If you want lechón from La Piraña Lechonera, you don’t have a lot of time: The roadside trailer in the South Bronx is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. And depending on how many people feel the call of lechón that day, a plate of slow-roasted pork, cut by machete, and rice with pigeon peas doused in mojito sauce can be in hot demand.
It’s a wonder Angel Jimenez has time for the lechonera in the first place. From Monday to Friday, Jimenez works with HVAC systems, in addition to a gig as the super of a building. Still, on most Saturday mornings, Jimenez is up at 3 AM, warming up the oven and prepping his pigs. He might plan to stay until 6 or 7 PM, he told us on a recent shoot for the video series Street Food Icons, but he might find himself sold out even earlier. No matter, it starts over the next day.
The pigs are done “Puerto Rican style,” Jimenez said, first seasoned in a mixture that he calls a family secret, then hung and roasted. His cooking knowledge comes from his family, Jimenez told us, first from his grandparents, who saw cooking as a means for him to take care of himself. Then, after Jimenez and his family moved from the seaside town of Aguadilla in Puerto Rico to the South Bronx in 1984, his mother and father started the lechonera. La Piraña (“the Piranha”) is also Jimenez’s nickname, given to him because in Puerto Rico, he was always in the water, “like a fish.”
Back then, the lechonera was smaller. As his parents got older, he took over, replacing their little truck with the current trailer. “They said, ‘Yo, Angel, you gotta take the business now. You qualify for this,’” he told us. “I said, ‘Let me buy this trailer and do it a little bit better.’” To Jimenez, the goal is to bring a taste of Puerto Rico: not just through lechon and arroz, but with mofongo, chicken empanadas, pulpo salad. “My pork tastes like Puerto Rico,” he said. “They say, ‘traditional,’ ‘I remember my grandma,’ ‘I remember my father…’”
When Jimenez isn’t there—the days he needs a break after working a week straight—people notice; they ask where he’s been. For him, his customers, and for the community of the South Bronx, La Piraña is an experience of home. “People dancing, eating, having fun, like Puerto Rican style,” he said. “I’ve been making it like that since I started. They sit down, eat, feel like family.” The work is long, but he says that the love from his customers keeps him going. And he returns it, too, giving food to children and to the homeless. “Whatever you’ve got, you’ve gotta give it to them. You say no, it’s not a good look for you,” he said.
One day, he hopes to turn the lechonera into his only gig: with a brick-and-mortar restaurant, where pictures of his family—and his father’s machetes, used both for cutting wood and hacking lechón—will line the walls. Even if the setting changes, Jimenez says the location won’t. “I love the Bronx,” he told us. “That’s where I grew up. Never forget where you come from.”