Cuchi-what? The Puerto Rican Way to Fry Everything

Get ready New York City! The National Puerto Rican Day Parade is happening this Sunday in honor of the over 8 million Puerto Ricans inhabiting NYC and "la isla del encanto," Puerto Rico. Before Sunday, however, you can spot Latin pride all over the city and in honor if this prideful occasion we're featuring some Latin highlights and photos from one of the largest spots in Harlem- Spanish Harlem. Here's our first feature...

Since moving to New York, it has been my personal mission as a self-proclaimed foodie to really expand my taste buds and dive into the Big Apple's culinary explosion, head first. However, with a dwindling bank account, it can be difficult to navigate the waters without first having the money to throw down. With that said, when I found a restaurant where I can shell out $1.50 for some bacalao (codfish fritters), both my stomach and wallet were very, very happy.

Cuchifritos Frituras, directly east of the Lexington Avenue subway at 116th street has been serving traditional Latin American fare for years, and is one of the most famous spots for this Puerto Rican fried food phenomenon. But what in the world exactly is a cuchifrito? Often described as Puerto Rican soul food, cuchifritos are simply fried food and most traditionally, pork. Cuchi, short for cochino, translates to pig, whereas frito describes something fried. Put it all together and you've got fried goodness, served with love, for a total bargain of the price.

In Spain, cuchifritos were typically found near Castilla-La Mancha, the same region of Spain where Don Quixote, the famous novel by Miguel De Cervantes, takes place. Historically, when people had to sustain themselves by living and eating off of the animals they had, every piece of the pig was used to concoct some dish. Years later, Cuchifritos is keeping that same tradition alive by creating dishes such as chicharron (fried pork skin), morcilla (blood sausages) and pigs ears and tongue.

Cuchifritos in Spanish Harlem, off of 116th Street may perhaps be one of the most famous spots for people to bask in the tradition of eating cuchifritos, which for many, brings them back to memories of their childhood. Whether it be your first time tasting crackling pork skin or your twentieth, the experience to be had at Cuchifritos is nothing short of remarkable.

Before even entering the restaurant, I knew I was in for a treat. Perhaps the best part about Cuchifritos is the flashing neon sign hanging above the door.  With that and the fact that I was being served by an older gentleman wearing a candy striper uniform reminiscent of an amusement park vendor, I truly felt like I was being transported to an unexpected part of New York I had yet to discover. I began my culinary journey with a small parcha refresco naturale, a passion fruit-flavored juice that was exceedingly tart and sweet, the perfect thirst quencher on a balmy NYC afternoon.

Instead of browsing through pages of a menu at Cuchifritos, all the different options for food are layered and enclosed in a small, glass case that people line up and practically glue their faces to in order to decide what to eat. At first glance, it's overwhelming, especially if you find yourself a bit clueless looking at all the various tubs of fried food, vegetables, plantains and the like. Let's just say, it was quite the display.

Growing up in an Italian household where I ate platefuls of arancini - traditional Italian fried rice balls filled with meat -  I couldn't resist trying the papas rellenas, fried potato balls stuffed with meat at Cuchifritos. The golden-brown, oval shaped, were gleefully oversize in portion and rich and comforting in taste. The crunchy potato "crust" melted in my mouth and the butteriness cut through the decadent, homey taste of the beef. After devouring a full one, I was absolutely full, but like I always do, I pushed through the pain, convincing myself I had to try a few more things.

The fried cod fish fritters ($1.50, people!) were surprisingly light, flakey and mild in flavor while the maduros, or sweet plantains, were dark brown in color, super-ripe in texture and beyond flavorful (and sweet), making for the perfect "dessert" for my adventure in cuchifritos. Something I distinctly noticed were the different options for plantains on the menu - whether stuffed with meat (pionono relleno) or softened and ground with garlic and chicarrones (monfongo al pilon), plantains seemed to be a classic for all cuchifritos lovers.

My first experience at Cuchifritos was a very rustic one - though I wasn't able to try everything I wanted to on the menu (next time, blood sausage!), it was a unique and tasty first trip. While I'm already planning my return, I can't help but urge those who haven't tried Cuchifritos, to hop on the uptown 6 and give it a try. Fried pork skin and coconut juice is literally calling your name.

Photo: Juntos Worldwide