Officially called A Taste of Puerto Rico Festival, this Puerto Rican-centric party is held on the second weekend of June to coincide with National Puerto Rican Day. It was all centered around a stage with live salsa music and dancing, but also included a spattering of vendors, musicians and other entertainment including this circle of congas:
It put me in such a boricua state of mind that I was tempted to buy something with the Puerto Rican flag on it, but I just couldn't decide between the mesh or plain cotton sleeveless t-shirt. In addition to being able to buy the Puerto Rican flag emblazoned on everything from tank tops to key chains to bikinis, there was a tent with a barber who would, for a nominal fee, shave it into your head. Enticing as all of that was, I was, as you may have expected, on the lookout for some comida puertorriqueña.
There are no Puerto Rican restaurants in Denver as far as I know, which is a shame. Puerto Rican food is for the most part delicious, simple and I imagine it would appeal to many more than just homesick puertorriqueños. While rice and beans, or arroz con habichuelas, as it is called on the island, is a ubiquitous staple, there is a lot more to the cuisine. I am no expert, but from what I know, there is a lot of use a lot of plantains and other tropical fruits, as well as unique variants of dishes found in other Latin American countries -- and then of course there is the famous lechón.
As a half-Filipino, where roast pig-on-a-spit is also called lechón, any cuisine that features a crisp-skinned suckling pig slow cooked over fire on a spit is a cuisine I am going to like. I didn't expect to find a lechón asado roasting at the festival that day, so I wasn't disappointed when I got there and didn't see one. But what was surprising was that upon arriving to the self-proclaimed "Taste of Puerto Rico" festival, was that I couldn't immediayely see a Puerto Rican food stall. There was one easily spied stall called "Spicy Mexican Food", and another boldly advertising "Sno Cones and Lemonade", but it was a nameless tent tucked behind a Puerto Rican souvenir stall (everything, for that matter, was tucked behind a Puerto Rican souvenir stall) that held the festival's only comida puertorriqueña.
While there was no sign advertising the business (a good sign), there were a few small signs laying out the day's menu options, all with some variation on rice, beans, pork and plantain. There were also empanadillas, which is Puerto Rican for empanada--not to be confused with the breaded steak you will get when ordering an empanada while there.
We did order a few empanadillas, which were filled with beef, deep fried and absolutely fantastic. I imagine most people can imagine how good crisp-fried dough filled with juicy ground beef tastes, so here, in lieu of a description, is a picture:
Besides the empanadillas, there were really only two dishes not "X'd" off the menu board, so we got those. Both dishes featured pernil, which if there is no lechón, is in all likelihood the next best thing. Pernil is slow-cooked pork seasoned with a Puerto Rican adobo, which as far as I can tell has things like garlic, vinegar, oregano and maybe something citrus-y. This pernil was succulent and flavorful, with a deep flavor that comes from careful preparation and slow, slow cooking.
Both dishes had tostones, which are smashed and fried, or fried and smashed, plantains. Actually I think the proper order is fry, smash and then fry again. Either way when there are plantains involved with frying, the results are generally good, and these tostones were no exception.
And of course there were the rice and beans. On one plate was the aforementioned arroz con habichuelas (dish 2), and the other plate featured pigeon peas, or gandules. I am a great aficionado of simple foods like rice and beans, and I appreciate when they are not just thrown on the side of plate as an afterthought. Therefore I thoroughly enjoyed my Puerto Rican beans and rice from this nameless stall, which obviously took pride in their execution.