some cuchifritos are primarily known as lechonera offerings, like morcilla and carne frita—chunks of fried pork or beef. Some are eaten regularly at home as snacks, like empanadillas and sorullitos. But when we think of cuchifritos, we mostly think of the kioskos—kiosks by the beach serving up delicious fried street food, along with a refreshing Medalla Light beer or a fresh whole coconut to wash it down.
Many cuchifritos are made with some kind of dough on the outside and a meat filling inside. This filling will often be picadillo—a sautee of ground beef, tomato sauce, and of course, sofrito—but we put a Caribbean twist on this Spanish mainstay using other meats like jueyes (Caribbean land crabs) or local fish.
My all-time favorite cuchifrito. These codfish fritters are like a flat, thin, but firm pancake. They’re made with chunks of the titular cod in a runny and heavily seasoned batter, which is poured onto hot oil and fried until golden and crunchy. They’re salty and greasy and positively terrible for you, so of course they’re delicious.
Rellenos de papa
These are basically oversize, deep-fried croquettes. Mashed potato on the outside and picadillo on the inside, it’s a meal you can hold in your hand. I personally prefer the less common rellenos de pana, which use breadfruit in place of potato. (I also recommend tostones de pana!) Breadfruit is a lot sweeter when fried, so this version has the double benefit of creating an interesting contrast with the savory filling and making it harder for me to kid myself about the terrible dietary choices I’m making.
These are known to most Americans as empanadas, which is what they’re called in many other countries. In Puerto Rico, though, an empanada is a thin, breaded sliver of chicken (or beef) resembling schnitzel. Confusing, I know. Popular Boricua fillings are the ubiquitous picadillo, sautees with shredded chicken, jueyes, chapín (trunkfish) or cetí (whitebait), and … pizza. Who doesn’t like pizza?
Sorullitos de maíz
You can’t go wrong with fried cornbread fingers, especially if you fill them with cheese. They can be plain or stuffed and made with varying degrees of sugar, depending on your mood. With more sugar and filled with cream cheese or guava paste, they make a nice sweet treat, but they’re more commonly savory, with or without American cheese, and dipped in mayoketchup.
Piononos and canoas
Very ripe plantains that are deep-fried, stuffed with picadillo, and topped with melted American cheese. For piononos, long, thin maduro slices are wrapped around the meat, forming a small cylinder. For canoas, the whole fruit is made into a little stuffed canoe. These are a miniature version of my favorite dish in all of existence, piñón (also called pastelón). This larger dish is layered, like a lasagna, with thinly sliced maduros laid side by side, meat, and soft boiled green beans. Many people melt American cheese over this, too, but I prefer it without the distraction. When you make the meat sauce noticeably saltier than you otherwise would, it plays against the intense sweetness of the maduros more dramatically and the results are spectacular.