Ethnic barbeque is one of
New Jersey’s best-kept secrets
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY EWING
In the summertime, the thoughts of omnivores like me turn to barbecue—meat cooked “low and slow” next to smoldering coals. Many people fi re up their backyard grills and smokers. Others seek out the nearest restaurant serving the fi ercely regional styles of American barbecue, from Texas brisket to Kansas City burnt ends to North Carolina pulled pork.
New Jersey is not known as a barbecue destination. Though a growing number of Garden State BBQ spots serve up some very good renditions of the classic American styles, there is no recognized “Jersey” kind of barbecue. Nonetheless, barbecue is alive and well in our state’s ethnic communities. In fact, it’s one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets.
One pork dish—lechón—illustrates the diverse and delicious ethnic barbecue you can fi nd in New Jersey. From the Spanish word for milk, lechón originally meant roast suckling pig, prized for its mild milk-fed fl avor and thin skin. The traditional cooking technique is to dig a hole, fi ll it with wood charcoal, and roast a butchered whole pig over the glowing embers for hours until tender. The term lechón has come to describe a wider range of roasted pork dishes, from suckling pigs to whole hogs, in different global cuisines. Whole pigs may be cooked on a spit, in a pit or in an oven. Preparations vary, from dry rubs to wet marinades, with different spices and levels of sweetness. Every cook guards his or her own secret for ensuring moist meat, the right fl avors and, usually, a crispy skin. Cuban lechón asado, Filipino lechón and Portuguese leitão are three tasty plates of ethnic barbecue worth looking for in New Jersey this summer.
The key to Cuban lechón asado is the mojo, a paste of olive oil, salt, garlic, cumin and citrus (sour orange or lime) that is applied to the meat before, during and/or after roasting. Whole adult pigs might be cooked in a charcoal pit or a caja china (“Chinese box”) for special occasions, but oven-roasted pork shoulder is the most common lechón you will fi nd on Cuban menus in New Jersey. Unlike that of whole roasted pigs, the pork skin in this version of lechón is not crispy, but the mojo permeates everything for a moist and fl avorful plate of pork. El Unico (4211 Park Ave., Union City) has been serving Cuban comfort food in Union City for 40 years. The no-frills cafeteria roasts large pork shoulders daily in two pizza ovens. Doña Susy, the Recio family matriarch running the show from El Unico’s cash register, will not divulge the exact ingredients in her family’s mojo, or even when they apply the marinade. She says every restaurant does it differently, and the mojo is the key to the meat’s fl avor. Order the lechón here and you get a large portion of moist meat with a slightly sour tang. Including white rice or arroz moro (rice with black beans) and garlicky sautéed yuca or fried sweet plantains, the $5 plate is an incredible bargain.
Union City, once known as “Havana on the Hudson” for its Cuban population—one of the most concentrated outside of Florida—is the spot for Cuban food in New Jersey. Two other Union City cafeterias serving fresh lechón are El Artesano (4101 Bergenline Ave.) and La Churreria (3300 Bergenline Ave.). If the lechón happens to be sold out at either, try the ropa vieja (shredded beef). And don’t leave without a shot of intense Cuban coffee.
Another island nation, the Philippines, shares Cuba’s Spanish colonial heritage and its passion for lechón. Filipino lechón, sweeter than the Cuban version, is typically prepared with a spice mix featuring salt, black pepper, sugar, onion, vinegar and ground pork liver. In Cebustyle lechón, the fl avors of lemongrass, star anise and bananas are added by stuffi ng the pig. In the Philippines, the traditional method is to cook the whole adult pig outside on a spit over burning wood. The pig is basted periodically to create the crispy, ocher-colored skin that is the hallmark of a Filipino lechón.
