I'd heard rumors of New Jersey restaurants that serve whole roasted pigs. Filipino lechón, Puerto Rican lechón asado, and Cuban roast pork cooked in a caja china are all on my list of foods to find at EthnicNJ.com. Casa do Leitão popped up on the food boards when I was researching Jersey's best Portuguese food. Translated as "House of Suckling Pig," fans rave about the roast pork that emerges from this unassuming take-out counter and restaurant in nearby Elizabeth, NJ. I made a note of the address (309 Walnut Street) and website, printed out the menu, and waited for the right opportunity to order the Leitão á Bairrada - oven-roasted whole suckling pig.
My opportunity was an invitation to a backyard dinner. We volunteered to bring a pig.
Casa do Leitão's website suggests calling 30 minutes ahead to place a take out order. Ordering over the phone can be a challenge without a working Portuguese vocabulary, however, so my wife and I decided to wing it and simply show up. The restaurant is only fifteen minutes from Essex County, a straight shot if you take Morris Avenue all the way into Elizabeth. Literally "on the other side of the tracks," make the first right onto Walnut Street after passing under the railroad tracks on Magnolia Avenue and you'll see the restaurant, a small building on a residential block with a Portuguese flag out front. There's a take-out entrance with a counter and a cozy dining room with a full bar and six tables.
The full menu at Casa do Leitão includes all kinds of Portuguese BBQ (chicken, ribs, rabbit) and traditional dishes - shrimp in garlic sauce, pork bits with clams (Carne á Alentejana), and oven-roasted goat and lamb - but we had come for just one thing - the Leitão á Bairrada. After navigating a half-Spanish, half-Portuguese conversation with the very friendly woman at the counter, we learned that a whole pig would feed 8-10 people (at least!), cost $150 and be ready in 2 hours. The timing for take out depends on when the next pig comes out of the oven. On weekend days, according to the woman behind the counter, they might cook around 18 pigs. We placed the order and programmed the GPS for the return trip.
We arrived for dinner empty-handed, but promised a splendid main dish as soon as we picked up our pig. Exactly two hours after we had placed the order, our pig came out of the oven, steaming and crackling on a metal spit. The smell of fresh roast pork filled the restaurant and, I have to say, the little pig was quite beautiful. (Apologies to those who don't like food that resembles the animal it once was.) The skin is irresistible - glistening, crispy, colored a deep, reddish-ochre. It's all you can do to resist snapping off the tip of an ear as soon as it is within reach. The pig is presented to go in a parchment-paper-lined cardboard box, shaped like a box of long-stemmed flowers. (This pig would make a fine Valentine's gift alternative.) The box is left uncovered so the skin stays crispy during transport. I was drooling from the porcine aromas, and hunger pains, on the ride home. Our car has never smelled so good.
The leitão in a box made quite an impression upon presentation in our friends' backyard. Imagine serving a whole pig at your next family event. The host, very skilled with a carving knife, made quick work piercing the pork skin and slicing up layers of moist, perfectly cooked meat. The roasted pork skin is so thin and crispy you could suffer a bacon paper-cut if you're not careful. You won't be able to resist grabbing for the first piece to pop in your mouth. What makes Leitão á Bairrada unique, according to the traditional preparation in the Bairrada region of Portugal, is the paste of garlic, white pepper and pig fat rubbed over the entire pig inside and out. The result is a flavorful, not too salty, skin and meat. The melted layer of fat between the skin and meat coats every slice of pork with even more flavor.
Meat this good can be eaten by itself, often with your fingers. It's also good over rice, or in a sandwich. Inspired by David Chang's Momofuku pork buns, our friends served Asian steamed buns, quick pickled cucumbers, Sriracha sauce and cilantro, the makings for spectacular leitão buns. Truly a memorable meal, with plenty left over for ramen, more sandwiches, and a pasta ragu the next week.
I'll seek out other versions of whole roast pig in New Jersey, but Casa do Leitão's Portuguese specialty will be difficult to beat.
For more information on Casa do Leitão, visit EthnicNJ.com.