Restaurant Report: Lechonera La Ranchera in Puerto Rico
By ROBERT WILLEY
Published: July 1, 2011
Pop out to Lechonera La Ranchera, about 30 minutes outside San Juan, on a Friday afternoon and you can snack on crisp pork chunks and fried plantains, enjoy the air-conditioning, then climb back in your rental car for the drive back, wondering the whole time, perhaps, why you didn’t just order takeout at the hotel.
Stop in the next morning, however, and a visit to this low-slung sports bar — a splashy outlier that opened last November on a narrow mountain road — makes undeniable sense.
The reason: On weekends the real action shifts to the ramshackle outdoor kitchen next door, where Apa Ramos prepares the Puerto Rican-style roast pig known as lechón. Mr. Ramos arrives at 4 a.m. to slather each 90-pound carcass with a pungent rub of salt, garlic and spices before skewering it on a spit that turns slowly over smoldering coals. By the time the restaurant opens at 10, the pig has been transformed into textbook lechón: a tubular bundle of fatty meat suffused with seasoning, wrapped in mahogany skin that crunches like potato chips.
Mr. Ramos, 53, learned the trade from his father, Bernardo, and has been roasting pigs more than half his life. His tools could not be more basic: a cinderblock pit of his own construction, sheets of corrugated metal to control the heat, a machete. He toddles back and forth between the pit and a steel work table streaked with honey-colored grease, cleaving with his right hand and placing portions into plastic foam containers with his bare left.
Back in the restaurant, your lechón arrives on a platter ringed with fried plantains (tostones), a heaping dish of yellow rice studded with pigeon peas off to the side. There’s hot sauce and a mayonnaise-ketchup mashup for dipping, but the pork does its best work alone, with the choicest bites coming from the jowls, belly and ribs; basically, wherever the fat is. The loin, though a bit dry and chewy in places, remains powerfully seasoned, and a glossy shard of skin can make it sing.
“He just has a special touch,” said Eric Ripert, the acclaimed chef at Le Bernardin in New York. He is such a fan of Mr. Ramos that he has flown him up twice to roast pigs for his restaurant. “It’s not like I ate all the lechón in Puerto Rico, but every time I do eat the lechón I compare it to his. And Apa’s is always better.”
Lechonera La Ranchera, Road 173, Km. 6.0, Hato Nuevo Ward, Guaynabo; (787) 790-9988. A single order of lechón, including rice, is $9. The restaurant opens at 10 a.m. on weekends; it’s best to arrive by noon.