Carlos Cancio was born in Pampanga, on the northern shore of Manila Bay. He worked multiple jobs after immigrating to the United States as a young man. While delivering packages for DHL in New Jersey, Carlos started experimenting with different ingredients and techniques to perfect his Filipino barbecue. He began roasting whole pigs in his garage, fi rst in Livingston, then in Jersey City, and developed quite a loyal following. Now “retired,” six years ago he opened the New Barbecue Pit (100 N. Washington Ave., Bergenfi eld) where four of his six children are involved in the family business.
Carlos, too, will not reveal his lechón spices and tricks. But you can taste the results of his self-taught barbecue education at the small restaurant with a few tables inside and a bustling takeout business. The lechón has succulent meat with chunks attached to beautifully crispy skin. It is delicious served with a side of garlic or jasmine rice. The flavor is slightly sweet, as is the lechón sauce for marinating and dipping that Carlos serves and sells by the bottle. Add a squirt of homemade chili sauce from the bottles on the table if you want it spicier. At $9 for a pound of meat, this is another ethnic barbecue bargain.
According to Carlos’ son, Louie Cancio, who mans the kitchen at the New Barbecue Pit, Christmas is peak season for whole lechón orders. They roast as many as 60 pigs a day for family celebrations during the holidays, working all night long to meet the demand. The rest of the year, they prepare around ten pigs each weekend. Depending on the size, a 30- to 45-pound whole pig costs between $180 and $200.
The New Barbecue Pit also serves Filipino specialties like pancit (stirfried rice noodles), embutido (Filipino meatloaf ), and lumpia (fried spring rolls). Chicken, ribs and pulled pork round out the menu for American BBQ fans. What makes Filipino lechón special? According to the elder Cancio, “You blend the flavors with your heart and mind.”
Portuguese BBQ spots are multiplying in New Jersey, with menus that feature barbecued chicken, ribs, grilled steaks, and Portuguese originals like cubed pork with potatoes (picadinho) or clams (à Alentejana).
For a special treat, find a restaurant that serves leitão à Bairrada, whole suckling pig prepared with a paste of garlic, white pepper and pig fat rubbed over the entire pig inside and out, as is the tradition in the Bairrada region of Portugal. The result is subtly flavored meat encrusted in super-crispy skin. The skin, much thinner on young pigs, is irresistible—glistening, crispy and a deep, reddish-ocher color. It’s all you can do to resist snapping off the tip of an ear as soon as it is within reach. The melted layer of fat between the skin and meat coats every slice of pork with even more flavor. One of the best meals I’ve had in New Jersey, or anywhere else, is the leitão from Elizabeth’s appropriately named Casa do Leitão. Sadly, the owner passed away last year and the restaurant has closed.
Another source for leitão, still open, is Newark’s Coimbra (637 Market St.), conveniently located just across the Passaic River from Red Bull Arena. There is a full bar on one side and a large dining room on the other at this neighborhood spot away from the Ironbound’s main thoroughfare. If you are lucky, a leitão will have just come out of the oven. A plate goes very nicely with a bottle of Portuguese vinho verde. If the pork is still roasting, try the homemade chouriço, served flaming, or the richly satisfying duck fried rice (arroz de pato).
SPOTS FOR ETHNIC BBQ IN NEW JERSEY
La Fusta – North Bergen
1110 Tonnelle Ave. | 201.770.1950
El Artesano – Union City
4101 Bergenline Ave.
El Unico – Union City
4211 Park Ave. | 201.864.3931
La Churreria – Union City
3300 Bergenline Ave.
Lechón is available on weekends.
New Barbecue Pit – Bergenfield
100 N. Washington Ave. | 201.439.0522
BBQ at Legal Beans – Jersey City
2 Division St. | 201.216.0050
This tiny takeout spot serves Filipino Cebu-style lechón by the pound on weekends. Order ahead for a whole pig.
Churrasco – Maplewood
1844 Springfield Ave. | 973.761.7744
Barbecue specialties include roast suckling pig (leitão), braised goat (chanfana de cabrito) and tripe (dobrada).
Coimbra – Newark
637 Market St. | 973.491.9811
El Lechón de Negron – Food truck
Regular location: 849 North Ave., Elizabeth