Roberto Guerra has nothing up this sleeve. Nothing up that sleeve. It’s the mystery box at the center of his act that’s magic.
For more than 30 years, Guerra has been selling the leading brand of caja china (pronounced ka-ha chee-na), the roasting oven that is at the center of Cuban holidays, Christmas Eves and birthday parties. The man coined and trademarked the name “La Caja China” (in English, “The Chinese Box”).
The lovely assistant inside? An entire pig.
For the uninitiated, the caja china is simple: It’s a wooden box lined with stainless steel and a metal lid where the charcoal sits. Inside, the whole lechon roasts undisturbed, cooked with indirect heat over four hours, emerging tender and juicy and with a crispy skin. Follow the directions, and “it’s foolproof,” Guerra said.
Ah, but therein lies the key: Foodies are fools for roasted pork.
The lechon inside its caja china becomes a backyard gathering place for armchair caja connoisseurs to opine on the correct technique to roast the pig. They will add more charcoal than is required. They will open the box to check the skin. They will insist on flipping it too early. They shake their heads and mutter, “You’re doing it all wrong.”
In short, they’ll ruin it by overthinking it.
Guerra blames himself. He built a box that is so simple to use and leaves large hunks of meat — from whole chickens, turkeys and pigs to pork butts and shoulders — so perfectly cooked with so little input that it makes for fidgety home cooks.
Guerra can’t take all the credit. It was his father who remembered seeing the caja china being used behind Chinese restaurants when he was a traveling salesman in Havana. Guerra built a box with his dad in 1985 just to see how it worked, and he quietly started selling them just to keep his father busy. (Guerra owned an exporting business.)
But when Miami chef Doug Rodriguez asked him to borrow five boxes for the 2003 South Beach Wine & Food Festival and other chefs saw how brilliantly his pork emerged, Guerra’s La Caja China became an overnight success, earning praise from the likes of Bobby Flay and The New York Times, with full-page features in magazines from Vogue to Playboy.
Nowadays most of his sales — 92 percent — are to “Gringolandia,” he said: the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, where he said home cooks are better [than his Cuban brethren] at patiently following the instructions he includes with the box about how to roast the pork and how to marinade it.
“If you tell them they have to strip down to their underwear to do, they’ll do it,” he joked. “It could not be more simple. It just works.”
Really, though: Follow the directions and let the caja china do its work. When you feel the urge to freelance, grab a beer, sit back, watch the coal’s heat waves rising, and meditate.
Not ready to roast an entire pig in a caja china? Roberto Guerra’s recipe for a guava-stuffed pork shoulder (seen on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay”) is a good introduction to using the box without having to roast an entire pig.
1 pork shoulder weighing 8 lbs
½ pound ham, thinly sliced
1 cup guava shells
1 cup prunes
2 cups brown sugar
8 slices bacon
1 bottle Malta soda
1 cup bottled or homemade mojo sauce
4 tablespoons adobo criollo
2 tablespoons salt
Remove bone and flatten meat so that it may be rolled. If the pork shoulder is very fatty, a small amount of fat may be removed. Score fat and marinate for a minimum of 12 hours using mojo, adobo and salt. Line meat with ham slices, bacon slices, prunes and guava shells. Roll meat carefully to keep the filling inside the roll. Tie firmly with a butcher cord. Mix Malta with one cup of brown sugar and pour 1/2 of the mix over the meat. Using your hands, cover the meat with the remaining one cup of brown sugar.
Cover meat with aluminum paper and cook for one hour in the oven at 325. At this point turn the meat and pour the remaining Malta mix over and cook for an extra hour, or until you reach a meat temperature of 180. To serve, cut into slices and pour the drippings over the meat. Serve with any type of rice, yuca or fried plantains.
OUT OF THE BOX
Pubbelly chef Jose Mendin shares the recipe for his mouth-watering cochinillo, made without a caja china:
1 suckling pig leg (5 lb)
½ liter mojo sauce
Vegetable oil, enough to cover pig
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch parsley
6 garlic cloves
4 oranges, juiced (use only juice)
3 limes, juiced (use only juice)
3 lemons (use only juice)
1 tablespoon cumin
Salt and pepper
1 pint vegetable oil
Method of Preparation
Mojo: Blend all using a food processor. Reserve for marinating meat.
Preheat oven to 260F. Place all ingredients except sea salt into a pot, making sure the pig is covered with oil. Cover with aluminum foil and confit (cook slowly) in the oven for 5 hours.
Take out and let cool. When cooled, carefully remove from oil onto a tray. Remove skin from the leg, trying to keep it as whole as possible. Pull all meat from the bones and place into a bowl. Season meat with mojo and sea salt. Place all meat into a 2-inch-deep casserole dish, compressing it as much as possible. Place the skin on top and put weight on top so it presses down. Cool in the refrigerator for 1 day. Very carefully remove from casserole and portion into four squares of about 6 oz each.