It figures you have to get out of your comfort zone to truly experience something life-changing. Like the time I tried an authentic Filipino breakfast, I was once again introduced to a traditional meal from a culture I’ve yet had the pleasure of experiencing completely with a brand-new pair of eyes.
On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I was taken to a lechonera located in Trujillo Alto. A lechonera is essentially a South American restaurant that specializes in roasted pork from a spit.
Nearly an hour from San Juan, this spot was tucked away in the rolling green hills of the beautiful island. The drive didn’t feel nearly as long, however, as I pressed my chubby cheeks to the glass window and drooled over the breathtaking commute.
As my driver pulled over, he recalled tales of his youth fishing in the same lake that settled behind the restaurant we finally arrived at: Lechonera Angelito’s Place.
In the front of the establishment, there was a man hacking slices of pork with a machete. Every strike cut through the meat as if it were paper until the thud of the cutting board signaled the end of the motion.
I was hypnotized by the blade’s rhythmic movements and the entrancing aroma of the roasted meat.
The owner of the establishment, Yubetsy Toledo, asked if I would like to see how the pigs were roasted. I nodded eagerly, a veritable Augustus Gloop at the shiny gates of Willy Wonka’s factory.
Ms. Toledo took me to an area to the side of the restaurant with a giant cement sandbox covered with large pieces of sheet metal. She motioned for me to give her a hand lifting off the sheets, revealing an entire pig roasting in the space below.
Over a bed of charcoal, the pork rotates on a spit for six hours every day until the flesh is juicy and the skin reaches the pinnacle crispiness a pig can achieve. Six whole pigs could be roasted at a time, which are usually reserved for weekends when families and locals would visit the lechonera on their day off. Today, however, there were only two or three on the spit.
The pigs themselves are expertly seasoned before the roasting process and are free of any chemicals or hormones. I was told that their diet consists of leftovers from children’s lunches donated by a school in the area.
Noticing my amazement, she asked if I would like to go to see the pigs before they hit the spit. My boyhood innocence naturally assumed that I would be led to a pig pen where I could feed and pet and name my very own piglets. Cecil, I’d call him.
Once again, my naivety got the best of me and I was led to a basement freezer where full-grown pig corpses were hung from the ceilings. A truly sobering sight. Haunting and fascinating in one breath.
I was led back up to the restaurant where I was served a plate of fresh lechon asada (pork on a spit), arroz guisado con gandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas), guineito verde (boiled green bananas), morcillas (blood sausage), batata frita (fried sweet potato), and pastel (a tamale-like entrée typically stuffed with pork meat).
Initially, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to try any of the pork, having seen how the sausage was actually made. To my delight, I got over that pretty quickly and dove fork first into the salty flesh of the freshly roasted pork. Skipping breakfast played a pretty major role in this.
Tender and flavorful, this was arguably some of the best pork I’ve had in my life. The crunch from the pork skin echoed through the hills and over the valley like the crackling of thunder that heralds a storm.
Pork is considered one of the traditional staple foods in Puerto Rico’s diet, especially during the holiday season. While it’s readily available at most restaurants around the island, lechon is a little harder to come by.
Because preparing a whole pork on a spit requires space and time, many locals wait for the weekend to travel to the nearest lechonera to quell their pork cravings while enjoying a nice outing with the family. Many lechoneras are much more than a restaurant as they offer live music and a dance floor. Thus, a day at a lechonera can easily become a full blown party – especially if people invite friends and family along for the road trip.
A cold beer in hand, I enjoyed the rest of my meal and basked in the deliciousness of my Puerto Rican feast. As I eat, I notice crowds begin to form near the butcher, placing their orders faster than he can prepare them. Things were picking up on this bright Wednesday morning.
I can only imagine how packed this spot could be on the weekend. With pork that good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the lines went all the way down to the lake.