Already the birthplace of hip-hop, home to America’s most storied baseball franchise, and haven for West African, Albanian, and Bangladeshi immigrants, the Bronx is also a critically important stop on the salsa train. Since 2003, it’s been a majority Latino borough—as well as the center of gravity for the city’s Puerto Rican community dating back to the ’50s. Despite a surging Dominican presence, lechoneras (roast-pork temples perfumed with garlic) still abound, and there are still many places to fulfill a craving for conch-stuffed fritters and cans of Coco Rico.
We’ve compiled a list of must-try places for pastelillos, mofongo, and other specialties of the island’s pork-centric, sofrito-powered cuisine—that wonderful blend of Spanish, American, and African influences.
Lechonera La Piraña
There are several cues that indicate you have arrived at La Piraña: the smell of the garlic wafting through the air; the thwack of a large machete; and a cacophony of Spanish spoken through the din of Tito Puente’s tropical jams. This is the Bronx’s purest expression of Borinquen food culture—an ode to the backwoods lechonera that Angel “Piraña” Jiminez grew up eating at. Jiminez has set up his truck every weekend for the last decade and a half, operating outside the building where he works as a super. Come summertime, it becomes a legit block party. He roasts his oregano-, salt-, and garlic-rubbed pork in an oven stored in an adjacent lot, frying pastelillos stuffed with crab and other fillings. His seasonings are all homemade, as is the pique criollo. When you bite into the pork, you will quickly forget you are on 152nd and Wales.
Order this: Lechon, pastelillos, seafood salad (summer only)
Note: Open Friday night through Sunday, roughly 5pm; sometimes the owner goes back to Puerto Rican for part of winter (Photo courtesy Serious Eats)
Address and phone: 158 E 188 St (718-367-4500)
Good for: Introduction to Puerto Rican soul food; curing a hang-over
The second home of Bronx culinary ambassador Baron Ambrosia, 188 has been serving up Puerto Rican soul food for decades. The space is impossibly bright, lit up by a carnival of candy hued colors. Inside, you’ll find a long lunch counter, along with a few shabby tables and a Plexiglass lottery kiosk. The namesake cuchifritos are snacks of chopped-up organ meat that are traditionally fried, but here are stewed—and well worth an order. Don’t stop there, though. Order something fried, maybe a cutlet or pork rinds; definitely some mofongo—just have fun with it.
Order this: Cuchifritos, mofongo, Dominican-style chicharrones, and snack foods
Note: According to Eating In Translation, it’s open from roughly mid-March (whenever it gets warmer) through Thanksgiving, Wednesday through Sunday. (Photo: Yelp)
Address and phone: 851-899 E 156 St
Good for: A crash course in Puerto Rican street snacks
What Piraña is to the island’s countryside lechoneras, Mama Isabel’s is to the famous seaside frituras shacks of Piñones. A seasonal operation, Mama’s is an old-school food truck that occupies a gated corner lot with a few chairs strewn around for lingering patrons. The snacks in question are alcapurrias, stuffed fritters made of starchy yucca or plantain dough, and pastellilos, empanadas that are ubiquitous in Washington Heights and much of the Bronx. But few are as fresh and as well-executed as the ones here. Mama’s offers juicy shrimp (jueyes) in alcapurrias—which you’ll almost always encounter filled with beef—and pastelillos with conch (carrucho) in sweet tomato sauce.
Order this: Crab or shrimp pastelillos, conch alcapurrias (Photo courtesy Serious Eats)
El Nuevo Bohio
Address and phone: 791 E Tremont Ave (718-294-3905)
Good for: Super-cheap, extra-large portions of classics (including a few rarities)
The Bronx is filled with restaurants like El Nuevo Bohio, which stretch out from Throggs Neck to University Heights. Bigger, busier, and generally more delicious than many of its peers—which tend to be hyper-local haunts—Bohio is one of the best. This is a lechonera, so you will eat to the sounds of roast pork getting chopped up, but you’d to well to branch out. Consider a cold octopus salad and keep your eyes peeled for traditional dishes like sancocho and asapo de pescado, a maritime spin on the gumbo-like rice dish more famously made with chicken.
Order this: Lechon, octopus salad, daily soups like sancocho (Photo: El Nuevo Bohio)
Address and phone: 1841 Westchester Ave (718-918-2947)
Good for: Hanging out with locals; rubbing elbows with Bronx politicians
Though the lunch counters tend to get the press, there’s a legacy of nightlife affiliated with Puerto Rican restaurants in the Bronx. We’re talking places like the departed Jimmy’s Bronx Café (which attracted baseball stars, hosted a lunch for Fidel Castro, and lives on through Don Coqui) and Willie’s Steak House, once the epicenter of the borough’s Latin Jazz scene. Joe’s Place, where the drinks are tropical and the portions comically large, figures in here. It’s also a typically Bronx combination of Dominican (Joe) and Puerto Rican (his wife) cooking, resulting in food like the chicken asapao, that is charmingly unspectacular.
Order this: Mofongo with shrimp, asapao de pollo, tostones (Photo: Facebook)