Pan con lechón has a natural progression. What else is one to do with heaps of juicy, fatty pork leftover from a Sunday roast other than tuck it between two pieces of bread with shards of sticky skin and sweet onions?
The sandwich's portability and simplicity have made it as common as bad traffic and worse attitudes. But with so many options, it's difficult to decide which ones are worth pursuing. Too many ramshackle cafeterias fail to offer the excellence you hope to stumble upon at a hole-in-the-wall. The pork is dry and sparse.
There are otherworldly versions, like the one at Allapattah's Papo Llega y Pon, where the constant thwacking of a meat cleaver seems to set the beat for blaring salsa. Long revered as the city's best pork sandwich (New Times named it so in 2009), this one is a steal. The hot, buttered 16-incher costs a mere $7. A moderately thick layer of chopped shoulder and leg meat with an occasional nub of skin is packed inside a denser-than-usual Cuban roll, closer to an Italian hoagie roll than the ubiquitous, hyper-starchy Cuban bread. The mojo -- a blend of sour orange, garlic, and MSG-packed sazón completa -- is delicate, providing only a slight acidic tinge that props up the smokiness of the pork's rendered fat rather than dominating it.
Despite Papo's legendary status, there is a better version. In Doral, nestled between Pilon and Bustelo warehouses is La Esquina del Lechón. On Sundays, the place rolls out a whole roasted pig to which arriving patrons pay respect with a somber, church-like gaze.
The "el famoso" pan con lechón is a touch smaller, and both the regular ($7.45) and large ($9.45) versions are more expensive than Papo's. But for the extra couple of bucks, you get significantly more meat. Long, tender shreds of it release their glossy juices into buttery-soft bread that lacks both the heft and, unfortunately, the crunchy crust of Papo's version. The mojo here is aggressive with a strong, floral orange bouquet in every bite. The onions are left as large, sticky rings that add hints of sweetness, while Papo dices its onions into a confetti that becomes lost among the knots of pork.
The game point is the skin. Esquina's sandwiches are packed with it. Each bite becomes an ear-shattering symphony, with sticky bits of the stuff clinging to your molars, leaving a lingering, salty hint of pork long after you've paid the bill.
In a perfect world, one without traffic, you could zip into Allapattah for one of the shiny, golden-brown rolls and then pop over to Doral (little more than a 15-minute ride without the crush of congestion) to load it up a dribbling pile of Esquina's skin-studded pork. Might this be the real purpose for the years-long construction where the Palmetto and Dolphin expressways intersect? We'd like to think so.