Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408. They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals. There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered. It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place. Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.
Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8. I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste. I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home. To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day. WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT? But I digress.
First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas. That’s what I always go for. Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.
Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more. I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that). You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).
Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes. Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry. I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here. Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin. I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes. I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading. It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.
Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did. Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.
My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste. The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes. They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that! I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.
But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything. I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce. My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that. Make sure you ask for it. I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo! I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.
Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture. Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:
Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love. This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there. You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish. (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.) They don’t even have a website or a menu online. But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando. It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool. It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine. It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that. What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality. This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it. Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10. That is a rare and wonderful thing.