The rhythmic chop-chop-chop of the machete resounds. Close your eyes and you might be standing in a sugarcane field. Hiding behind a bouquet of orange zinnias, a plaster Madonna surveys a spacious dining room well cooled against the blistering heat of East Tremont Street. I was drawn inside by an enticing display of mounded pig parts, fist-size chunks of meat interspersed with swatches of glistening bronze skin, among which a few facial features could be discerned.
El Gran Bohio (“the great big shack”) is the Bronx’s premier lechonera. Specializing in roast pork, this type of institution is usually found by rural roadsides in Puerto Rico, often in rickety wooden sheds. An amazing bargain—nearly everything is $6 per pound. The roast pork is allocated by a hacker who cultivates the impartiality of a judge, divvying up lean and fatty parts, and giving every order an identical quantity of skin. The meat is transcendently tasty—still warm from the oven, well salted, and oozing grease. If you prefer more skank, grab morcilla, a thick blood sausage that coils like a dark gray garden hose. Though there’s a hint of cumin in the crumbly, rice-laced link, chile pepper predominates. Accept the counterguy’s offer of the dishwater garlic sauce, which serves equally well for morcilla, boiled plantain, roast pork, or chicharrón de cerdo—portions of meat with skin roasted and then deep-fried.
Apart from pork, there aren’t too many options. Octopus salad, rice and peas, and mofongo are the most popular, the latter made to order in the back out of woody plantains mashed with leftover nuggets of pig. A perfect piece of skin flies like a flag over the sculpted mound, and it’s up to you to drown it in the delicious accompanying gravy.
Not sure of the significance of the sign—”Now Cooking Here Is the Famous Chef J. Karam of Bay Ridge”—but MAZZA PLAZA (8002 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-238-9576) has vaulted into first place in the rotisserie chicken division. Not only because of the perfectly cooked and spice-crusted bird, but also because of the thick, knock-your-head-off garlic dipping sauce with so much raw garlic that hot sauce would be redundant. Other salad and smearing items, like tabbouleh and a baba ghanoush, are also fab, but I found that the grillables like kebab orfaly and sojouk—a chopped meat cylinder and spicy stubby sausage, respectively—arrived too charred for my taste.
Rooted in the hardscrabble soil of South Philadelphia, the cheese steak’s terroir has proved impossible to duplicate here—though resourceful folks keep trying. Latest attempt is PHILLY’S CHEESE STEAKS (724A Seventh Avenue, 974-0524), a window on Times Square that, around lunchtime, hosts a circle of supplicants who stand gamely waiting on the sidewalk. Though forgoing the bubbling can of Cheez Whiz, this carryout does provide a beguiling choice of cheeses, with provolone holding down the high end and American the low. The sirloin’s cut a little thick, and fried onions are oddly de-emphasized. Still, at $5.50, it’s a formidable tuck-in.
THEO (325 Spring Street, 414-1344) occupies the same premises as the original White Columns Gallery, and you can sit on the exact spot where Sonic Youth played their break-out “Noise Festival” show. The food is similarly playful and semi-revolutionary, including a gazpacho that seems like a healthy reinvention of Orbit soda, with tiny BBs of vegetable suspended in a pallid tomato water that’s barely sweet. Also intriguing is a macaroni ravioli that, while not containing actual macaroni, tastes like mac and cheese. Entrées are sturdier and not quite so wild. Our fave was a fish stew that toed the line between bouillabaisse and cioppino.