Bronx Eats: Great Lechon, Better Crab Pastelillos at Lechonera La Piraña, Mott Haven
For the last decade, Angel (or Piraña, as he is known to customers) has been making an art out of lechon (roast pork, here called "lechon asado") on a quiet corner of the South Bronx. A native of Puerto Rico, he grew up working in restaurants with his father, which has had a lasting effect on his style of cooking. (Not the most prominent, but the most telling decoration inside the trailer that acts as his stationary food truck is a small map of Puerto Rico that is emblazoned, "Mi Cocina.") The first time we met, Angel spoke to me with a fiery energy—with a voice that seemed to silence the booming merengue—shouting, "this real country food, papi! From the mountains!" He was talking, of course, about his lechon.
Cooked in an oven housed in a makeshift wagon, the pork inspires a feverish passion in all those who have basked in its adobo seco-inflected warmth. The touch of genuine love is indelible, from the beautiful red skin to the bones, where you'll find yourself scavenging for just one more nibble.
At noon, locals are drawn by the call of his machete going thwack-thwack against the cutting board as he hacks the day's first pork to pieces. Served solo or with rice and pigeon peas ($8), you'll get an ample serving of belly and rib. Crusted with his homemade dry rub—which includes the usual suspects of oregano, salt and garlic—the skin is crisp so as to be beyond crackling and the luscious, plentiful fat some of the best this side of Flushing. Lechon meat often falls victim to heat or lacks flavor due to a weak rub. But such is not the case here. Though not quite so intense as the occasionally salt-blasting fat, the meat is nonetheless tender (not quite fall apart) and variously highlights the key components of the rub. And, for what its worth, the herb-hyping rice is no slouch, either. If there's a flaw to this pork, it's the occasionally too-salty bite.
The banana alcapurrias (beef for $2, available on Saturdays) have rightfully been lauded, but it's Piraña's game changing pastelillos (Puerto Rican style empanadas) that you should be after. And I mean that in a "spring for Mott Haven this weekend" kind of way. All praise be to the lechon, but these fried wonders are something else entirely. Many street side empanadas suffer from extended heat lamp fatigue or poor ingredients. Just as often, they're too simplistic for my tastes. So I'll get it out of the way: La Piraña's are far and away the best I've ever had, though that's not to suggest I've spent my days scouring the streets of New York's Latino neighborhoods in search of transcendent empanadas. Only that these are absolutely killer.
Far be it for me to ever recommend anything over pork, much less seafood at a lechonera (perhaps his business name is suggestive of his versatility in the kitchen), but I found myself instantly seduced by the jueyes ($2.50, crab). The filling is no one hit wonder, the shredded crab meat, cooked with the same sofrito blend, joined by greens, the occasional chili skin, and plenty of succulent, salty juices. No matter the weather, it'll transport you right to the ocean. The even juicier mariscos ($2.50) is a good second option, but the jueyes' sea breeze aroma makes the thought of other pastelillos unappealing.
Even when you can't understand most of what is being said, it's hard not to feel like family inside the trailer that is Lechonera La Piraña. Cash be damned, Angel cares entirely about you—whoever you are. His food is just one part of a rising tide of Latin cooking (specifically Puerto Rican and Dominican, but also Mexican; see, Nano Billiards and Cafe) that has been helping to redefine the all too familiar negative portrait of the South Bronx's culinary landscape. His passion, which permeates his food and perfumes the air, is something to admire and, more importantly, support.
Lechonera La Piraña
152nd St and Wales Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10454 (map)
Saturdays and Sundays only
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.