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.
This casual simplicity is decidedly one of the chinchorros’ biggest draws, which is why you won’t see many of them in Old San Juan, a historic center with a more upscale vibe. In Puerto Rican neighborhoods like Piñones, some chinchorros don’t even have signs identifying them. Others cook their food over makeshift grills made from repurposed oil drums, which have been cut in half and fired up with scrap wood. Many chinchorros are open-air, “so there’s a good chance you’re going to get bit by mosquitos,” says Santiago. “But if you want an ice-cold beer for less than $5 USD, these are the places to go.”
Sometimes, a chinchorro will feature a glass and metal display case showcasing various fritters, although both Padro and Santiago agree that the best chinchorros make their fritters fresh to order. Natural fruit juices are another part of the offerings. “Sometimes they’ll even squeeze the fruits right in front of you,” says Toledo. “Oranges, limes, grapefruit…passion fruit is particularly popular.” The place will then add alcohol to the mix. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be a chinchorro,” he says. “Trust me.”
Toledo designed the first public tour for Chinchorreo Bus with local Puerto Rican residents in mind, but it immediately attracted its fair share of tourists. He quickly realized he was on to something. Today Chinchorreo Bus offers both private and public bus tours along 14 different chinchorrear routes across the island, including various coastal and mountain regions. Although their public tours currently take place once a month, private tours are available anytime, with add-ons ranging from a full lunch to an onboard DJ.
Typically, Chinchorreo Bus public tours last about eight hours and include three-to-four stops, with prices ranging from between $25 to $50 USD. “It all depends on how far the places are from each other,” says Toledo, “as well as what they offer.” For example, while the average stay at a stop is one hour, “If there is live music we may even stay longer,” he says, “and possibly leave it for the end and have dinner there.” With a private tour, you can decide for yourself how long you’d like to stay. “Whether it’s 15 minutes or three hours,” says Toledo. “You’re in charge.”
Some tour companies, like Puerto Rico-based Bespoke Lifestyle Management, which specializes in transport and concierge services, will help organize outdoor activities and chinchorrear pairings. For example, a morning visit to one of Puerto Rico’s natural swimming holes, like Patillas’ Charco Azul (Blue Pool), coupled with an afternoon of chinchorro-hopping along the town of Guardarraya’s palm-laden coastline.
But while many people are just happy drinking and eating from place-to-place, others have their favorites, whether it’s one of the many chinchorros along La Ruta de la Longaniza in the central mountains, where fried empanadillas (beef turnovers) and rellenos (stuffed potatoes) incorporate ingredients from local farms, or Kiosko El Boricua, a famed Piñones chinchorro known for its made-to-order fritters and heaping-sized portions. Whatever the case, the experience is sure to be quintessentially Puerto Rican.
“You're going there for Puerto Rican food, and Puerto Rican culture,” says Padro. “It’s just a great way to connect.”