While describing the suckling pig I saw (but did not eat) at St. John restaurant in London, I alluded to having already eaten the Best Pig Ever. That happy event began, as did many of my recent food epiphanies, with an Anthony Bourdain video — this one from the Puerto Rico episode of No Reservations.http://blog.belm.com/belmblog/video/lospinos.flv&image
When I first saw this episode in 2006, I thought “Maybe I’ll eat there someday, in the unlikely event that I wind up in Puerto Rico.” A year later, fate conspired to do just that. She Who Must Be Obeyed’s mother came up with the idea of gathering her children, grandchildren, and in-laws together for a winter vacation, so in early December of 2007 we spent a week and a half at a resort timeshare in Humacao, Puerto Rico.
What prevented this Spectacularly Bad Idea from tipping over into Complete Disaster was my knowledge that I’d be making the pilgrimage to Cayey — with company, or alone if necessary — to feast on lechon. I trusted Bourdain implicitly, but decided to check with the locals as well. The guy who came to fix our air conditioning unit (Disaster #1), a transplant from Yonkers, NY, told me I picked the best of the lechoneras. So did the receptionist at the resort’s doctor’s office (Disaster #2), also a NY transplant.
In her infinite Solomon-like wisdom, She Who Must Be Obeyed came up with the idea that each of the adults would get to pick one thing that they wanted to do and devote a day to it. Ben wanted to surf, Cathy wanted to hike in the rainforest, Solomon wanted to see the radio telescope at Arecibo, and I — well, you know what I wanted to do. So on a cloudy Tuesday morning we piled into the van (minus mother-in-law, who could not bring herself to try “obviously unsanitary food”) and wound our way through the central mountains. An hour and a half later, despite the best efforts of the GPS to run us off sheer cliffs, we arrived in Cayey.
I recognized Lechonera Los Pinos from the video; it hadn’t changed at all. As I walked up to the counter, the server launched into her well-rehearsed explanation of what they served. I politely cut her off, saying “Give us enough of everything to feed six hungry people.”
“Yup. Lechon, guinea hen, sausage, tostones, rice, all the sides – everything.” Before she turned away, I added “And I’d like some of the pig’s cheek, please.”
She gave me a big smile, turned to one of her co-workers, and said what I assumed to be “This guy wants the cheek!” in Spanish. He looked at me, gave me a big thumbs-up, hacked off a piece of cheek and presented it on a plate for my immediate consumption. And oh, was it good: crispy, salty skin with a thin layer of fat beneath, covering moist, tender meat.
Look carefully, you can see the spot where the cheek was sliced off.
They worked on the rest of the order, making short work of what was left of that day’s pig.
They handed us two trays overflowing with porky goodness.
He Who Must Not be Ignored needed a bit of convincing, so I handed him a piece of the crispy skin. “This is like a pig potato chip!” was the last thing he said before proceeding to eat everything on his plate.
It was all good. You could taste the sofrito used to marinate the meat, it added a bright acidic note to the rich pork flavor. The hens were just as tasty, and, as mentioned in the video, there was even pork in the rice. We were all happy to be eating the perfectly cooked offerings from this wonderful, magical animal.
Some of you may have received this holiday card from us that year; now you know where the photo was taken.
We headed home stuffed and happy, with enough leftovers to make pork burritos for two more days.
Later that week, while perusing the city block’s worth of food stalls by the beach in Loquillo (Ben’s surfing spot), I noticed this fellow:
Did I ask for the cheek? You know I did. And a half pound of lechon to go.
Best Pig Ever?
For me, there is no question that what I ate was the Best Pig Ever. For Bourdain, however, that honor is a moving target. A year after the Puerto Rico episode he had this to say about a roast pig he ate in Bali:
This is it: simply the best goddamn pig in the universe. Whole hog, stuffed with fresh herbs, then lovingly slow-roasted over a low open flame, constantly mopped with coconut milk to crisp its skin. The guts are also made into a spicy blood sausage, which alone is reason to make the trip to Bali. Kick off your shoes, climb up onto the communal dining area, sit down at one of the long, low tables, and dig in. It’s a quintessential Ubud experience — and a true “food epiphany.” You will never be the same.
I’m holding fast with my assessment. Unless, of course, mother-in-law plans a family trip to southeast Asia.