The eastern end of 125th Street feels pretty desolate these days, with massive construction sites dominating the landscape on the blocks before Harlem's most famous thoroughfare turns into an on-ramp for the Triborough Bridge. But as dreary as the strolling scenery may be over here right now, there's still a cluster of storefronts holding it down by Second Avenue, and one of those — a tiny, takeout-only spot called Lechonera La Isla — serves some of the best Puerto Rican food in town.
Lechonera La Isla traditionally operates as a classic lunch counter, though the pandemic has transformed it into a takeout-only operation for now. The cushiony seats have all been removed from the short row of stools, leaving only the "trunks," and hastily installed sheets of plexiglass separate you from the lone counter person who packs up your order. A handwritten menu is taped near the register, or you can just peer through the plastic and see what's available in the steam tables by the window.
As its name implies, the Lechonera menu is packed with pig. Pernil, the heavily seasoned roast pork shoulder, is probably the signature dish here, and it is excellent — the meat nice and tender, loaded with flavor, with a good amount of fatty, sticky chunks of skin thrown in. The dish comes with a potent, delicious garlic sauce which you should dump all over everything with abandon, but I'd also recommend some of the vinegary hot sauce on the counter for your mountain of, in this case, yellow rice and pink beans.
There's Chicharron here as well, and a few Roast Chickens, sometimes Oxtail, and Carne Guisada — but for my other "entree" I went with the Pig's Feet, and they turned out to be among the best I've ever had, a huge pile all loaded with meat and gooey with fat. A couple of supplemental items rounded out the feast (which, I should say, lasted me the entire weekend): a decent empanada stuffed with ground beef, and some tangy and intense blood sausage, which the server cut into six big chunks that made for a lovely addition to my platters.
This food is fantastic and it all travels well and stands up to reheating, so bringing it back home may be your best eating option. That said, there are a few picnic possibilities nearby, including Harlem River Park on 128th Street, or the compact Dream Street Park on 124th, which has a handy table sitting out in the snow.
Lechonera La Isla is located at 254 East 125th Street, near Second Avenue, and is currently open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily (212-996-1972)