There are no alarm clocks in our home in Merida. There is no need as it is located in one of the most enviable spots in the neighborhood, around the corner from the baker. The air wakes me up in Merida.
We get a special treat on Sunday, as the smell of fresh baked bread gives away to the aroma of Seville orange, garlic and pork melting into itself: lechon al horno. Lechon means “young pig.” Al horno means “of the oven.” And no one in the neighborhood has a bigger oven than the baker. Bollios in one hand and lechon in another, this is how traditions are born. A few months ago this Yucatecan breakfast tradition finally arrived in Los Angeles at a very proper home, Sundays 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at Chichen Itza Restaurant in El Mercado la Paloma.
Although their MacArthur location closed last year and the Mercado la Paloma location has a much more of a casual feel, Chef Gilberto Cetina takes no short cuts with the prep of the lechon. He marinades half an 80lb lechon – the other half is used for the cochinita also available Sunday mornings – over several days. Then, it sits in a low temp oven for 10 hours before amping up the heat to 500°F for another two hours to get the famous crispy lechon skin. The torta itself composed of lechon, bits of the crisp skin and a pico de gallo spiked with Seville orange juice.
The flavor of Centina's lechon is subtle, with the freshness of the pico de gallo playing off the rich chunks of pork. Eyeing a container of Centina's merciless habanero salsa, which in the past I had often ignored because most of the dishes at Chichen Itza are already so well spiced, I decided to give it a little shake into my torta. The flavors fused together as if suddenly I was tasting a new breed of spicy pig.
If once a week for Lechon is six days too long, Havana Mania offers their lechon asado special on Tuesdays. For the last 13 years Havana Mania has been a destination for those seeking Cuban lechon and they take their 5+ hour baked lechon seriously. As Luis Montesdeoca stated, lechon is a signature of Cuban cuisine as the margarita is to Mexican.
The lechon here does not stand alone. Almost as decadent as the velvety pork are the onions that accompany it, soaked in porkiness and spice. Nevertheless, the star here is the crispy skin. Glossy and impossibly firm in appearance, you almost hesitate to take the first bite, only find it yielding to an almost flakey crunch.
As always, the quick and the hungry win. The lechon at Chichen Itza rarely makes it to 2:00 p.m. and Havana Mania often sells out by 9:00 p.m.