Summer Street Food Snacks, Puerto Rican Style
Crunchy, cheesy fritters, refreshing seafood salad, and sizzling chicken kebabs to enjoy at home, with a tasty side of armchair travel. ¡Buen provecho!
Article and recipes by Reina Gascon-Lopez. Photographs by Brittany Conerly.
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If you want to find some really good food in Puerto Rico, you don’t even have to step foot inside a restaurant. Some of the best foods I’ve eaten on the island have come from the humble little shacks, kioskos, and lechoneras (pig roasting grill stands) that are all over, built in between the coconut trees that line the shore.
Not only can you get some quality eats during the day in between catching some waves, but you can get the same bites at night out on the town. On your way to hang with friends in Old San Juan? You can probably get something to eat right on the side of the road at a stop light. Leaving a club or bar and you’re hungry? Hit up the kioskos or trucks lined up in the empty parking lots. You’ll be led to them by the blasting salsa and merengue music and a line of eager, hungry people.
Each year when I can travel to Puerto Rico, my dad picks me up from the airport and our very first stop is to swing by the kioskos in Loíza to get fritanga (fritters and snacks) and ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad). During visits to Old San Juan, Dad and I snag little cortado coffees (strong coffee topped with a layer of steamed milk) with sorullitos de maíz (cornmeal fritters) for dunking on our way into the city for breakfast. To beat the heat during the day, we stop by the piragua (shaved ice) stands and order the frozen, fruity treats to enjoy walking the neighborhoods. I always get passion fruit and he orders tamarind, and we share halfway through. Dinner? Beachside pinchos (kababs), tostones (twice-fried plantains), and ice-cold beers make for a solid meal after running around all day.
I haven’t been back to Puerto Rico since before Hurricane María devastated the island in 2017. Between going to culinary school, working, and then the pandemic hitting, it feels like an eternity since the last time I smelled the Caribbean sea breeze and heard the coquís (tiny tropical frogs that are indigenous to the island) singing at dusk. I plan on going soon to enjoy my homeland and safely visit all of my family whom I haven’t seen in years. In the meantime, right at home I’ve been recreating many of the dishes that I miss, including the three I’m sharing today.
These recipes are my way of being able to visit my beautiful little island without having to catch a flight. Think of this as my public love letter to our street food and a big “I miss you” for my dad.
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A little about Puerto Rican cooking
Puerto Rican cuisine is a beautiful combination of West African, Spanish, and indigenous Taíno foods and cooking methods. When Spanish cooking methods and foods were brought to the island during colonization, they were overlaid onto the indigenous Taíno cuisine, as well as the West African dishes of the enslaved populations who were already living on the island. Learning more about each of these influences has inherently shaped and strengthened my connection to my culture right in the kitchen. You can learn more in my article Let’s Make Puerto Rican Food Tonight.
Many of our famous dishes embody this trifecta of people and cultures, and that includes street food.
Street food in Puerto Rico
As I was starting to explain, our beloved street food scene gets a lot of love on the island. Kioskos (little shacks) line the beachside roads with calderos (big aluminum pots) full of hot oil that fry various fritanga, and grills are aflame packed with juicy, tender chicken kababs slathered in finger-licking sauces. If you’re thirsty, you can grab a coco frío from the street vendor that climbs up the tree to cut down the coconuts, pops them into an ice chest, and cracks the coconuts open with a machete for an instant refresher.
Street food is a huge part of Puerto Rican culture and has become ingrained in how we eat and share food with others: lots of loud music, talking and yelling over said music, sharing piques (hot sauces) across tables, and wishing complete strangers a heartfelt buen provecho when you leave your table, which translates to “enjoy your meal.” It’s always fun, like you’re all part of the same family eating the same food together. You’ll see this at almost every kiosko, food truck, or takeout joint.
Street foods serve many purposes. Not only do they give tourists a sample of the variety that our cuisine has to offer, but these quick bites hold many working class folks over in between meals, especially during busy workdays when they often don’t have time to return home for a hot meal. You can find all walks of life in a kiosko line to get the same bites to eat.
Many of the most notable Puerto Rican dishes and snacks can be credited to our vibrant street food culture. There are the fritangas of alcapurrias (root vegetable and meat fritters), bacalaitos (salted cod fish fritters), tostones (smashed fried plaintains), papas rellenas (stuffed potato balls), and sweets like the piraguas and limbers (blended fruit slushies). And then there are my three favorite snacks that I like to grab with my dad as soon as I visit home.
Crunchy cornmeal and cheese fritters
Slightly sweet yet savory sorullitos de maíz con queso (cornmeal and cheese fritters) are delicious any time of day, but I particularly enjoy them as a little breakfast moment dunked into a cup of really strong coffee. These salty, crunchy, tender snacks are also paired with mayo-ketchup for dipping (a simple combination of equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup, seasoned with garlicky adobo).
The key ingredient for sorullitos is pre-cooked fine cornmeal, called harina de maíz (P.A.N. brand is a favorite). You can find it in the Latino foods section of some grocery stores and online. Either the white or yellow cornmeal works just fine for the recipe. You’ll also need a semi-firm cheese, like edam, gouda, or sharp cheddar.
To make sorullitos de maíz, simply shape a ball of cornmeal masa into a flattened disk, place a stick of cheese in the center, and form the fritter around the cheese, sealing it inside. Then fry and serve hot, to enjoy the melted cheese filling.
Refreshing octopus salad
My favorite kind of street food, ensalada de pulpo is a light and refreshing snack to enjoy while visiting the beachside kioskos. When I enjoy it stateside, I serve it as an appetizer or light lunch. Octopus can be a little intimidating to work with if you haven’t made it before, but don’t be frightened. Nowadays, most frozen and fresh octopus sold in grocery stores and seafood counters is already cleaned and prepped for consumers. With the help of a pressure cooker, you can have absolutely tender and delicious octopus in no time, though you can also just simmer it in a pot.
The tender octopus pairs beautifully with the thinly sliced onions, crisp peppers, and punchy garlic, especially after it’s had time to marinate in the simple dressing. To make ensalada de pulpo, just combine the cooked octopus and the dressing and refrigerate it for a couple of hours. Serving this with plantain chips is a great way to enjoy a nice change in your appetizer routine.
Chicken kebabs with guava bbq sauce
Pinchos de pollo have to be the star of the show when it comes to local Puerto Rican street foods. Pinchos are grilled chicken kebabs. I’ve slathered them with my take on a savory and smoky guava glaze, and they're absolutely delicious and worth the work. Traditionally they’re served with a nice piece of toasted garlic bread at the end of the skewer so you can enjoy a makeshift sandwich with the chicken and the bread.
Note that this recipe has multiple parts, so I would suggest making the guava barbecue sauce — which doubles as a marinade — the day before you plan on grilling the kebabs, and marinating the meat overnight. The sauce comes together easily and any leftovers refrigerate well for other uses. If you want a solid shortcut for the guava barbecue sauce, simply start the recipe by sauteing the sofrito and melting the cubed guava paste, but use your favorite store-brand barbecue sauce instead. Season with a little sazón and you’ll be set. I’ve done this before and it’s a great timesaver!
Explore more traditional Puerto Rican food
If you've whetted your appetite for comfort food Puerto Rican-style, we have lots more recipes on Yummly, including Puerto Rican Bacalaitos (Codfish Fritters), ground beef picadillo empanadas, and side dishes like mashed green plantain mofongo and Rellenos de Papa. In this next article, check out favorite recipes including Sofrito, Arroz con Gandules, and Puerto Rican Shrimp with Creole Sauce (Camarones a la Criolla).
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