Puerto Rico’s West Coast Flavor

A food historian savors the tastes of her island roots—sweet mangoes, lobster empanadas, cinnamon-dusted milkshakes—and discovers how homegrown ingredients along a lush shoreline set the table for the future

Waves crash on the seawall with white stone. Water droplets are in the air and there is an ocean and greenery in the background


Waves crash on the seawall at Rincón’s Tres Sirenas Beach Inn.

Bloodred lights spread across the street at the end of Sea Beach Drive on Puerto Rico’s west coast. When I park my car and step out, thick humidity and the whoosh of waves greet me. It’s late at night, so I can’t see it, but the water is undeniably there.

I’m standing in Rincón, called the surf capital of the Caribbean, and those red lights help prevent nesting sea turtles from wandering off the sand. Even though I was born in Puerto Rico, this town, above where the Caribbean and the Atlantic meet, is new to me. My family is from metro San Juan, the north-coast capital city. When we would visit my grandmother on the island, we were often eastbound, seeing the usual sites—El Morro citadel; El Yunque rainforest; the kioskos, or food stalls, in beachy Luquillo by day, and the nearby bioluminescent bay by night.

Bermuda shoreline
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Like many folks in the diaspora, I have a complicated relationship with the island. I feel fundamentally connected, but also detached. I didn’t grow up here (I spent most of my childhood in Atlanta), so I struggle with claiming I’m from here, but something in my bones tells me I’m home. I didn’t visit the island at all in my twenties when my grandmother had developed Alzheimer’s and moved stateside. She was very special to me, in no small part because she was my docent to Puerto Rican cuisine, and to this day her teachings inspire my understanding of flavor. But years after she left, when I was in the throes of a painful divorce, I found myself back on the island, getting grounded. That’s the first time I remember exploring the west coast, this other coast, driving along cliffs as the sea opened up in front of me. I was awestruck and felt I’d discovered a whole other island within my island, one that was more relaxed, less crowded, more lush, unspoiled. I’ve traveled west on every visit since.

Surfers swim in blue ocean water


Surfers catch early morning waves at Domes Beach in Rincón.

I fly into San Juan, choosing to rent a car and drive to Rincón (the flight options to San Juan are more flexible and affordable than to Puerto Rico’s other airports). I also love driving across the island, leaving the capital’s bustle, passing a lit-up billboard of the Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny along the wild PR-22 highway where locals turn the right lane into the fast lane, and you’re as likely to tail an old truck brimming with plátanos as a sports car. I watch the landscape shift from metropolis into green paradise peppered with colorful flowering flamboyant trees. Like many of my trips home, this one is all about food. I just wrapped production on my next cookbook, Islas, an encyclopedia of tropical cooking, and I feel ready to simply enjoy the vibe and the flavors of the place I’ve been writing about for years. I agreed to teach a food class at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez with my friend Mónica, and in the middle of planning, she texted me with devastating news. My mentor and friend, Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra—a Puerto Rican food historian and the whole reason I study food—died suddenly. He had been in remission from cancer, and we’d been in loose touch since he was diagnosed a year prior—mostly me sending him messages of support and trying not to worry when I didn’t hear back.

My thoughts turn to him on this journey, remembering a time when we drove a tiny rental car into a banana grove to check out an old sugar mill. He shared the area’s history, the architecture, the significance of plantations in the story of Puerto Rico; how Spanish wealth from the sugar trade was built on the backs of enslaved African and Indigenous people. Spending time in both Puerto Rico and the South has taught me how much the two places have in common; how each has at times exported staple crops but imported food for their own population; how the legacy of African culture breathes deep in both landscapes through their shared histories.

After just over two hours on the road, and now bathed in red turtle lighting, I unload my car and step up to the Tres Sirenas Beach Inn. Even though it’s small, just a handful of rooms, it’s as close to the water as you can possibly get, and the vibe is peaceful and welcoming. Because it’s a Monday night, many of the restaurants are closed, so I head to the local staple Rincón Beer Co.

A collage of two images. Left: A man sits in a booth with a glass of beer; he is wearing overalls and a hat. Above him, there are skateboard decks with faces of men. Right: A colorful streetscape; three people walk in the middle, where there is a Puerto Rican flag painted on one building.


Rincón Beer Co.'s Jeremmie Vélez Rosario; Old San Juan.

I live in Durham, North Carolina, now, where there’s a craft brewery seemingly around every corner. But brewery restaurants are rarer in Puerto Rico. Jeremmie Vélez Rosario, a young up-and-comer from neighboring Aguadilla, owns this one. As in most tropical places, you’ll find plenty of chilly, crisp lagers around the island, such as Medalla or Heineken. But Rincón Beer Co. pours custom brews, including a dynamic Puntas Double IPA and a popular porter, alongside those of the more than twenty and counting Puerto Rican breweries. It also serves great bar food, nearly all of which comes from nearby (including greens and herbs grown hydroponically on-site). The casero, or homestyle, snacks include carne frita—tender garlic-marinated pork pieces fried crisp, best enjoyed when they’re hot enough to burn your tongue—and croquetas de bacalao, or salt cod croquettes. Satisfied, I go back to my room, crack the sliding glass door, and fall asleep to the crashing waves.

