La Piraña Lechonera, which provides the nearest thing New York City has to the experience of eating roast pork at a lechonera in Puerto Rico, is sometimes mistaken for a food truck. It is, in fact, a trailer.
A long metal box resting near the corner of East 152nd Street and Wales Avenue in the South Bronx, the trailer is supported by its tires and two pilings of boards and cinder blocks. It looks less like a parked vehicle than a barge that washed ashore and is waiting to be made seaworthy again.
La Piraña’s customers wait for their turn inside the trailer, where the food is.
When the pandemic arrived, roast-pork trailers seemed to me to be among the categories of restaurants that were especially vulnerable to economic disruption. I had eaten there shortly before the shutdown and thought of it often in those early, panicky months, when I stopped writing restaurant reviews for a time.
La Piraña survived, though. In part out of gratitude for this fact, I’ve chosen it as the subject of the review in which I resume the longstanding New York Times practice of rating restaurants on a four-star scale. We suspended the stars back in March 2020, and although the pandemic hasn’t ended, people are going to restaurants.
La Piraña, which is open only on Saturdays and Sundays, packs more joy into two days than most restaurants do into a week. Unless you have arrived before noon, you will probably have to wait before you can go inside, where the food is. While you are still outside, you will not be alone. Some experienced customers bring lawn chairs. Others sit on the curb. There is a near constant flow of foot traffic between the trailer and two nearby bodegas, and a great deal of general milling about in the street.
There will be people who’ve driven to La Piraña from Westchester County, or Connecticut, or New Jersey. They will be clustered in and around their minivans and S.U.V.s, passing pulpo, mofongo and lechón asado back and forth through open windows.
When your turn inside comes, you will climb a short, rickety staircase and enter La Piraña’s world.
Thick cuts of bone-in roast pork are no match for Mr. Jimenez’s machete.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Piraña has been the nickname of Angel Jimenez since his childhood in the Puerto Rican beach town of Aguadilla. Twenty-two years ago he took over the pig-roasting business his father had started in the South Bronx in the 1980s, along with his father’s recipes. Mr. Jimenez runs the lechonera alone. He is the greeter, the order taker and the cashier. He is the roaster of pigs, the fryer of tostones, the pounder of mofongo. He is the genial keeper of order in a grease-smeared swirl of chaos that would be catastrophic for most food businesses but is one of the many charms of this one.
Each order of roast pork is separated from a much bigger cut — a leg, a rib rack, a shoulder — by Mr. Jimenez’s machete, which he raises as high as he can and then brings down on his cutting board with a thwack that can be heard across the street. When he really goes at it, meat and fat fly everywhere. I was in the trailer once when a customer standing next to me loudly announced that some pork had landed in his eye. He was not complaining.
Not everyone is there for the lechón. There are those who never stray from the pulpo, that classic Caribbean salad of cold octopus with bell peppers, raw onions and green olives. The octopus at La Piraña is very soft but not spongy. The peppers are sweet and juicy. It is not a spicy salad, but if you say yes when Mr. Jimenez offers to dress it “my way,” he will cover it with hot sauce and mojo de ajo — the garlic sauce that is also known as mojito, although I met one customer who calls it simply “God juice.” I have been eating pulpo happily for many years but I always underestimated it, I think, until the day I ate a batch Mr. Jimenez had seasoned his way.
In recent years, some longtime Nuyorican restaurants in the Bronx and other boroughs have been taken over by owners who aren’t of Puerto Rican descent. Others have simply closed. Memories are fading. Flavors that once sang out have become muted. Mr. Jimenez’s food, though, still tastes like something you might encounter on the island. Some of his fans will tell you that, in fact, he cooks in an older style that is not so easy to find these days even in Puerto Rico itself.
God juice is a major player in La Piraña’s mofongo. Several spoonfuls of it are pounded in a wooden mortar with green plantains that were fried to order. Then Mr. Jimenez works a quantity of roast pork into the mash. No two bites are the same.
A long menu used to be inscribed on the door. Not long ago, it was painted over, most likely because half the items on it tended not to be available on any given day. Mr. Jimenez used to make several kinds of pastelillo, but recently has been making just one. It happens to be an excellent one, a blistered, golden turnover with tiny shrimp inside.
Some weekends he also makes bacalaítos, flat salt-cod fritters with flecks of green herbs. They are as good as any I have ever bought from the kiosks along the beach road in Piñones, which is to Puerto Rican fritters what Highway 61 is to the blues.
The interior is often crowded, but some diners find space to eat.CreditCredit…Video by Lanna Apisukh
For many customers, though, all these items are mere garnishes for the lechón. They are things to heap beside a mound of roast pork in a clamshell container already half-filled with mofongo or with rice and pigeon peas until the lid won’t close, at which point Mr. Jimenez will somehow manage to insert a hard amber chip of pork skin the size of a beer coaster.
Very respectable lechón asado can be found in San Juan, but many people there will tell you that if you leave the city and go into the hills and mountains you can find lechón that is worth planning a weekend around. At clusters of outdoor restaurants in Trujillo Alto, in Naranjito, and above all in Guavate, entire pigs are slowly roasted on spits over wood or charcoal until they are tender enough to hack up with a machete. Lunch can easily become an all-day party, with salsa playing, people dancing and empty bottles of Medalla Light stacking up on the picnic tables.
True, a lechonera in Guavate would give you an assortment of meat from around the animal, while the pork Mr. Jimenez gives you tends to come from just one cut. (His propane-fueled outdoor oven is too small to roast whole hogs.) But the yielding meat, the dripping fat and the hard-candy crackle on the skin are the same. So are the aromas of oregano and pepper.
Even more remarkable, I think, is the way Mr. Jimenez has recreated the atmosphere of a hillside lechonera on the streets of the South Bronx. It can be hard to see at first, what with the double parking and the milling around and the eating inside minivans, but the scene in and around La Piraña is something like a reunion for Puerto Ricans and anybody else who just wants a shot of God juice.
Salsa from the heyday of Fania Records will be blaring from a large speaker outside, or a smaller speaker inside. One day when neither speaker was around, a customer propped his iPhone up inside the trailer with a salsa playlist in full gallop.
A man who makes home-brewed pique, the Puerto Rican hot sauce, is often found selling bottles of it outside, just as in Guavate. At some point a customer will FaceTime a relative far away and, saying “Guess where I am!”, will hold the phone up to Mr. Jimenez. Mr. Jimenez will raise his machete in the posture of a ferocious warrior, then slam it down on the metal edge of the counter so hard you expect to see sparks. The routine might be frightening if he weren’t grinning like a man who knows he’s the host of the best picnic in New York.
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