Vegan Puerto Rico: Choosing a Sustainable Diet on the Island

Let’s just get one confession out of the way: I love Puerto Rican food! I love rice, beans, plantains made any way, pasteles, pernil, the desserts, all of it

Photo: Unsplash/@howipop

Photo: Unsplash/@howipop

Let’s just get one confession out of the way: I love Puerto Rican food! I love rice, beans, plantains made any way, pasteles, pernil, the desserts, all of it. But this past year, I’ve been changing up my diet to accommodate some lifestyle shifts. You see, I wanted to focus on living more sustainably. Part of that has meant cutting back on eating meat and dairy products. And while I am still experimenting to discover what kinds of food are best for my body, I can say that eating a plant-based diet works for me. That said, I still go to Puerto Rico every year and I want to eat the flavors of the island I love so much. So these past trips I have been intentional about cultivating a way to be vegan in Puerto Rico and still feel like I’m getting the most out of my trip food-wise.

When I initially began this process I was sure there would be no vegan places in Puerto Rico. I suspected I would have a difficult time maintaining a vegan diet while visiting. Happily, on my last trip I found the opposite to be true—there’s a growing sustainable food movement in Puerto Rico that focuses on vegan diets and farm-to-table menu items. These businesses and local farms are focusing on locally grown produce that thrives in Puerto Rico’s fertile soil and tropical climate. To learn more about the farm to table movement in Puerto Rico, read this New York times article.

Thanks to shifting attitudes (and restaurants) my mom and I were able to keep our PR trip 100% vegan. One thing that helped a lot was that we had a kitchen in the place we stayed to cook our own meals. If you are able to rent a place with a kitchen, do so. Either way, below were our favorite vegan places in Puerto Rico. One tip: if you plan on visiting any of these businesses, call ahead to make sure that places are open, especially if you are visiting Puerto Rico around any type of holiday.

Freshmart: Sort of like the Whole Foods of Puerto Rico, Freshmart offers all kinds of local, organic, gluten free, vegan, and other diet options. Here you will be able to buy all the staple food products you will need to cook with for your trip. Freshmart has locations all around the island, so no matter where you stay you can get to a location at least once. As a bonus, they also prepare hot meals with their daily changing menu offering mainly vegan and gluten free options. (And the food is delicious!) Make sure you sign up for the Freshmart rewards card so you can get discounts on your future purchases.

Departmento De La Comida: On their Instagram they call themselves a “real farm to table” restaurant that uses only local and sustainable products. Their menu goes beyond typical rice and beans heavy Puerto Rican food. Instead, it consists of mostly vegetables that thrive naturally in a tropical climate. Make sure to visit their nonprofit produce market,Efecto Sombrilla, which is open Wednesday to Sunday every week.

Berlinjeri Cocina Artesanal: A really cute cafe in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan. The food is fresh and the menu is creative, with local ingredients—and they offer mostly vegan and gluten free options. They also offer all types of fresh juices. The service is friendly, the food delicious and cooked with a lot of love. Aside from the food, my favorite part of my experience was the atmosphere. The cafe feels very cool and relaxed, and the natural wood that accents the room in a  lovely way. The interior design makes you feel like you’re in a forest bungalow, when you are really in the middle of a busy urban business district.

Señor Paleta: For a sweet treat head over to Señor Paleta in Old San Juan. They specialize in making artisan “paletas,” tropical juice popsicles, from gelato and sorbet. A “paleta” is sort of like ice cream, but made tropical juices and is in a flat shape and put on a stick. Many of their sorbet and fresh fruit flavors are vegan and all of them are so refreshing in the San Juan heat.

Comida Criolla: When you are out and about on the island sometimes you just don’t have the luxury of a finding a ready made vegan spot. Not to worry! There are some traditional Puerto Rican dishes that are, or can be made, vegan. So what should you order? 1) Plain Mofongo. Mofongo is fried mashed green plantains, flavored with garlic, olive oil and salt. Make sure to ask if the mofongo is made to order, it should always be made to order, and as long as it is made to order then ask the chef to leave out any meat ingredients from the dish. 2) Tostones. A thick and flat green fried plantain “chip.” Tostones are totally vegan, they are delicious alone or when paired with some avocado. 3) Maduros/Amarillos. Sweet fried yellow plantains. These are my favorite, I love them eaten with salty food to add a sweet balance or when eaten just as a dessert. 4) Rice & Beans. Ask if the beans are made with any type of meat products, though, because often they are. I would also ask if they have any rice dish that is made without meat. 5) The Meal. If all of their beans and rices dishes have meat, order a side of white rice and pair it with sliced tomatoes and avocados, tostones or maduros or mofongo, drizzle some olive oil on top and lemon on top, and make sure to ask for some extra cilantro to garnish you vegan creation. Enjoy!

While some of my motivation for choosing to eat a plant-based diet is health-related, another reason is that I want to contribute to making a more sustainable world. Currently much of Puerto Rico’s food is imported, putting a huge strain on the local environment and economy. By supporting these local businesses, you are supporting the local economy, and lessening the strain on the island’s delicate ecosystem. And as an added bonus, you will find eating locally grown food will enhance your experience in Puerto Rico because you will truly be connected to the earth!

Tara Sherry-Torres is a Pittsburgh-based creative entrepreneur. Visit her Latino culture media site, Cafe Con Leche, to learn how she highlights authentic Latino culture using art + food.

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