New Jersey is not known as a barbecue destination. Garden State BBQ spots serve up some very good renditions of the classic American styles, and this weekend Atlantic City becomes an official stop on the USA Barbecue Championship circuit, but there is no recognized “Jersey” kind of barbecue. That’s true, but barbecue is alive and well in our state’s ethnic communities. Ethnic barbecue is one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets.
“American” ethnic food includes our fiercely regional styles of United States barbecue, from Texas brisket to Kansas City burnt ends to North Carolina pulled pork. You can find some of these BBQ styles in New Jersey, at spots like the Wood Pit in Montclair, Fink’s in Dumont, and Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue next to Newark’s Prudential Center.
Barbecue – meat cooked “low and slow” next to smoldering coals – is not exclusive to American cuisine. The real barbecue action in New Jersey is happening at our other ethnic restaurants. That “BBQ” sign you notice in the strip mall is just as likely to be a new Portuguese or Peruvian restaurant as a traditional American chicken and ribs joint. Servers roam Newark’s Brazilian rodizios with meat-laden metal skewers slicing the barbecue right onto your plate. North Bergen’s La Fusta grills all kinds of meat, even blood sausage and tripe, Argentinian-style a la parilla.
One pork dish -“lechón” – illustrates the diverse and delicious ethnic barbecue you can find in New Jersey. From the Spanish (or Portuguese) word for milk, lechón (or leitão) originally meant roast suckling pig, prized for its mild milk-fed flavor and thin skin. The traditional cooking technique is to dig a hole, fill it with wood charcoal, and roast a butchered whole pig over the glowing embers for hours until tender. The term lechón has come to describe a wider range of roasted pork dishes, from suckling pigs to whole hogs, in different global cuisines. Whole pigs may be cooked on a spit, in a pit, or in an oven. Preparations vary, from dry rubs to wet marinades, with different spices and levels of sweetness. Every cook guards his or her own secret for ensuring moist meat, the right flavors and, usually, a crispy skin. Cuban lechón asado, Filipino lechón and Portuguese leitão are three tasty plates of ethnic barbecue worth looking for in New Jersey.
The key to Cuban lechón asado is the mojo, a paste of olive oil, salt, garlic, cumin, and citrus (sour orange or lime) that is applied to the meat before, during and/or after roasting. Whole adult pigs might be cooked in a charcoal pit or a caja china (“Chinese Box”) for special occasions, but oven roasted pork shoulder is the most common lechón you will find on Cuban menus in New Jersey. Unlike whole roasted pigs, the pork skin in this version of lechón is not crispy, but the mojo permeates everything for a moist and flavorful plate of pork.
El Unico has been serving Cuban comfort food in Union City for forty years. The no-frills cafeteria roasts large pork shoulders daily in two pizza ovens. Doña Susy, the Ricio family matriarch running the show from El Unico’s cash register, will not divulge the exact ingredients in her family’s mojo, or even when they apply the marinade. She says every restaurant does it differently, and the mojo is the key to the meat’s flavor. Order the lechón here and you get a large portion of moist meat with a slightly sour tang. Alongside white rice or arroz moro (rice with black beans), garlicky sautéed yucca or fried sweet plantains, the five dollar plate is an incredible bargain.
Union City, once known as “Havana on the Hudson” for one of the most concentrated Cuban populations outside of Florida, is the spot for Cuban food in New Jersey. Two other nearby cafeterias serving fresh lechón are El Artesano and La Churreria. If the lechón happens to be sold out at either, try the ropa vieja (shredded beef). Don’t leave without a shot of intense Cuban coffee.
Another island nation, the Philippines, shares Cuba’s Spanish colonial heritage and its passion for lechón. Filipino lechón, sweeter than the Cuban version, is typically prepared with a spice mix featuring salt, black pepper, sugar, onion, vinegar and ground pork liver. “Cebu”-style lechón adds the flavors of lemongrass, star anise and bananas by stuffing the pig. In the Philippines, the traditional method is to cook the whole adult pig outside on a spit over burning wood. The pig is basted periodically to create the crispy ochre-colored skin that is the hallmark of a Filipino lechón.
