By Kathleen Squires, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Crispy, tender, salty, smoky lechón asado—whole pig roasted slowly on a spit—is a holiday specialty on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Here’s where to find the ultimate places to indulge
JAMES BEARD, the American cooking authority, was not impressed with Puerto Rican cuisine when he was posted on the island during World War II. “I have always felt that food in the Caribbean is perhaps the worst in the world,” he wrote in his memoir, “Delights and Prejudices.” He would certainly change his mind if he could enjoy the work of the island’s modern chefs—the true-to-roots refinement Jose Enrique Montes displays at his eponymous restaurant, the crossover cuisine Jose Santaella creates at Santaella, the farm-to-table fare of Juan Jose Cuevas at 1919. But even back then, Mr. Beard noted one culinary saving grace: “Fortunately we had available lechón asado, the traditional barbecued pig with its crisp skin and deliciously tender meat.”
Lechón asado is Puerto Rico’s unofficial national dish. It’s served year-round but is particularly prevalent during the holidays—especially Christmas and Three Kings Day, marked on Jan. 6. And it’s not just roasted pig: Lechón asado is a craft, a ritual, a celebration. The result, as Mr. Beard pointed out, is a whole animal, its skin brown and crisp, the meat beneath moist and juicy. Each morsel tastes of smoke and spice. The pork is customarily accompanied by arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), guineos (green bananas) and morcilla (blood sausage).
Family pig roasts are extended, elaborate events that require several people to watch and rotate the pig, and keep the beer and rum drinks flowing. But there are also entire restaurants—lechoneras—devoted to the dish. Lechoneras can be humble roadside shacks, garage-like extensions of homes or full-on restaurants. Service is usually cafeteria-style, and the pig is the showpiece, displayed for all to admire before it is sliced up and served.
Lechoneras can be found all over Puerto Rico, and several highways are known as “rutas de lechón” for their abundance of pig roasteries. However, the most famous is Route 184 in Guavate, some 30 miles south of San Juan in the Sierra de Cayey mountains. On a winding, three-mile stretch are more than a dozen lechoneras, which get so busy during the holidays that traffic jams become veritable street parties. “On a regular weekday, we’ll go through four pigs. On a Sunday, we go through 10 to 12,” said Alexis Vera, a cook at Lechonera Bruny in Guavate. “On Christmas Day alone, we go through 50.”
Christopher Columbus is said to have introduced pigs to the Caribbean in 1493, expanding the native Taino Indian diet of root vegetables, fruit and fish. As Katharine M. Rogers, author of “Pork: A Global History,” explained, “The early Spanish explorers…learned a delicious new way of cooking [pigs] from the Taino Indians—slow cooking in the smoke of an open fire. This produces barbecue, a word probably derived from Taino barabicu.” The roasting method continues today: The pig is tied to a spit, enclosed in a stone, cinder-block or zinc box, and rotated over a fire for several hours.
Though the technique may sound simple, when it comes to the best way to prepare lechón, “todo el mundo mete la cuchara” (“everyone puts their spoon in”), as a Puerto Rican saying goes.
The first point of contention: the origin of the pig. Many lechoneras proudly feature signs boasting that their pigs are “100% del país,” which means locally sourced. “Hands down, there is nothing better than a fresh, local pig,” said Kevin Roth of La Estación in Fajardo. But others prefer to import frozen pigs from the U.S. mainland, especially at holiday time, when supply is tight. Damaris Lopez, who with her husband owns the 65-year-old El Paso lechonera in Guaynabo, a municipality just outside of San Juan, prefers the “security of knowing the pig has been USDA inspected,” acknowledging that imported pigs are often cheaper, too. Lechonera pigs are roughly 9 months old and weigh 60 to 130 pounds—sizable enough to feed a few generations of a family, yet not too unwieldy to cook whole.
‘Many purists say that to find the best lechoneras, look for the smoke.’
Then there is the charcoal vs. gas debate. Many purists say that to find the best lechoneras, you should look for the smoke, which means they are cooking with charcoal. “When you cook with gas, the residue of the gas lingers on the meat,” said Junior Rivera, proprietor of Lechonera Angelito’s Place in Trujillo Alto, a laid-back town southwest of the capital. “Charcoal is natural wood and is always going to give a better flavor.” Yet some veterans, such as the Lopezes of El Paso, use propane. “It’s faster, more efficient, cleaner and more economical,” said Ms. Lopez, who believes seasoning is more important than fuel.
Which brings us to the rub. The marinade used by each lechonera is a closely-guarded secret, though the standard base is a blend of salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, culantro (the island’s cilantro-like plant) and other herbs. Some use achiote, which imparts a reddish-brown color. The mixture is rubbed onto the carcass and into incisions made into the skin.
After 25 years of spending holidays in Puerto Rico, I find a plate of pork as welcoming as the tropical warmth in winter. I set out to find the best within an hour’s drive from San Juan on day trips with my husband and eager extended family. At each stop, we relished plates of meat topped with crispy, glistening skin, and sides of arroz, morcilla and guineos. The routine also included wishing strangers a heartfelt “buen provecho” (the Spanish equivalent of “bon appétit”). As chef/restaurateur Jose Santaella points out in his new cookbook, “Cocina Tropical,” “Lechón is much more than a food—it is a piece of our culture, the essence of eating in Puerto Rico.”
