Ask any Puerto Rican what island life has been like over the past year and a response you might get is that Puerto Rico always bounces back. “We Puerto Ricans are known for our tenacity,” says Nicole Olmeda, a Puerto Rico native and communication coordinator at Discover Puerto Rico. “No matter what is thrown our way, we know how to handle it and move forward.” This sentiment is something many visitors can feel, now more than ever—in the arts, through budding mural projects like Yaucromatic, in entrepreneurship, with collaborative efforts like Brands of Puerto Rico designed to band local businesses together, and especially in community gathering places, like the chinchorros that dot the island.
A chinchorro is like a dive bar—known for its cheap drinks and typical bar snacks. But these casual restaurants represent something greater than just a place to grab a drink or late-night bite. “It’s a culinary adventure, or chinchorrear, where we rent a party bus and go on a road trip into the mountains or along the coast, stopping at different restaurants,” Olmeda says.
Often owned by the same family for generations, these chinchorros are also playing an important role preserving food culture and culinary traditions for the long haul—while acting as meaningful centers for social enterprise.
This is the case at Las Cabañas Doña Juana, a chinchorreo close to Toro Negro State Forest. Las Cabañas has been in Enid Baez’s family since 1970. Her father, Jose Ramon Baez, used to guide people to the swimming pools inside Toro Negro.
“Vacationers would complain about the lack of good food as they came down from their hikes and my father saw an incredible opportunity,” says Enid. “He opened Las Cabañas as a chinchorro serving slow cooked ribs and drinks. Now I am keeping the food culture going.”
Las Cabañas’ ribs are marinated in a family recipe of special seasonings, and then grilled over a brick fire pit for about 45 minutes, the same way Enid’s father prepared them years ago. Sundays are her busiest days, with long lines of customers who come just for that signature dish.
Enid recently opened a café serving local coffee and baked goods, in the same house her parents used to live in next door to Las Cabañas. She also recently started Amigos del Bosque Toro Negro (Friends of Toro Negro), a non-profit organization that provides naturalists and guides for visitors who want to hike and explore the forest. “These forests and hills are unique to Puerto Rico, and many edible native plants like cilantro, ginger root, and wild berries grow here,” she says. “I want to share that knowledge. All my employees and guides are from the neighborhood and most of them are teenagers. This is how I help my community—and of course all visitors get to eat our famous ribs at the end of their trek.”