I awake to a knock on my door and a sweet woman’s voice saying, “Breakfast!” Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, it has a culture all its own that is unfussy and laid-back, with businesses often operating entirely on their own schedules. I was not expecting an 8:30 wake-up call, complete with a plate of warm French toast topped with local mango and berries. But breakfast is included in a stay here, and that’s when it arrives.

As I sleepily look outside, enjoying my delicious meal, I feel like I’m on a ship drifting out to sea. The ocean is right there, waves lapping at the bottom of the inn’s high walls. This is the kind of place my family wouldn’t spring for, but it’s just right for me. When I first started coming to Puerto Rico alone, I was struck by how much I still hadn’t seen. And while I didn’t have my grandmother to translate nuances of local customs, I love to wander, and wandering around Puerto Rico is marvelous. There are things I’m into that my family would never get down with. I want to visit urban community gardens and public art spaces, and eat a vegan jackfruit empanada while listening to a live conga performance in a town square, sipping cheap, strong cocktails from plastic cups. I want to seek out that hole-in-the-wall spot that makes perfect alcapurrias, or taro fritters, and wash them down with tamarind-flavored sugarcane moonshine or go to the farthest southwest point of the island and sit…just sit…on the edge of the world, looking out at an endless sea.

A collage of two images. Left: A treehouse-like guest house on the side of a hill with palm trees. Right: A cozy room with beige details and an a-frame ceiling.


A Hacienda Tres Casitas guesthouse and cozy interior.

I decide to spend the day roaming, giving my heart and mind time to settle into the reality that my mentor, Cruz, is gone. He knew Puerto Rican food so intimately, befriending the abuelas and aunties of the island (women like my grandmother), who are treasured artisans and teachers. He popped into small family-run places where they cook “como Dios manda!” as he would say—as God intended. He was a historian, so he sought out foods like guanimes—cornmeal and coconut tamales steamed in banana leaves—that hark back to Indigenous Taínos. He reveled in dishes made with native crops like malagueta, an allspice that makes your tongue tingle; and chagaras, small shrimp found throughout the island’s snaking rivers.

Alongside his passion for local flavors and history, he also exposed the realities of living in a place that imports more than 80 percent of its food, despite the fertile landscape. (There are a few reasons for this, including U.S. policies that restrict trade and discourage agriculture, and the lingering effects of natural disasters.) He wrote about the “palate’s memory”—how our taste buds connect us to our ancestors but also adapt to ensure survival. In Puerto Rico, that means a reliance on processed, shelf-stable imports, which Cruz relentlessly challenged. Like my grandmother, Cruz was an excellent cook who could make both supermarket staples and homegrown ingredients sparkle.

A collage of two images. Left: A painted sign shows "Rincon 413: Road to Happiness." Right: Cars on a street with orange and yellow buildings and trees.


Highway 413, a.k.a. the Road to Happiness; downtown Rincón.

My mind is digesting all of this as I drive to the northern part of Rincón. I stop at the English Rose, an adorable bistro tucked into the hills, to grab an iced coffee, then drive on to Carta Buena, a burgeoning organic farm growing herbs, tomatoes, amaranth, and bananas. It’s near Tres Palmas, a protected marine reserve that’s home to elkhorn coral and sea turtles endangered by waves of development and pollution from nearby construction sites that drain into coastal waters. Despite all the hurdles, there are places on this island that sustainably grow native crops.

Cattle graze beside the beach on a grassy reserve with palm trees


Cattle graze beside the beach at the Tres Palmas reserve.

I keep driving, windows down, and happen upon Jack’s Shack. Fish tacos are not hard to find in Rincón, but these are worth seeking out. Blackened local red grouper fills a warm flour tortilla that’s topped with pineapple salsa, slaw, and sprouts. I drink a sour acerola cherry juice, standing up at the counter next to a bandanna-clad black spotted dog, looking out at wind-whipped palms.

My friend Mónica joins me for dinner that night at the restaurant Estela, and we order everything on the menu, as Cruz might have done. Snapper ceviche with soursop leche de tigre; arroz con pato, or duck rice; taro and cassava gnocchi topped with stewed salt cod. The plates and cocktails all have chef Abel Mendoza’s signature; they’re classic homestyle creations with elevated, elegant touches, but I notice a curious ingredient—Bosc pears. When the chef comes by to chat, he reminds me that he makes do with whatever he can consistently source, even if it’s shipped in.

A collage of two images. Left: A pork chop on a white plate with sauce and sliced apples and plums; the plate is on a wood background. Right: A chef's portrait; he is wearing glasses and an apron with his hands tucked into his pockets.


Estela's pork chip with rosemary-confit apples and vanilla infused plums; chef Abel Mendoza at Estela.

The next day I head down to the city of Mayagüez to teach my class, stopping on the way to grab a lobster empanada and carrucho—an island staple of chewy yet tender conch tossed in vinaigrette. Cruz is again on my mind, as he taught at the university for decades. And so I teach in his honor, reading from his work, making sure the next generation of Puerto Ricans writing about food know his name, and what he contributed.

