“Kill him! Don’t be afraid. Kill him!”
The voice woke me from a late-afternoon nap after partying all night at the year-end carnival in my father’s hometown 20 years ago. It came from the backyard of a family house where I’d been sleeping. I could see two men in the penumbra of dusk, one older urging the younger one to stick a knife into a pig. They were going to roast the beast to make pork sandwiches to sell at the carnival.
I never tasted the sandwiches, though the next day I got a serving of fried pork liver for lunch; the pan con lechón sold out in minutes. This kind of small enterprise was legal in Cuba, and my family, along with some friends who had raised a pig, had gone into the pan con lechón business for the party days.
Of all the traditional Cuban-style sandwiches (see sidebar), pan con lechón is arguably the most Cuban. No need for ingredients mostly unavailable in Cuba. You bake the bread, you kill the pig. Seasoning is garlic, salt and juice from sour oranges that grow in your yard. More than the famous cubano, pan con lechón tastes to me like Cuba itself.
Miami Cuban cafeterias have it on the menu, but quality, as with all the other dishes, is iffy. And like all foods marinated in nostalgia, nothing on this side lives up to my memory of what I ate on the other one, back when such things were plentiful and tasty.
If I were to pick the best pan con lechón I’ve tasted in Miami, it would be an absence, a memory, not as deep as island nostalgia, but gone nonetheless.
The wonderful Rosy Bakery in Sweetwater sometimes served the sandwich. Interestingly, Rosy did not marinate the pork in garlic mojo because, so I was told, it made the meat come out too dark. Instead, the cooks applied it generously to the meat right on the sandwich before pressing it. It was fabulous, but they don’t make it anymore. Nor do they put pork in their cubanos, which are still quite good because they’re made with Rosy’s great Cuban bread.
So these are my favorite Miami pan con lechón spots, in ascending order of preference:
A few years ago some wily Venezuelans figured there was a market here for a disappeared phenomenon: a lechonera, a pork emporium where locals could indulge in everything pig. La Esquina del Lechón in Doral is just that, and judging from the crowd, the owners were right.
It’s a big, modern-looking coffee shop where you get a handful of chicharrónes in your bread basket and where they roast pork in caja china. Though the menu features some items that are nods to the owner’s home country, the food here is primarily Cuban, including, of course, pan con lechón.
Its savory appeal is due to some crispy skin along with the meat, a touch of genius. However, as happens with large menus, one can be easily distracted from a pan con lechón quest by other good pork dishes. No matter. As a Cuban wrote online when the place first opened, these Venezuelans are beating us at our own game. I say, carry on.
There’s nothing not Cuban about Malanga Café in Pinecrest. The wallpaper is a collection of Cuban slang sayings, the music on the sound system is Cuban, and they boast “the world’s best pan con lechón.” Actually, given the locavore nature of the sandwich unlike, say, the cubano, which I have seen in as unlikely spots as an Alabama gas station as well as in other countries, that might be more like Miami’s best. Regardless, it’s very good.
As I’ve pointed out writing about cubanos, a big problem can be quality. Not here. The pork and the bread, the two basic ingredients, are top-notch, and that’s wonderful, really. Expertly seasoned meat and not greasy at all. Which brings me to something I craved.
Funk. Malanga Café is a tasteful spot, muted really, nothing raucous here. A perfect place to eat while having a civilized conversation. Except that pan lechón is street food. Is there a place where you can take a pig for walk on the wild side?
Allapattah is nobody’s idea of gentrification (God bless!). And that’s where you’ll find Papo Llega y Pon, a name that would take too long to explain. Actually, “find” is the wrong word. On my first visit, the address defied my GPS, vision and common sense. There was no sign. You just had to know. If Wynwood hipsters wanted to create a pan con lechón spot they’d be hard-pressed to come close to this. And no Buena Vista Social Club on the sound system. Reggaeton! Bachata!
New owners have not altered what’s sold, but they did put up a small sign. A pity. They also put in a new countertop, so where the old worn-out counter had hand drawn lines to indicate the different sandwich sizes, like a family’s record of children’s growth marked on a doorway, except horizontal instead of vertical. Now the staff holds out index fingers for the same purpose. Another pity. In Miami one is so relieved to find something that hasn’t changed, and so distressed to learn it has.
Still, the pan con lechón is awesome. A perfect equilibrium between fat and lean. They ask you if you want onions and picante (hot sauce). Say yes: The picante is no such thing, just a well-seasoned mojo. And the bread is homemade. There are a couple of other dishes, and tropical juices, the enzymes of which are recommended as digestif. But you come here for the pan con lechón. And once you try it, you keep coming back.
The staff behind the counter are barrio-smart Latinas, some with sass, some with attitude, others friendly, all cool. In summer their outfits get skimpier, but no mucho macho client would dare get fresh with a young woman yielding a meat cleaver with such force and accuracy. No way.
Cuban Sandwiches 101
Most Cuban-style sandwiches are served pressed, like panini, with some shortening on the outside to give it a nice glisten. These are the classics.
Cubano: Ham, pork and Swiss. In Tampa, one of the homes of the cubano, may also include salami and/or mortadella. Dill pickle sliced lengthwise. Yellow mustard. On Cuban bread or baguette.
Medianoche: Basically a cubano on challah-like egg bun.
Galletica preparada: A cubano on saltine crackers.
Pan con lechón: Roasted pork sandwich. Always with mojo sauce and usually onions. On Cuban bread or baguette.
Pan con bistec: Steak sandwich. Very thin steak, usually topped with chopped onions and mojo. On Cuban bread or baguette.
Frita: Cuban burger. A thin and heavily seasoned patty, usually red with paprika. In a small bun with fried shoestring potatoes, chopped onions and a smear of ketchup.
Elena Ruz: Turkey, cream cheese and strawberry marmalade. On white sandwich bread.
Where to go
Rosy Bakery: 11400 W. Flagler St., Sweetwater; 305-552-8881. Open 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. No pan con lechón, but other sandwiches are quite good.
La Esquina del Lechón: 8601 NW 58th St., Doral; 305-640-3041, esquinalechon.com. Open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Pan con lechón $7.45-$9.45.
Malanga Café: 12313 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest; 305-259-1550, malangacafe.com. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Pan con lechón $9.50.
Papo Llega y Pon: 2928 NW 17th Ave., Allapattah; 305-635-0137. 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Pan con lechón $5-$14.