The Lure of Puerto Rico’s Chinchorros

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]  Laura Kiniry (Smithsonian Magazine) writes about Puerto Rico’s famous chinchorros (food stalls), stating that “Eating, drinking and dancing between food stalls has become a popular way to experience the island.”

The sweet and smoky scents of grilled meat and fried cornmeal rise up from the streets of Piñones, a beachfront neighborhood in the Puerto Rican town of Loíza. This area of mangrove swamps and Afro-Caribbean culture is a hotbed of chinchorros: dozens of simple kiosks and food stalls—often one next to the other—serving up some of the island’s most indulgent edible samplings. We’re talking enormous plates of pork, rice and pigeon peas; skewered kebabs of beef and chicken; and loads of deliciously fried fritters, including meat-filled alcapurrias, cheese-stuffed sorullos and breadcrumb-coated croquetas de jamón y queso. Of course, at a chinchorro, cheap beer and mixed drinks are also on the menu.

“There’s nothing that’s supposed to be fancy about a chinchorro,” says Stephen Santiago, a Puerto Rican native and culinary host with local walking tour company, Flavors Food Tours—San Juan. “Think of them like a Texas roadhouse or a Louisiana clambake.” These rustic and down-to-earth eateries, which range from flat-out watering holes to basic restaurants, aren’t limited to Piñones, either. In fact, they exist island-wide, from the Guavate or “Pork Highway” section of mountainous Cayey, in central Puerto Rico (where they’re said to have first originated), to the coastal town of Luquillo, tucked between Atlantic waters and tropical El Yunque National Rainforest. Although no one really knows when they began, many Puerto Ricans will tell you that they remember visiting chinchorros when they were younger, in the company of their parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. However, it’s the chinchorrear, or the act of hopping between multiple chinchorros to eat, drink and dance, that’s more recently become an essential part of Puerto Rican culture. The tradition seems to have truly come into its own just in the last decade or two.

“It’s a practice that’s always existed,” says Angel L. Toledo, founder of Puerto Rico’s Chinchorreo Bus, which has been running private and public bus tours to groups of chinchorros across the island since 2011. “For a long time it just didn’t have a name.” Think of the chinchorrear as a food- and booze-fueled road trip that Puerto Ricans and tourists take part in together. “Not having to worry about drinking and driving,” says Toledo, or navigating Puerto Rico’s narrow two-lane roads, “is a big part of our bus tours.”

While chinchorros have long been a part of the Puerto Rican fabric (especially in the island’s central mountain region), Leslie Padro, founder of Flavors Food Tours—San Juan, believes they became more prevalent across the island during the mid-to-late-20th century. First, with the shifting of local demographics, as industrialization took over the island’s sugar monoculture, and Puerto Rico’s city-dwellers migrated to the U.S., while those in its rural areas relocated to the towns and cities. Soon after, “Caribbean tourism blossomed,” says Padro. “I think these kiosks were not only a nod to visitors, but also a good side hustle.”

Still, the communal, party-like gatherings of chinchorrear are a direct result of Puerto Rico’s close-knit culture, insists Padro. “The people here are very community driven,” she says, “and families will even bring their kids along with them during the day. Nobody minds that they’re loud, since Puerto Rico as a whole is a bit loud anyway.” Many chinchorros will have live bands playing, and there are people dancing salsa and merengue. At times, there’s even karaoke. [. . .]

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