That night chef Jose Carles invites me to a private dinner at his restaurant Marina in Cabo Rojo. He’s a sport fisherman with tremendous respect for pescadores, who often struggle against restrictive fishing policies that prevent most from making a living or ensuring that seafood eaten on the island comes from its waters. He serves back-to-back delights: mahi-mahi crudo in passion fruit pulp, crispy fried plantain tostones topped with tuna poke, king squid gnocchi in ink, red bigeye snapper with tomato sauce and a licoricey local mint, avocado and chayote squash salad, and grilled whole lobster tail. Carles sits with me, sharing stories about his wife and two daughters, even showing me a video of one of them, Valentina, who sings like an angel. His food is a celebration of the sea, each dish highlighting the respective delicate, dynamic, or pungent ingredients that emerge from there. He shows me what’s possible when a chef champions what the environment provides, offering sophisticated dishes with precision alongside ones that are simple, fresh, and homey.

For the next couple of days, I stay at Hacienda Tres Casitas, about fifteen minutes from the coast, with my cousin Itege and her three youngest children. She’s my prima hermana, or sister cousin, because we were born just months apart. Nestled in the countryside, Hacienda is magical, with a thick canopy of broad leaves and birds-of-paradise poking up just off the gravel road. It’s one of a small number of family-owned bed-and-breakfasts on the island, and some members of the family live on the property. My own family joins me for breakfast—inky strong coffee, eggs, toast, fresh mango—and then we take a dip in the pool and spend a little time watching a bright green frog, enjoying the peacefulness.

A collage of two images. Left: A woman raises her arms and smiles, wearing a black shirt. Right: A foamy cocktail with purple clover and powder.

Milexys Rosado, the owner of Hacienda Tres Casitas; at Estela, the Hibiscus Dementia cocktail has a ginger kick.

The next day, I drive solo to Playa Buyé, one of my favorite beaches on the island. While there are tons of quiet stretches of sand across Puerto Rico, this one is a full-on party at 11:00 a.m., speakers blaring salsa, reggaeton, and pop music. Beachgoers stand waist deep in the water with cocktails in hand. Sun satiated, I head to downtown Cabo Rojo for a treat. Founded by a Chinese immigrant from Cuba in the 1960s, Rex Cream is an institution, known for tropical fruit flavors like passion fruit, soursop, and coconut, along with surprising flavors like peanut and corn. When I take my first sip of its famous corn ice cream milkshake, dusted with cinnamon, I can hear my grandmother’s laughter.

I reluctantly take my leave of the coast, winding east back to San Juan, passing a crop of tall white wind turbines springing up from Santa Isabel, then heading on to the peaked mountains of Cayey. The island’s many landscapes unfold: mountain and valley, rainforest and interstate, the ever-present shore. As I arrive in San Juan, I make a quick stop at Los Guapos—one of a growing number of phenomenal taquerías on the island. My friends Xavier Pacheco and Gabriel Antúnez—the taquería’s late cofounder—traveled throughout Mexico to develop the menu, which ranges from traditional beef birria to clever Caribbean fusion like azucena (lily) tacos. I go deeper into Viejo San Juan where I’m staying at the Decanter Hotel, an elegant spot in a renovated nineteenth-century building. I step out to the Plaza de Armas, where my family would sit in the shade on a hot day and watch performers while enjoying piraguas, or shaved ice. While the west coast is where I now travel, San Juan is deeply nostalgic, a place where I think of family.

A collage of two images. Left: Two tacos wrapped in foil with a red drink in a plastic cup behind it. Right: A spread of chips, corn, dips, drinks, and tacos on a concrete tabletop.


Jack Shack's fish tacos; a welcoming spread at Los Guapos Taquería.

I treat myself to a glass of cava on the Decanter’s Bar Catedral Rooftop at sunset, then have dinner with its celebrated executive consultant chef, my friend Maria Mercedes Grubb, who also heads up the hotel restaurant Suma Mesa + Barra. We dig in to cassava and salt cod brandade spread with avocado, then her mom’s recipe for rum-stewed goat wrapped into rose-shaped dumplings, and fresh local grilled snapper paired with spectacular wines and cocktails.

A lively nighttime streetscape in Old San Juan, with yellow lights and a Puerto Rican flag. People walk in the street.


A lively nighttime streetscape in Old San Juan.

On the 7:00 a.m. flight home to Raleigh-Durham, as I’ve done since I was a small child, I sit glued to the window as the plane turns over the city, giving a bird’s-eye view of my homeland. I feel a pang, remembering the feeling I had as a child when I didn’t know when I would be back, combined with my more recent concerns about the island’s increasing environmental vulnerability and worsening storms. As I return to the South, I reflect on the experience of diaspora. I’m from two places—my body lives in one, my soul lives in another. And because the island is where my spirit lingers, each trip becomes an opportunity to deepen that bond, to understand my homeland on my own terms.