Everyone and their mother packed El Pequeño Coffee Shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, this past Sunday afternoon. I was there on a mission that my dear departed mother would have found shocking: to eat cuy asado, or roast Ecuadorean guinea pig. Mom would have put a positive spin on it, though, and voiced pride in my eclectic palate and cast-iron stomach.
Before Sunday, I’d only eaten cuy once before at a restaurant in Yonkers called Chim Pum Callao. At first my friend and I were shocked by the $25 price tag. To assure us that we were getting the genuine article, the waiter showed us the beast before it was cooked. He proudly held aloft a package emblazoned with the red and white Peruvian flag. Contents: one butterflied guinea pig. We should have known something was wrong when our cuy came back from the kitchen so quickly. The chef had simply dropped it into a fat fryer and placed it atop a bed of roasted potatoes. There was barely enough meat for one person, and what little there was dried out and less than delicious.
That was more than 10 years ago. I didn’t give cuy much thought until I started taking long walks from Rego Park to Flushing’s Chinatown via Corona Park. I’d always been curious about the food vendors near the soccer fields. One day I noticed a man with a longish animal impaled on what looked like a shovel handle. He slowly turned it over a charcoal grill. I’m not easily grossed out, but the sight of the raw animal was kinda gnarly. Since then I’ve always made a point of stopping by the vendors and I’ve seen many a golden brown cuy that looked quite delicious. Yet for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to order one. Perhaps it was the $30 price tag.
Fast-forward to about two weeks ago when I was walking off an afternoon of eating spent with Fuchsia Dunlop, touring a multiregional Chinese food court. I decided to check on the vendors because I'd heard from an Ecuadorean cab driver that they'd been forced to stop roasting cuy. I was glad to see that there were two vendors still serving it up, and there was a gent from the Times who was shooting video of the plump, juicy guinea pigs as they were being roasted. The reporter, Corey Kilgannon, ended up interviewing me, and I was included in his piece, but was somewhat taken aback to read “of course, he had eaten it.” While this was true of the horrible deep-fried version, I had never tried spit-roasted guinea pig. So I vowed to return to the park and enjoy some.
Imagine my disappointment when vendor after vendor responded, “No hay cuy.” Thinking fast, I called El Pequeño, and was told that for $40 I could have my very own roast cuy as long as I was willing to wait about an hour. Upon arriving at the appointed time, I peered in the window at the rotisserie oven and noticed two decidedly underdone guinea pigs turning round and round. My waiter explained to me that there had been a bit of a run on cuy. Earlier that day a party of 20 had ordered 10.
To ease the wait he presented me with a plate of fritada, an appetizer consisting of gigantic kernels of mote (hominy corn), cancha (golden fried hominy kernels), bits of fried pork rib, and chunks of chicharron. As if that wasn’t enough to tide me over until the main event, the whole affair is crowned with a golden yellow llapingacho, a potato cake, enriched with a touch of cheese- or as I like to call it, Ecuador’s answer to the hash brown. I wheedled my way back into the kitchen to get a closer look at dinner. It was starting to brown up quite nicely.
Some 45 minutes later I looked up and said to myself, “The cuy are out of the box.” Shortly thereafter, the beast arrived. It didn’t look anything at all like the picture on the menu, mainly because it had been hacked into five pieces and mixed up like a jigsaw puzzle. My advice: if you don’t want to figure out which end is which, ask them to cut it up at table. As you can see from the photo below, it didn’t take that much effort to reassemble.
There’s something very primitive about being able to eat a whole animal in one sitting. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to pick up the head and begin grappling with it. I was rewarded with two oblong pieces of muscle. Clearly these were guinea pig guanciale. The meat itself tasted like a combination of rabbit and chicken. Thanks to a day’s worth of marination there was not even a trace of gaminess. For the most part the skin was crispy and had a rich fat layer underneath. The little guy’s foreshanks didn’t have much meat on them and brought to mind quail legs. The meaty shoulders were another story, apparently this cuy had done his share of rooting around. As I got to the beast’s midsection and pulled out two longish pieces of tenderloin, and stripped bits of meat off the tiny rib cage I began to think of the whole experience as a miniature pig picking. The chunky rear legs even began to look like tiny ham hocks.
With the exception of certain varieties of small fish, it’s not very often that I have the opportunity to eat an entire animal at one sitting. So I’ve saved the critter’s skull as a memento. I’m sure Mom would be proud.
El Pequeño Coffee Shop
Address: 86-10 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights