The first of my forays took me into the bustling heart of Spanish Harlem. Just past the Pueblan grocers and taquerias on 116th and 3rd, the retro lunch counter Lechonera Sandy offered promise with bronzed shards of pork prominently displayed in the window. Waiters hacked away at the lechon to the delight of Puerto Rican and Dominican families assembled for a leisurely weekend lunch. I ambled up to the counter and looked at the menu board overlooking the room, all in Spanish. Signaling to a grizzled woman in a hairnet, I attempted to order, only to be stumped when she responded to me in highly accented Carribean Spanish. After some guessing and gesticulating, I managed to order lechon with yellow rice and red beans. For such a picturesque Latin lunch counter, I found the lechon was only okay. The generous serving was tasty, but lacked that pungent garlicky punch I love in a Puerto Rican mojo. And the crisp chicharron was nothing more than soggy, limp skin. At $6 a plate, I wasn't too upset and as I scanned the room to see plenty of folks smiling as the wiped the greasy chins of children too greedy with their food, I thought this place might be worth another go in the future.
On the way back home, I stopped at the cuchifritos stand on 116th between Lex and 3rd for pastelitos and morcillas. Again the server spoke no English, but the clear glass over the food makes it easy to point at what you want. The little pastel turned out to be a deepfried pastry about the size of my head and a huge bargain at $1.25. The morcillas were absolutely bursting with flavor and were even better than I had remembered.
For a second go at lechon, I travelled to El Malecon No. 2 on the Upper West Side. Although famous for their rotisserie chicken, this Dominican spot offered lechon as a weekend special. One bite into the greasy, dry chunks of pork and I realized why this place is famous for their chicken and not their lechon. At $9, the platter was more expensive than Sandy, but far less impressive. There was no crackling and the lechon's flavor was completely overwhelmed by the oily pool of grease in which the meat sat. The pastelito I ordered as a side was good, but its flavor did little to relieve my heartburn after trying to get through Malecon's lechon. Quite the disappointment, so the hunt continues!