Miami has more to it than meets the eye, literally. For every square foot of sandy beach, there are square miles of sprawling neighborhoods. For every block of Ocean Drive there are wide flat avenues that run west, away from the sparkle of Brickell towards home. Sure Brickell and South Beach are home to many, but if you are still having trouble finding heart in Miami, it’s because you haven’t headed far enough west. Don’t get me wrong, somewhere between the Deuce and The Room the east side has heart, but out west, there is a culture of family, fueled by Cuban coffee, living the true American Dream, and it’s pork-flavored. So I followed my nose to Medley last week, and to the smell of a pork belly cold smoking in a La Caja China, I learned the story of the Guerra’s.
It started in 1984, “I was in charge of roasting the whole pig that year for the family,” says Roberto Guerra, CEO of La Caja China, “and every year it was a pain. You had to get cement blocks, the grill would disappear from the last year. I was complaining, you know, telling my dad what a mission this was every year, and he said he had seen something in Havana, in Chinatown, that would work. You know the Chinese built the railroads in Cuba.” Just like they did in America. “It was just a wood box with a tin cover, so we started doing prototypes for times and amount of charcoal.”
La Caja China opened as a company in Medley in 1987, named for the people who inspired it. “I got angry I said ‘Cuban bread is from Miami, Cuban coffee is Italian, I’m going to give credit where it’s due! It was a joke!’” At the time Roberto wasn’t serious about the company, “in my mind it was a hobby to keep my dad busy.” But simple products only need to function to grow, and he’ll be the first to tell you what a simple product it is. So much so that they guarantee your first pig will be perfect.
“Imagine, you’re having 20 people over. You’ve never cooked anything bigger than a turkey. You’re colleagues are coming. You’re sweating. It’s so simple, you add charcoal every hour and the ashes lower the temperature. Lower temp makes better pork. When you reach 187 degrees you open the box, score the skin, and flip it over. Then crisp it to your likings. Your guests will be talking about it for weeks. They leave as ambassadors of the box.”
He’s right. To see it in action and to taste the pig is to become a fan. Which is why in 2002 when Douglas Rodriguez, godfather of Latin cuisine, requested two boxes for a dinner at the CIA in Napa, La Caja China found an ambassador in Bobby Flay. Two years later, Bobby told his friend Sam Sifton, then dining editor of the New York Times, how much he loved it. Soon after an article about this family owned and operated company out of Medley, Florida ended up on the front page of the Food section on the Times.
“Back then we were getting about 70 hits a day on our website, that week we got 46,000.” Now, sales are predominately out of the snow belt in what Roberto aptly calls Gringolandia, apart from two weeks in December when the Latin’s come knocking. The boxes are also distributed in Europe, mostly sold to Germany, Lithuania, and Slovenia. “I don’t know how it happened, maybe a little marketing help from upstairs,” Roberto said. His dad still comes in the shop every day, and his son Avian is the General Manager.
“It’s just a box,” Roberto says again and again. And we love nothing more than keeping it simple here in Genuineland, which is why when founder Brady Lowe asked Bradley Herron to participate in this year’s Cochon 555, we only had to follow our noses to The Cypress Room, where sous chef Michael Beltran is part of that western-bred pork-roasting family. And so out of a high school friendship, we are the first outside of the company to use the next generation La Caja China today, a box big enough to fit our 226 pound homegrown pig!
“I always consider them like Cuban cousins,” Michael says of the Guerra’s, and with good reason, his family was cut from a similar cloth. A piece of denim to be exact, with which Michael’s grandmother started a jean business that grew to be three factories in Miami and the Dominican Republic, and why he was inclined to start his own t-shirt company. P.I.G Inc Apparel was born out of a late night after the kitchen was closed, with the idea of combining design with food and creating something fun for cooks and people who love to eat. “I was the class clown,” he said, “I had an eighth grade teacher who told me I ‘d graduate high school when pigs fly, so I thought it would be cool to use the Banksy piece of a floating cow, but make pigs fly.”
Win or lose, we celebrate heritage hogs today, repping the side of Miami that loves them most. Clad in “Notorious P.I.G.” we present to the chicharron-loving, bourbon-slugging COCHON 555 judges, guests, and friends, a La Caja China Berkshire hog, passed from High on the Hog Farms in Clermont to Dale Volkert at Lake Meadow Naturals, then one Genuineland chef to the next from the graveyard shift to dawn, pulled apart and served in each of these forms.
Head, Neck & Heart
caper, anchovy, boiled egg
tonnato, kumquat, fennel, arugula
clam ceviche, crispy lentils
Legs & Shoulders
fermented rice pancake, kale kimchi, herbs
Blood & Liver & Skin
chocolate, peanuts, strawberry