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To Go: Taking Home A Taste Of Puerto Rico


July 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

THOUGH it was decidedly not served in my house when I was growing up, somewhere along the way I acquired the taste for roast suckling pig. If I see it on a menu, I can't pass it up. So when I heard about a wonderful little Puerto Rican restaurant in East Harlem that specializes in roast suckling pig – a lechóneria – I was on my way.

The restaurant, El Rincón Boricua, is a tiny place, barely big enough to hold a half-dozen people, much less a pig. Its owners, Luis and Carmen Serrano, bustle back and forth behind the little counter, hacking and snipping the pork, doling out heaping portions of rice, beans and other dishes, and keeping up a friendly patter with the hungry customers who throng the place for takeout at prime time, noon to 2 or 3 p.m. By late afternoon, the food is usually gone, and at 6 p.m. the restaurant closes.

The pig ($8.50) is rich and powerfully flavored. Portions usually include both dark, reddish meat – savory and pungent with a definite salty quality – and paler, moister meat – less porky and with crisp, glistening amber skin. With a pile of sweet plantains, tender red beans and fluffy yellow rice, this is great Puerto Rican home cooking.

Suckling pig, of course, has been showing up in the city's most expensive restaurants for the last few years. Yet many people still find it mysterious or scary. It's easy to see why: There is no hiding behind commodity terms like pork or beef. Its very name makes clear that the item on the menu is an animal, which can cause discomfort among squeamish carnivores. But let me put you at ease: nary a bone, and certainly not a face, will go home in your takeout container. Besides, it's really good.

If the pig somehow excites caveman feelings, I recommend a fried pig tail ($1.50) to start, crisp, fibrous and fatty, with enough bones to satisfy any vestigial craving to gnaw. No? Well, a much better choice as a starter is one of the excellent empanadas, half-moons of pastry fried to a delicious crispness, with stuffings like chicken ($1), beef ($1) or shrimp ($1.50).

The most disconcerting thing to me about El Rincón Boricua (which means a small corner of Puerto Rico) is the "For Sale" sign on the front window.

"This place just kind of fell in our laps four years ago," Ms. Serrano said with a sigh. "I prefer interior and fashion design, but everybody likes the way I cook, so here we are. But we keep the sign up just in case."

El Rincón Boricua, 158 East 119th Street, (212) 534-9400. Delivery occasionally, within a three-block radius.

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