On Nochebuena, many in South Florida will be roasting a pig in a “caja china”

12/23/2013 5:40 PM

12/24/2013 8:47 AM

For Jose Garcia Jr., roasting a pig for Nochebuena is a beloved ritual that begins the night before Christmas Eve, as family members gather at his Miami Beach home to drink wine and prepare the pork to marinate overnight. On Christmas Eve, the 50-pound pig is ready to be placed in a caja china or roasting box, to simmer for four slow hours before the family holiday celebration.

“We make it an event, the whole day,” said Garcia, 43. “We play dominos and listen to music.”

For many in South Florida, especially Cuban-Americans, Nochebuena wouldn’t be complete without roasting a mojo-doused pig. And the roasting wouldn’t be the same without a caja china, made by the South Florida company by the same name.

For 26 years, family-owned La Caja China has been manufacturing roasting boxes in Medley. Thanks to celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, the boxes have gained notoriety nationwide in recent years, featured on cooking shows and magazines. That’s helped to boost the company’s revenues to $2.5 million this year.

“To us, it was a pain in the butt, roasting a pig for Christmas,” said La Caja China Chief Executive Roberto Guerra, recalling the time-honored method of hoisting a makeshift rack on concrete blocks above a fire. “With a caja china, we made it easy for everyone.”

The business was started by Guerra’s father, who had seen a similar box in 1955 in Havana’s Chinatown, when he was a traveling salesman hawking hardware items. Hence the name, caja china, or Chinese box, an open-topped aluminum-lined wooden rectangle. Six family members now work at the enterprise, along with six other employees.

Though the business initially targeted Hispanics, 92 percent of La Caja China’s business today is to non-Hispanics, Guerra said. More than 90 percent of sales are made on the Internet to roasted meat and poultry lovers across the United States; the boxes are also sold through dealers in Canada, Spain, Panama, Costa Rica and Slovenia. In Europe, Germany and Lithuania are the No. 1 and No. 2 customers, he said.

While Nochebuena may be the primary pig-roasting time of the year in South Florida, the approach of summer means June is the company’s biggest sales month nationwide, said Guerra 56, who lives in Westchester. Beyond South Florida’s borders, the roasting boxes are popular for grilling lamb, turkey and other meats. “We sell mostly to Joe in Kansas City who wants to roast a pig or wants to do ribs,” he said.

In addition, many high-end hotels and country clubs now have cajas china, Guerra said, making these fat times for the pig-roasting boxes. Revenues are expected to grow 30 percent this year over last. In 2014, with new international dealers, Guerra expects to reach $3 million.

Superchefs like Flay, Andrew Zimmern and celebrity entertainer Martha Stewart have sparked much of the interest in the caja china. In a video online, Flay narrates as Guerra demonstrates how to cook the pork. He lauds the sound of the crispy skin: “There is not a better food sound in the world than a piece of skin like that,” Flay says. “The pork practically flies off the bone.”

Inside La Caja China’s Medley warehouse, workers slice the plywood with a table saw and shear sheets of metal to craft the roasting boxes. They then bend and staple the pieces together before prepping the roasters for shipment.

The boxes come in three sizes, which hold up to 20-, 80- and 110-pound live pigs (“live’’ refers to a measure of weight, not the pig’s actual condition) and sell for $259, $319 and $349 respectively. A larger deluxe model, with metal legs and an extra outer layer of textured aluminum covering the wood, is priced at $899. And an even larger model will launch in February, that will come with a drip tube, for $1,250.

Accessories include drip trays, double racks, injectors for mojo and other marinades, charcoal trays and charcoal grids. La Caja China makes it own mojo and also sells an adobo dry rub.

Locally, cajas china are also sold at select Ace Hardware and Lowe’s stores, as well as at La Caja China’s warehouse.

During the last week before Nochebuena, sales skyrocket at the warehouse, reaching about 300 boxes, Guerra said. The company expects to be open late Monday to handle last minute-shoppers; it will be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

José Rodriguez, 21, of Fort Myers, drove two hours on Monday to buy his Cuban-American family’s first caja china at the company’s warehouse.

“Our friend has one and it’s really good, so we want to have one for ourselves,” said Rodriguez, who has already bought the pig from a rancher in Fort Myers. The plan is to roast it on New Year’s Eve for about 20 people, he said.

The secret, say experts, is that pork tastes better when it is cooked slowly at a low temperature. A caja china helps make the pork juicy but keeps the skin crispy.

To roast with a caja china, the pig is placed in the box sandwiched between two racks. A thermometer goes into the meat. Charcoal is loaded on top of the pig, with more hot coals added each hour. When the thermometer reads 187 degrees, the box should be opened and the pig flipped. The cook scores the skin; in another 20 to 30 minutes, the meat should be done.

The key is indirect heat. Charcoal ashes form a layer of insulation that causes the box to cool several degrees each hour, Guerra said.

“We have made it a science,” said Guerra, who plans to smoke two pork bellies, using a smoke pistol inside his caja china on Tuesday for his family’s 40-person Nochebuena celebration.

Food writer and TV host Steven Raichlen, author of Barbecue Bible and host of PBS’s Barbecue University, doesn’t use a caja china because he likes to grill with live fire. But he is “a great enthusiast of the results,” having enjoyed lechon asado and turkey cooked in the roasting box.

“It’s a South Florida classic,” said Raichlen, who lives in Coconut Grove. “It’s a great addition to great American gastronomy, and creates work of uncommon succulence and tenderness.”

Regardless of how they roast it, many local families buy their Nochebuena pigs at the Hialeah Gardens slaughterhouse Mary’s Farm, also known as Matadero Cabrera. There, customers specify the live pig weight they want, ranging from 30 to 250 pounds, or they pick out their specific desired porker. Workers go behind the scenes to kill and prepare the pig, bringing it out to the customer ready to season and marinate. The cost is $2 per pound live, plus $15 to kill and clean.

Jack Cabrera, supervisor at the family-owned business that his grandfather began in 1978, said he expects to sell 1,000 pigs on Monday. Forty pounds to 100 pounds is the most popular size requested.

People even tend to show up at night on the 22nd, so they can be in line when Mary’s Farm opens at 5 a.m. the next morning, he said. The business will stay open until the last client leaves.

“We know it’s a tradition,” said Cabrera, 27. “Everyone wants to get their pigs.” Mary’s Farm will also be open from 7 a.m. to noon on Tuesday.

Whole pigs, ready to cook, can also be ordered at South Florida supermarkets. Publix, for example, sells pigs from 20 to 70 pounds at all its stores. The pigs are sold frozen, and can be ordered from the meat manager for next day delivery. The price through New Year’s Eve is $1.99 a pound, said Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss.

Garcia, who is expecting 25 people at his bayfront home for Nochebuena, stopped by La Caja China recently to buy a new charcoal grid, mojo, an injector for mojo, and an aluminum frame — all to be ready for his family’s holiday feast.

“We do it every year,” he said. “It’s a whole-day affair.”

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