Carlos Cancio was born in Pampanga, on the northern shore of Manila Bay. He worked multiple jobs after immigrating to the United States as a young man. While delivering packages for DHL in New Jersey, Carlos started experimenting with different ingredients and techniques to perfect his Filipino barbecue. He began roasting whole pigs in his garage, first in Livingston, then in Jersey City, and developed quite a loyal following. Now “retired,” six years ago, he opened the New Barbecue Pit where four of his six children are involved in the family business.
Carlos, too, will not reveal his lechón spices and tricks. You can taste the results of his self-taught barbecue education at the small restaurant with a few tables inside and a bustling take-out business. The lechón has succulent meat with chunks attached to beautifully crispy skin. It is delicious served with a side of garlic or jasmine rice. The flavor is slightly sweet, as is the lechón sauce for marinating and dipping that Carlos serves and sells by the bottle. Add a squirt of homemade chile sauce from the bottles on the table if you want it spicier. At $9 for a pound of meat, this is another ethnic barbecue bargain. While he will not divulge his secret for achieving a crispy skin on every pig he cooks, Carlos is quick to share advice and life lessons. “Failure makes you wise,” he noted while explaining his efforts to master Filipino lechón.
According to Carlos’ son, Louie Cancio, who mans the kitchen at the New Barbecue Pit, Christmas is peak season for whole lechón orders. They roast as many as sixty pigs a day for family celebrations during the Holidays, working all night long to meet the demand. The rest of the year, they make around ten pigs each weekend. Depending on the size, a thirty to forty-five pound whole pig costs between $180 and $200 dollars.
The New Barbecue Pit also serves Filipino specialties like pancit (stir-fried rice noodles), embotido (Filipino meatloaf), and lumpia (fried spring rolls). Chicken, ribs and pulled pork round out the menu for American BBQ fans. In fact, this Bergen County Filipino barbecue spot attracts mostly non-Filipino customers. Not surprising, given the Cancio family’s attention to good barbecue. What makes Filipino lechón special? According the elder Cancio, “You blend the flavors with your heart and mind.”
Portuguese BBQ spots are multiplying in New Jersey, with menus that feature barbecued chicken, ribs, grilled steaks, and Portuguese originals like cubed pork with potatoes (picadinho) or clams (á Alentejana).
For a special treat, find a restaurant that serves Leitão á Bairrada, whole suckling pig prepared with a paste of garlic, white pepper and pig fat rubbed over the entire pig inside and out, as is the tradition in the Bairrada region of Portugal. The result is subtly-flavored meat encrusted in super-crispy skin. The skin, much thinner on young pigs, is irresistible – glistening, crispy and a deep, reddish-ochre color. It’s all you can do to resist snapping off the tip of an ear as soon as it is within reach. The melted layer of fat between the skin and meat coats every slice of pork with even more flavor. One of the best meals I’ve had in New Jersey, or anywhere else, is the leitão from Elizabeth’s appropriately named Casa do Leitão. Sadly, the owner passed away last year and the restaurant has closed.
Another source for leitão, still open, is Newark’s Coimbra, conveniently located just across the Passaic River from Red Bull Arena. There is a full bar on one side and a large dining room on the other at this neighborhood spot away from the Ironbound’s main thoroughfare. If you are lucky, a leitão will have just come out of the oven. A plate goes very nicely with a bottle of Portuguese vinho verde. If the pork is still roasting, try the homemade chourico, served flaming, or the richly satisfying duck fried rice (arroz de pato).
So next time you have a hankering for barbecue, try an ethnic version. Many of your New Jersey neighbors know just where to find them.
8 Spots for Ethnic BBQ in New Jersey
La Fusta – North Bergen
1110 Tonnelle Avenue 201-770-1950
El Artesano – Union City
4101 Bergenline Avenue
El Unico – Union City
4211 Park Avenue
La Churreria – Union City
3300 Bergenline Avenue
Lechón is available on weekends.
New Barbecue Pit – Bergenfield
100 North Washington Avenue
BBQ at Legal Beans – Jersey City
2 Division Street
This tiny take-out spot serves Filipino Cebu-style lechón by the pound on weekends. Order ahead for a whole pig.
Coimbra – Newark
637 Market Street
El Lechón de Negron – Food truck
Regular location: 849 North Avenue, Elizabeth
An original version of this post appeared as “Food Geography: Ethnic BBQ” in Edible Jersey Magazine (High Summer 2013).