For the next few weeks on Bronx Eats (or so long as they remain in the playoffs), we'll be focusing on restaurants where you can eat before the Yankees games. These restaurants will be outside the range of our Spring roundup (which, if you're looking for something close by, you should take a peek at) but never too far out of reach. We'll try to cover all the bases, so if you're coming from, say, Westchester and would like to a tip on a spot along the way, don't hesitate to drop a line.
Throughout the South Bronx, Puerto Rican diners are a dime-a-dozen. From local lunch counter hangouts to larger, more family oriented chains like El Valle and Caridad, they dot the landscape. Occasionally they're great, more often they're not. But they're seldom without soul, often to a point where you can excuse a little bit of dry meat. Most that I have eaten at focus on roast chicken, proudly displaying their creations for streetside gawking, and keep to staples like mondongo (stewed tripe), mofongo, and rice and beans. Roast pork (lechon or pernil)—which when served with rice and pigeon peas is the island's national dish—tends to get its own platform.
One of the city's most known lechoneras is Tremont's El Nuevo Bohio, and few other Puerto Rican restaurants are so well regarded. Many Puerto Rican diners do a dish or two serviceably if not spectacularly, but a big part of the selling point is economics. $4 for half a roast chicken, with rice and beans and plantains to boot or $6 for the soup of the day. (When you're broke, you're broke.) Bohio sticks to these ridiculously cheap terms, but sets itself apart from other restaurants that stop at offering a damn good meal.
Inside, balloons emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag hang from the ceiling. There is a salt cod salad ($6 or $12), the ubiquitous mofongo ($16) and roast chicken on display alongside fried snacks including alcapurrias and empanadillas. But these are the vanguard, distractions from the the already heaping but constantly growing pile of roast pork ($4.50 for a side order)—which steadily encroaches on the territory of lesser, avian proteins—and chicharrones ($5 for a side, $9 for a whole).
It is the most fun to snatch a window seat, so that you may watch the cook carve apart the freshly cooked pork shoulders with his machete. Here, the whole pig (lechon) is roasted, but its the shoulder--or pernil--that is most prominently featured. It is typically seasoned with a dry rub (adobo seco), counting among among its components garlic, oregano, and black pepper.
To celebrate the game, there is no need to look elsewhere. For two, a plate of pernil con tostones ($8.50) and chicharrones with lime wedges will suffice; for the especially hungry, morcilla is a good pinch hitter. (Conversely, the squeamish can order a roast pork sandwich, $5.50, to go.)
Bohio's lechon is worth the praise, though maybe not to such an ecstatic degree that it receives. The meat is great but not sublime, with sparing dry chunks and crackling that approaches a perfect equilibrium between crisp and crunch. It's the highlight of the plate, and there's little more you can reasonably ask for at $7. A squirt of salsa criolla (a vinegar-based hot sauce) works wonders, the vinegary heat adding occasionally necessary zest, and the crux of the my complaint is that the rub—a house secret—suffers from too light a touch.
The tostones—plantains fried, flattened, and fried again—find an equitable partner in the garlic sauce. A salt shake makes for a great bar snack, and maybe you will want to take an order to eat alongside that premium Coors Light they serve at the Stadium. But, as relief from the porky onslaught (more the effect of the chicharrones), they work in undressed simplicity just as well. They are best enjoyed each of these ways, alternating from time-to-time as your taste buds find fit.
At your table you will find, alongside the salt and pepper shakers, a squeeze bottle of mildly spicy, festively red pique criollo. For lovers of the Carolina's simple vinegar and pepper hot sauces, a few squirts will hit the sweet spot. With your order comes a bowl of a powerful garlic sauce, tasting approximately like roasted garlic concentrate. In these two opaque condiments the myriad influences of Puerto Rico's creole cuisine become more clear.
Dressed in lime, the chicharones—with their blazing orange skins—are the more intensely flavored complement to the lechon. So often rinds are decimated into becoming flavorlessly dry, but at Bohio that is not the case. Rather, they are succulently juicy and not overly oily. Some prefer to bite the chunks apart, bouncing from skin to fat to meat, but I go for the full effect and pop them in my mouth like porky popcorn. (Of course, I end up just biting off a good chunk.) The crunch of the skin leads to the melting of the fat and when done well, few comfort foods can compare. Taken together, perhaps with a morir sonando ($3, a mix of orange juice and milk), these two dishes form a paen to pork worthy of Los Janquis.
El Nuevo Bohio
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. He firmly believes in the power of pork. Keep abreast of his latest finds and nonsequiturshere, or contact him directly at [email protected] In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.