La Piraña Lechonera, which is New York City’s closest thing 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 tall 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 piles of planks and cinder blocks. It looks less like a parked vehicle than a washed up barge waiting to be made seaworthy again.
When the pandemic broke out, it seemed that roast pork trailers were among the categories of restaurants particularly vulnerable to economic disruption. I had eaten there shortly before it closed and often thought about it in those early, panicky months, when I stopped writing restaurant reviews for a while.
However, La Piraña survived. Partly out of gratitude for this fact, I’ve chosen it as the subject of the review in which I resume the DailyExpertNews’ long-standing practice of rating restaurants on a four-star scale. We suspended the stars in March 2020, and although the pandemic has not ended, people are going to restaurants.
Open only on Saturdays and Sundays, La Piraña brings more joy in two days than most restaurants in a week. Unless you’ve arrived before noon, you’ll probably have to wait to get inside, where the food is. As long as you’re still outside, you’re not alone. Some experienced customers bring garden chairs. Others sit on the sidewalk. There is an almost constant flow of foot traffic between the trailer and two nearby bodegas, and a lot of general street scratching.
There will be people who have driven to La Piraña from Westchester County, Connecticut or New Jersey. They will be clustered in and around their minivans and SUVs, driving pulpo, mofongo and lechón asado back and forth through open windows.
When it’s your turn, climb a short, rickety staircase and enter the world of La Piraña.
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 pork 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 casserole of pigs, the casserole of tostones, the pestle of mofongo. He’s the genius keeper of order in a grease-stained swirl of chaos that would be catastrophic for most food companies, but is one of the many charms of this one.
Each order of roast pork is separated from a much larger cut – a leg, a rack of ribs, a shoulder – by Mr. Jimenez’s machete, which he raises as high as possible and then sets it down on his cutting board with a thump that can be across the street. heard in the street. If he really goes for it, meat and fat will fly everywhere. I was in the trailer once when a customer standing next to me loudly announced that some pork had gotten into his eye. He didn’t complain.
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’s not a spicy salad, but if you say yes when Mr. Jimenez offers to dress it “my way,” he’ll top it with hot sauce and mojo de ajo — the garlic sauce also known as mojito, though I’ve a customer who just calls it “God juice”. I’ve enjoyed pulpo for years, but I always underestimated it, I think, until the day I ate a portion Mr. Jimenez had seasoned his way.
In recent years, some old Nuyorican restaurants in the Bronx and other boroughs have been taken over by owners who are not of Puerto Rican descent. Others are simply closed. Memories fade. Flavors that once sang are muted. However, Mr. Jimenez’s food still tastes like something you might encounter on the island. Some of his fans will tell you that he basically 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. A few spoonfuls of it are crushed in a wooden mortar with green plantains fried to order. Then Mr. Jimenez mixes up an amount of roast pork. No two bites are the same.
There used to be a long menu on the door. It was painted over not long ago, probably because half of the items on it were usually not available on any given day. Mr. Jimenez used to make several kinds of pastelillos, but recently made just one. It happens to be an excellent, a blistered, golden turnover with little shrimp in it.
Some weekends he also makes bacalaítos, flat cod fritters with bits of green herbs. They’re as good as any I’ve ever bought at the kiosks along the beach road in Piñones, which is to Puerto Rican fritters what Highway 61 is to the blues.
However, for many customers, all of these items are just garnishes for the lechón. They’re things to pile up next to a mountain of roast pork in a clamshell container already half filled with mofongo or with rice and peas until the lid doesn’t close, at which point Mr. Jimenez will somehow manage. insert a hard amber chip of pigskin the size of a beer mat.
Very respectable lechón asado can be found in San Juan, but many people there will tell you that if you leave the city and head into the hills and mountains, you can find lechón worth planning a weekend around. In clusters of open-air restaurants in Trujillo Alto, in Naranjito and especially in Guavate, whole pigs are slowly roasted on spits over wood or charcoal until soft enough to chop with a machete. Lunch can easily turn into a full day of partying, with salsa playing, people dancing and empty Medalla Light bottles piling up on the picnic tables.
Granted, a lechonera in Guavate would give you an assortment of meats from around the animal, while the pork Mr. Jimenez you usually give comes in one piece. (His propane-fired outdoor oven is too small to roast whole pigs.) But the yielding flesh, dripping fat, and 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 hilltop lechonera in the streets of the South Bronx. It can be hard to see at first, with the double parking and the milling around and the food in minivans, but the scene in and around La Piraña is something like a reunion for Puerto Ricans and anyone who just wants a shot of God juice .
Salsa from the heyday of Fania Records blares from a large speaker outside, or a smaller speaker inside. On a day when neither speaker was around, a customer galloped his iPhone into the trailer with a salsa playlist.
A man who makes home-brewed pique, the Puerto Rican hot sauce, often sells bottles from outside, just like in Guavate. At some point, a customer will FaceTime a family member far away and, saying “Guess where I am!”, hold the phone to Mr. Jimenez. Mr. Jimenez raises his machete in the stance of a fierce warrior, then slams it on the metal rim of the counter so hard you expect to see sparks. The routine might be frightening if he didn’t grin like a man who knows he’s hosting the best picnic in New York.