OK, fine… so I realize that Puerto Rico isn’t technically a country, but as a self-proclaimed lover of ethnic food in New York City, I’d have to be a real jackass to disrespect Boricua cuisine. We all agree that the colony—er, I mean the “associated free state”—of Puerto Rico could be its own country, right? (If, of course, both American and Puerto Rican politics functioned a little bit differently.) And we all agree that perníl (roast pig) and mofongo (a plantain mash topped with stew) and morcilla (Puerto Rican blood sausage) are all awesome, right?
When I started looking around for good NYC Puerto Rican food last year, I turned to my buddy Rene, who split his childhood between New York and Puerto Rico. He was pretty dismissive of the New York Boricua food scene: “I’m not sure that there are any good Puerto Rican places around. Dominicans run much better restaurants. But if you find a really good perníl, let me know.”
Hey, wait a minute! The Puerto Rican is supposed to find the good New York Puerto Rican food for the white boy from Iowa, not the other way around. *sigh*
So after several months of asking around, poking through forums, and sampling a few random places that I stumbled upon in my travels… I finally found some kickass perníl at East Harlem’s auspiciously named Lechonera del Barrio (my Spanish is getting pretty rusty, but I think that translates roughly to “Roast Piggery of the Neighborhood”) and dragged Rene with me to gorge ourselves silly.
We both showed up with somewhat of an agenda, which meant—as usual—that we should have brought a third stomach to help us out with everything. Rene loves morcilla and pastelito de queso (fried cheese empanadas), so we started with those. Of course, we had to order perníl (otherwise known as lechón, or roast pig) and mofongo, since those are arguably the two national dishes of Puerto Rico. Two men, four dishes? No problem.
You can never go wrong with fried cheese empanadas—especially when they cost a mere $1.25 each—but the morcilla ($3.25) absolutely dominated our attention for the first fifteen minutes of our meal. Puerto Rican-style morcilla is actually meatless, containing only a sweet, black mixture of pig blood (mmmm!), rice, peppers, and spices; the sausage is then fried in vegetable oil until it’s wonderfully crispy on the outside. I’ve never been much of a blood sausage fan, but I loved the stuff.
For my main course, I insisted on trying mofongo ($8), an intensely dense mash of boiled green plantains, bits of meat (usually some sort of pig), and lots of salt and pepper, topped with a slurry of shredded chicken and spices. (Variations on mofongo could include yucca instead of plantains, and the chicken stew could be traded for pork, shrimp, or chicharron, among many other things.) I love plantains and chicken as much as the next guy, but the stew might have benefited from a bit more seasoning, and it was hard to get past the monotonous heaviness of the mofongo. A smarter man would order mofongo without appetizers, and only on a day when he’s supremely hungry; I enjoyed the dish, but left an unusually large lump of it on my plate… partly due to the brilliance of the rest of our food.
There’s clearly an art to roasting a pig, and the biggest hit of our meal was the perníl (or lechón or roast pig), served with yellow rice and beans as part of the lunch special ($6). The perníl was wonderfully salty, fatty and chewy, without being remotely tough, greasy, or gristly. Partway through the meal, Rene pointed to a hardened brown square that resembled a piece of polished tree bark. “You gotta try some of this—it’s the best part.” I broke off a chunk, and chomped on a crunchy, fatty, salty piece of… chicharron (pork skin). Rene was absolutely right—it was delicious. It wasn’t unlike a great piece of bacon, but with a better crunch and a more subtle, meaty flavor.
Throughout the meal, I tried to goad Rene into talking about his favorite family meals, and he kept mentioning one of his aunts, who is revered as his family’s best cook. As much as I enjoyed our food, I was worried that I’d brought my Puerto Rican friend to a place that wouldn’t meet his standards—though I know that Rene is usually too easygoing to complain.
So I asked him how Lechonera ranked on a scale of 1 to 10—with 10, of course, being his aunt’s cooking. Lechonera scored an 8.5 on the Rene scale. I’d call that one hell of a compliment.
Lechonera El Barrio
172 East 103rd Street, East Harlem
Subway: 103rd Street (6 train)