The Local Celebrity | Los Pinos, Guavate
One of the most popular lechoneras on the island’s best-known ruta lechon, Los Pinos has won the attention of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. We understood why once we tasted its certified local pig, whose fresh, porky flavor set it apart from the lechón at nearby operations. The block of a building, painted mint green, also houses a pool table, a bar in the back, a small stage for live music performances and booths big enough to fit the whole family. Los Pinos Route 184, Km. 27.7, 787-286-1917
LECHÓN AROUND THE WORLD
Chicago: La Plena A favorite lechón stop for the Windy City’s sizable Puerto Rican population. 2617 W. Division St., 773-276-5795
New York: Coppelia Chef Julian Medina serves “pan con lechon,” a mouthwatering roasted-pork sandwich, complete with cracklings and pickled red onion. 207 W. 14th St., coppelianyc.com
Canary Islands: Asador Artero It is said that Christopher Columbus loaded up on livestock in the Canaries before he set sail for the Caribbean. This spot in El Hierro specializes in whole roasted chickens and pig. Calle Artero 20, Merese, Frontero
Philippines: Lydia’s Lechon Filipinos have their own style of lechon (spelled without the accent), roasted over coals and embellished with different seasonings. Lydia’s is a nationwide chain that’s been serving fast-food lechon for nearly 50 years. Various locations, lydias-lechon.com
The Chef’s Choice | La Ranchera, Guaynabo
Luis “Apa” Ramos is known by some as “El Rey de lechón asado” (the king of lechón)—and it’s not only locals who swear by his pig. Chef Eric Ripert flies Mr. Ramos up to New York each year for a lechón feast at his Michelin-starred Le Bernardin. Mr. Ramos’s father opened La Ranchera in the 1940s; the son took over in 1985, and today works with his own children, Luis, Delines and Celimar. The roasting pits are in a shack with a corrugated-metal roof; the polished dining room is across the road. (La Ranchera is a sports bar during the week; Mr. Ramos only makes lechón on weekends.) Stuffing rice with pigeon peas into the pig’s cavity, so that the drippings can flavor the side dish, is his signature flourish. Arrive early, since the pork often sells out by noon. When we showed up before 10 a.m., Mr. Ramos’s pigs (from Naranjito, a town in the center of the island) were nearly finished roasting. At about 10:15, Mr. Ramos pulled the first pig out of the pit and hung it on poles while he sharpened a large knife. “When the machete is sharpened, the pig is ready,” he said. Sure enough, it was eaten by 11:15. The skin defies logic—it is crunchy and moist at the same time—while the aromatic seasoning infuses every bit of meat. Route 173, Km. 6, 787-789-4706
The Award-Winner | La Estación, Fajardo
No one wanted to give the top lechón prize at the 2013 Cattlemen’s BBQ Competition to a gringo. But the blind tasting couldn’t be denied: Kevin Roth, a native New Yorker and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, made the best pig. Nearly as shocking: It was roasted in a Ford Bronco. Mr. Roth’s La Estación restaurant, on the island’s east coast, is a former service station refashioned into a “Nuyorican barbecue” joint where an old dashboard graces the host stand and a BF Goodrich sign peeks out from the kitchen. When Mr. Roth’s truck caught fire, he made the lemon he’d bought six months earlier into lechonade—now it has a steering-wheel spit and engine-operated rotator. His cuero (the skin, literally “leather”) crackles satisfyingly when bitten, and it carries a smoke flavor like no other I have encountered. The meat is exquisitely tender, with salt and garlic pervading each piece. Mr. Roth uses mango wood for charcoal. “When I first made that pig, I felt, ‘Now I’ve come to Puerto Rico and perfected something that’s truly Puerto Rican,’” he said. Carretera 987, Km. 4, laestacionpr.com
The Family Joint | El Cuñao, Cayey
“My father started this place over 60 years ago,” said Güiso Lopez, owner of El Cuñao (“the brother-in-law”). The eatery makes the best gas-cooked pig we sampled, with a thin layer of fat beneath the cuero and nicely moist meat. Families enjoy El Cuñao for its consistency, convivial atmosphere and waiter service, the latter a rarity among lechoneras. The pigs hail from just a couple of miles away, and Mr. Lopez possesses a secret weapon when it comes to flavor. “I have a guy, Carlos, who specializes in just seasoning,” he confided. “When I do it, it comes out too salty! Carlos is the seasoning master.” Other pluses: the excellent pique, a potent, homemade hot sauce, and an outstanding blood sausage. Route 1, Km. 65.5, 787-263-0511
The Fanatic | Angelito’s Place, Trujillo Alto
A large, sturdy, roadside building, Angelito’s is the anchor of the ruta de lechón in Trujillo Alto. Many days, the line from the butcher table snakes out into the parking lot—because locals know that Rivera is a stickler for ingredients. “We use the best possible quality,” he said. “For example, [because] the price of garlic has risen, some people have started using garlic powder, saying it is the same thing. It is not the same thing!” Cheap ingredients, he maintained, diminish the quality of the final product. His pigs comes from Ceiba, a town on the east coast, and he is a fierce proponent of charcoal. “Economically speaking, gas is much cheaper,” he said. “But for purposes of quality, charcoal is always better.” Route 175, Km. 4.8, 787-755-2434