Suckling pig (cochinillo) was one of our favorite dishes in Spain and we seek it out wherever we travel. It is also a special dish in Latin America, where it is called lechón. Now, we have the same enthusiasm trying the many versions of lechón created by chefs in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where they spice it up in ways true to the bold nature of Mexican cuisine.
Mexico produces and consumes a lot of pork, but pigs didn’t even exist in Mexico until the 1500’s. Pigs were first domesticated in Asia as long as 9000 years ago. The Spanish brought pigs with them during their explorations and conquest in the new world. Christopher Columbus first brought pigs with him to Cuba on his second voyage in 1493. When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 he had pigs with him. Spanish and Portuguese explorers even dropped off breeding pairs of pigs on islands that they visited to ensure future food supplies, spreading pork throughout the New World.
Suckling pig is a celebratory dish in Spain, served during holidays and special occasions. The same is true throughout Latin America. However, there are some differences. The piglets used for lechón in Mexico are not necessarily the same as for cochinillo in Spain.
In Spain, the rules for what can be considered suckling pig are strict, especially in Segovia, where piglets can be no older than 3 weeks and the carcass must weigh between 3.8 and 5.8 kg (about 8.4 to 12.8 pounds) to bear the Cochinillo de Segovia label.
In the rest of the world, the rules are more lax. According to Wikipedia, in culinary terms, a suckling pig can be slaughtered anytime between 2 and 6 weeks of age. For Mexico in particular, Larousse Cocina is a great reference resource for Mexican cuisine. According to the Larousse Cocina dictionary, lechón is slaughtered at a maximum age of 2 months and weighs less than 15 kg, or 33 pounds.
Suckling pig has a very distinct flavor. The name lechón comes from the Spanish word for milk, leche, because the piglets have not yet been weaned from their mother’s milk. That milk diet is reflected in the flavor and texture of the meat. It has a unique flavor that we always associate with suckling pig but find hard to describe—earthy, creamy, buttery, barnyardy in a good way. Lots of “oinkiness,” as my husband calls it. The meat should be very tender, since the piglets haven’t developed much muscle yet. If cooked with the skin on, the skin should be golden brown and crispy, with the underlying fat layer melted and absorbed into the meat. This is what we are hoping for any time we see suckling pig on a restaurant menu.
Once again, the restaurants in San Miguel de Allende have come through for us by giving us lots of options for eating our most beloved foods. Lechón can be found on menus all over the city. These are our favorites so far, each version different, a reflection of the chef and the style of the restaurant. In alphabetical order:
Atrio sits on a rooftop right next to the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel with a gorgeous view of the pink spires soaring over the restaurant. Curiously, they do not have a website so we walked in without a reservation to check out the menu. We liked what we saw, especially the Lechón. After a few minutes wait, the hostess was able to fit us into some bar seats. Chef Arturo Sandoval includes a lot of Asian influence in his menu. The Lechón con Pera (Pork and Pear) was wonderful. Crisp skin and moist tender meat seasoned with smoked hoisin sauce. The accompanying pear puree with red wine and cardomom was intense and fruity; perfect with the pork. A glass of Mexican merlot from Datum paired well with the flavors.
The evening lighting in Atrio is low, nice for ambiance and viewing the Parroquia, but not so good for photos. To make up for the poor lighting on the Lechón, I give you the glowing spires of the Parroquia overhead.
Cuna de Allende 3, Centro
The mesquite honey lechón at Bovine Brasserie is the real thing, a serious 800 gram portion of suckling pig that reminded us of the cochinillo we loved in Spain. The meat was tender and juicy, the skin crispy on some portions and soft on others. It was served over a velvety potato purée with a savory pork jus. You get a quarter of a pig that our server estimated was a 4-6 kg piglet, just the right size by Segovian standards. It is one of their dishes to share, cut into six pieces and meant for the center of the table.
Canal 16, Centro
Jacinto 1930 opened in the Doce 18 Concept House in 2016. It is the second restaurant of Chef Matteo Salas, a Top Chef Mexico finalist known in San Miguel for his restaurant Aperi. The food at Jacinto 1930 is based on Oaxacan cuisine. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven moles, so it is fitting that the Lechón is accompanied by mole negro. The lechón had a lot of that distinctive “suckling pig” flavor we were looking for with a golden brown and crispy skin. The mole negro was rich and complex, with dark chocolate and warm spice, not too sweet so that the flavors still worked with our red wine. We appreciated that the mole was served to the side so that we could control the amount in each bite. A dab of plantain puree provided a unique sweet touch to the dish.
Doce 18 Concept House
Relox 18, Centro
Luna Tapas Bar at Rosewood Hotel
On top of the Rosewood Hotel, Lunas Tapas Bar is one of the most popular spots in San Miguel de Allende for creative cocktails, sunsets and sweeping views over the city. But the food is also a great reason to visit this rooftop. The menu of International tapas includes a variety of small plates, ceviches, burgers, truffle fries, flatbreads, and tacos. The tacos de lechón come with three soft tortillas loaded with chunks of tender roasted suckling pig with bits of the crunchy skin scattered on each one. A bowl of creamy salsa verde is served on the side for embellishment.
Luna Rooftop Tapas
Nemesio Diez 11, Centro
Tostévere opened in the fall of 2018. This intimate restaurant has just six tables and a cozy little bar. The menu is also small and thoughtful, with a handful of starters, tostadas, and flat sandwiches. Chef Antonio’s family is from Yucatán. The suckling pig in his Lechón Yucateco flat sandwich is prepared in the Yucatan style, marinated with sour orange and seasoned with recado negro, a Yucatan spice blend made with charred dried chilis that heats it up. The meat is shredded and pressed into a sandwich like a panini. Served with a side of sweet potato fries, it may look like a basic sandwich, but the meat is moist and the flavors complex.
Codo 4, Centro
And that’s suckling pig, Mexican style! If you are a fan of suckling pig, cochinillo, or lechon you will not be disappointed with any of these options. We look forward to discovering more.