Fordham Heights’ 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, a small Caribbean lunch counter that doubles as a hub for scratch-off lottery tickets, smells deeply of pork. The fertile musk of caramelized swine sometimes pierces the nostrils like hard wood smoke at a barbecue spot. Here are the culprits: A stack of long chicharrones, curved like boomerangs and beckoning passersby with their gilded exteriors. Pernil, shoulder meat rubbed with garlic, sitting in a metal vat for harvesting. Orejas, ears in broth, bisected by white streaks of cartilage. Cuajito, meaty pig stomach, which counter workers snip apart with scissors. And blood sausage, ferric links that a party of four devours by the Quick Draw kiosk.
A full serving of that morcilla costs just $2, even though it exhibits no fewer nuances than the $20 boudin noir you might encounter at fancier venues. The sausage, paradoxically light yet also earthy and rich, serves as a reminder that if you’re not considering Puerto Rican pork within the scope of the city’s grand meat and charcuterie traditions, you’re not doing it right.
The Cuban-born Jose Coto opened 188 nearly four decades ago, in 1982. Back then, the five boroughs boasted quite a few cuchifrito parlors — quick-service venues specializing in nourishing Puerto Rican and Dominican fare like crunchy alcapurria fritters, sticky pasteles, tropical juices, tender rotisserie chicken, and fried or slow-cooked pig parts. Other venues remain as well; the small La Isla chain operates across Brooklyn, and a few others ply their porky trade across the Bronx and East Harlem. But still, as new Colombian diners continue to pop up throughout the tristate area, and as sleek new Peruvian and Mexican spots grace Manhattan and Brooklyn, operators don’t seem to be in any hurry to open new cuchifrito places. And even though the Bronx still boasts the city’s largest group of residents of Puerto Rican descent — the city’s second-largest Hispanic group after Dominicans — it’s hard not to feel that establishments like 188 are among the last of their kind.
Coto, who also owns a location of La Isla in Soundview, tells me he’d like to expand but cites high real estate costs in keeping things on a small scale. COVID, of course, has made business a bit more difficult. Earlier on in the pandemic, 188 closed for two months before reopening with more limited business hours, and Coto says he’s having a tough time, like so many other owners, hiring enough staffers. Patrons line up to get in everyday — the venue’s appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” stills draws crowds from afar — but for now the closing time hovers around 10 p.m. or so, much earlier than the old 1 a.m. curtain call.
The lottery portion of his store, which debuted in the 1990s, covers almost half the rent, Coto says.
Bolted stools, some of them missing the actual seats, line a blue counter. Fluorescent lighting illuminates the tile floors and the beverage refrigerator with an efficient, industrial glare. The nightly music is workers hacking up those crackly chicharrones. And the menu, if it can be called that, consists of stylized handwritten signs hanging at eye-level. Those signs, along with the preparations they advertise, are more than two decades old, which means there are no spendy acai bowls, wagyu bavette steaks, or Andean birthday cake ice creams.
Even as consumer tastes evolve along with the Bronx itself, and as many city residents start to espouse more vegetable-forward lifestyles, Coto has largely kept 188 the same. You come here for nourishing starches like papas rellenas — fried mashed potato balls — and for carefully cooked meats whose menu descriptors tend to name the part of the animal from which they come, rather than the title of a chic supplier that offers nationwide shipping on Goldbelly. Indeed, virtually everything I sampled over the course of a few recent visits made me wish more citywide owners and operators would find ways to incorporate this fatty and crispy breed of Caribbean cookery into their menus and business plans. Until that happens, however, I’ll keep coming back to 188 for some very good pork.
The fried morcilla is a good place to start. Koreans sometimes lace their black puddings, or soondae, with savory dried shrimp and vermicelli, while the French often lean more heavily on a warming mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. I find that Puerto Rican morcilla, however, particularly the homemade variety at 188, tends to have a brighter flavor profile. When you chomp down on the rice-stuffed sausage, whose casing is as snappy as a good hot dog, a very particular aroma hits. The scent is less assertively porky or fatty than that of so many of the other delicacies here, and more distinctly grassy — thanks to a strong dose of cilantro. That herb freshens up the palate before the lightly packed sausage seems to dissolve on the tongue like a spoonful of porridge.
The morcilla is a proper meal in itself when paired with alcapurria, an oblong yucca fritter stuffed with picadillo, that classic Latin American blend of beef, tomatoes, and olives. Texture is key to a good alcapurria like this one; it’s faintly crisp on the outside while the body sports a chew so sturdy it almost recalls good mochi.
For a sweeter affair, consider the platanos rellenos (fried and stuffed plantains), packing the marked translucent crunch of good tempura and a tropical flavor so powerful it’s as if someone marinated the maduro in a vat of banana milk. There’s a touch of meat on the inside, a saline counterpart to the sugars. The larger papa rellenas, in turn, function like a knish. A ball of mashed potatoes surrounds a tiny core of meat; you’re essentially here for the pillowy tubers, which somehow taste as if they’ve been laced with a year’s worth of chicken bouillon. I’ll take these over Robuchon’s pommes puree any day of the week.
Ears and stomach, while listed under the cuchifrito section of the menu, are braised instead of fried, but that’s not a problem, as the cooking techniques result in overall excellence. The orejas boast the firm, cartilaginous snap that ear lovers obsess over; biting into one is like eating a magically digestible slice of plastic flanked by soft gelatins. The pork stomach, in turn, conveys a massive level of meaty savoriness, followed by an organ-y drop kick. Counter workers will throw in a few guineitos (sauteed green bananas with onions) to help counter the offal-esque funk.
Pernil, a traditional dish of slowly roasted swine, might not flaunt the same fatty tenderness or crisp, candy-like exterior as at La Isla in Mott Haven (unrelated to any of the aforementioned La Isla locations) but it’s still undeniably delicious. The pernil is particularly tasty when it takes up ample space in mongo, a plantain dish that owes a debt to Spanish, Taino, and West African cuisines — the triad of influences that comprise Puerto Rico’s traditional cocina criolla. At 188, staffers pulverize the starchy platanos in a mortar and pestle, then mold them into a small dome laced with almost as much pork as fruit. Douse it all in a garlicky broth that comes on the side for a dish that rivals sit-down versions of this staple; the mashed bananas soak up all the umami flavor of the pork while letting the coarse, chewy texture of the meat come through with striking clarity.
The chicharron Dominicano is no less a work of art. Staffers chop the forearm-sized wonder into bite-sized morsels, revealing a precise cross section within: a meaty core surrounded by squishy white fat, and then, a golden layer of skin that’s more crackly than a lollipop. If 188 were allowed to sell these at Yankee games they’d become the new official snack of the stadium.
For dessert, the store offers rice pudding and flan, though I generally prefer the morir soñando (literally: to die dreaming), a Dominican staple that blends orange juice — freshly squeezed here — with condensed milk. It’s tempting to compare the beverage to a creamsicle or an Orange Julius, but I find the flavors to be a bit more subtle. The OJ flaunts its sunny citrus aroma and restrained acidity, but the underripe fruit packs a complex greenness, too, which nicely offsets the sugars and dairy funk of the milk. Whenever I’m around here I slurp down the drink right outside the restaurant, while balancing myself on a docked Citi Bike and surveying the neighborhood. Whether it’s just after midday or closer to 10 p.m., this stretch of the Bronx always seems to have more pedestrian energy than my Hell’s Kitchen block near the Hudson. Perhaps my part of town could use a cuchifrito parlor too.