The pig arrived in the New World with Columbus, and was as happy as a pig in . . . the New World. It thrived. It multiplied. It was easy to raise. And it was delicious. Soon it was a staple of numerous cuisines. We Latins are not as contentious about our pork recipes as American barbecue partisans, but we do have our genres and subgenres. “People from different countries come and tell me about how pork is cooked where they come from,” says Victor Alvarez, the Venezuelan-born owner of La Esquina del Lechón in Doral.
- Colombians have their positively baroque lechona tolimense
- Puerto Ricans, the rural specialty puerco a la varita
- Cubans, lechón asado with its Miami variant, a whole pig roasted in a box called a caja china
The lechón asado at La Esquina del Lechón is done to a golden-brown glossiness in a caja china. I had to stop myself from grabbing a loose piece of browned pork skin and stuffing it in my mouth before my plate arrived with its side of moros laced with pork belly bits. It was going fast. Around noon the large restaurant was packed. By 1pm there was a wait for a table. Besides the Tuesday and Saturday caja china special ($18), the 6-year-old restaurant serves an array of pork dishes including American barbecue ribs and Mexican pork tacos but leans heavily toward Cuban traditions like lechón asado, masitas de puerco (fried pork chunks) and a roast pork sandwich elevated by bits of crumbled crackling. Before you even order, the bread basket arrives bearing a handful of chicharrones. You died and went to pig heaven.
The restaurant has a curious subtitle, A Pork and Steak House. That’s where Alvarez’s heritage kicks in. His native land is cattle country, and the menu includes a Venezuelan-style punta de trasero (rump cover), what Brazilians call picanha, that is served sliced for two diners, with plenty for the doggy bag. Portions are, typical for Latin restaurants, quite large, and prices are modest. The Venezuelan steak for two is $36 and includes four generous sides. La Esquina del Lechón is clean and modern. Alvarez’s Aunt Milly helps run it and also makes desserts, breads and sauces, which include a Venezuelan parsley and cilantro specialty. Still, the lechón keeps the vibe Cuban.
In the 1970s, a Little Havana restaurant called La Lechonera was popular enough to have branches around town. Today, except for El Palacio de los Jugos, few eateries specialize in Cuban pork. This Doral temple to the Latin appetite for pork has taken up the challenge, proving that in Miami, shifting Latino demographics bring new cuisines but also reinforce existing ones. Or as a Cuban-American commented at Yelp.com, the Venezuelans at La Esquina del Lechón have “beat the Cubans at our own game.”