Two Little Piggies
Photo by Anne FishbeinI have tasted suckling pig whose skin was so crisp that it shattered in the mouth like spun sugar, and suckling pig so tender that the waiter ostentatiously carved it into serving portions with the blunt edge of a plate. I have feasted on Filipino suckling pig flavored with vinegar, and garlic-basted Puerto Rican suckling pig, Italian suckling pig scented with marjoram and French suckling pig whisked from under a silver dome, suckling pig ravioli and suckling pig spring rolls, Sonoran suckling pig twirled on a spit and all-American suckling pig roasted under a badminton net strung up in a Shriner’s backyard. I even insisted on suckling pig at my wedding, and some people’s memories of the occasion focus less on the ceremony than on the amazing, dripping creature roasted in a bread oven until its skin attained the burnished shine of old, polished copper. I’m a nut for anything with an apple in its mouth. Suckling pig, of course, is the star of Umbrian village festivals and East Harlem lechonerias, Oktoberfest beer gardens and proper Hawaiian luaus: super-thin sheets of ultracrackly skin, brittle as the top of a crème brûlée, a bit of juicy fat and then long, wet shreds of flesh seasoned simply with salt and a thin, defining edge of funkiness — that slight gamy flavor that develops when you cook pork past medium rare — used as eloquently as a rare herb.If you hang out in barbecue circles, you may have heard of the caja china, a device, popular in Southern Florida, that looks something like a metal-lined wooden crate, that is, a metal-lined crate big and well-insulated enough to cook a couple of turkeys or an entire small pig over charcoal in four hours. It is almost like magic, a caja china. Norman’s, the pan-Caribbean restaurant on the Sunset Strip, breaks out the caja china every Friday evening, and the pig flies, blackened and caramelized around the edges, a little dry perhaps, but flavored to the bone with garlic, lemon and smoke, a formidable plate of pig indeed. Have you ever chased a plate of Cuban pig with a bottle of red, beautifully tannic Madeiran from the southwest of France? At Norman’s, you can.Triumphal Palace, meanwhile, is a grand Hong Kong–style seafood restaurant in a new Alhambra shopping center, a reliable purveyor of minced squab and steamed grouper, braised lo mein with abalone and double-boiled shark-fin soup. The dining room is sleeker than the average Chinese restaurant, muted gray instead of lacquer red, decorated Design Within Reach-style with what look like empty wine racks instead of gilded dragons. It’s still early in the restaurant’s development — Triumphal Palace opened just this fall — but the dim sum breakfasts in the mornings may already be among the San Gabriel Valley’s dozen or so best, a notch or two below Sea Harbour and Mission 261 perhaps, slightly stodgy, although the tiny baked pork buns are especially delicate, and the salt-and-pepper fried chicken wings are delicious. In the evenings, the usual sorts of Cantonese seafood can be pretty good too. I liked a sizzling, basil-scented casserole of cod that tasted like a seafood version of the classic Taiwanese three-glass chicken, and crab fried with salt and pepper, although clams in black-bean sauce and “Hong Kong–style” fried crab were kind of dull. But Triumphal Palace is already becoming well-known for its roast suckling pig, the star of the Chinese barbecue kitchen, beloved at least since it shared pride of place with baked owl, fatted dog, bear’s paw and panther breast, on the A.D. 200 Han Dynasty banquet table. And although the whole pig must be ordered a day in advance, and costs $180, this is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle if you think a little ahead and arrange to split the cost with your nine closest friends. Because, if ever a suckling pig were worth $180, it might be this one, prepared from a young, tenderly raised animal, seasoned and rested and roasted until the crisp skin takes on the golden, cracked complexion of an unrestored Renaissance painting and the fat becomes almost liquid — nourishing and lubricating the white flesh underneath. Suckling pig is not diet food. At Triumphal Palace, the pig is served as thin, crackling wisps of skin, ready to be smeared with hoisin sauce, garnished with a sliver of shredded scallion and tucked into thin Chinese pancakes, to be consumed as the most decadent tacos imaginable, like porcine Beijing duck. Then the rest of the pig shows up on a big platter, neatly separated from the bones and a rather heartier affair, like the Cantonese equivalent of a Carolina pig-pickin’ feast. While a whole pig may seem like a lot of food for a small dinner party, the pork disappears so quickly it is as if a miraculous chemical reaction has taken place, a kind of Evaporation of the Pig. If the Kansas Board of Education can believe that evolution is a myth, I can believe that pigs can vanish into the air. Triumphal Palace, 500 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 308-3222. Open daily, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. MC, V accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Pig: $180 per pig, which feeds 8-10, by advance order only. Norman’s, 8570 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-2400. Open Mon.-Thu., 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Expensive valet parking. Pig: $19 per person, Friday evenings until 8, by reservation only.
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