When it comes to barbecue in North Carolina, whole hog is canon. At restaurants across the state, giant smokers are loaded with pigs to be slowly cooked over real wood smoke for hours, resulting in that shreddable, juicy, tender pulled meat the state is famous for. Until recently, very few dared to experiment outside of those strict parameters. The religion of Carolina barbecue left little room for expression.
Enter Jorge Thorne and Lechon Latin BBQ. Thorne opened the pan-Latin restaurant in Triangle Town Center last year. From the outset, Lechon Latin BBQ took the barbecue script and threw it out the window, joining a handful of other North Carolina restaurants in declaring a new era of ’cue.
At Lechon, Thorne takes diners on a culinary tour of the Americas, marrying the traditional idea of a meat-and-three barbecue joint with flavors from Puerto Rico, Argentina, Thorne’s native Peru, and more. After moving to North Carolina from Florida seven years ago, Thorne looked around and realized that aside from Mexican food, he couldn’t find many of the foods he had grown up with. So Thorne ditched a nearly 15-year career in pharmaceuticals and set about opening a restaurant serving the cuisines he couldn’t find in the Triangle.
Opening a restaurant is no easy task, but luckily Thorne had a history in hospitality. His family was in the restaurant business back in Peru. “I grew up watching them,” he remembers, “helping them, and playing in restaurants.” His mother was an accomplished cook, at one point running the kitchen for the Peruvian embassy in Quito, Ecuador.
“The idea of owning your own business was sort of built into me,” Thorne said. With a sort of familial institutional knowledge and a determination to succeed, he worked to bring his dream to reality. He got his first break when he found the space in Triangle Town Center. A former California Pizza Kitchen, it was already outfitted with a wood-fired oven. “When I came here and saw the space, I was really excited about it,” he recalled.
That oven has become the heart of the menu at Lechon Latin BBQ. It’s used for Argentinian sausages, Peruvian roast chicken, and of course the restaurant’s namesake dish, lechon. A staple in Puerto Rican cuisine, the slow-cooked young pig with crispy skin and meltingly tender meat is far and away the most popular item at the restaurant.
Lechon Latin BBQ prepares each day’s lechon the night before. The pigs are loaded into the oven at the end of the night, and the oven is sealed up tight. The pigs cook in the residual heat of the oven overnight, ready to be served the next morning.
In true Carolina style, you can get the lechon as part of a barbecue platter or as a sandwich, served on Cuban bread with sauteed onions and garlic mayonnaise. You can also have it served carnitas style; as part of a Cuban sandwich with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard; or double down on meatiness with the Lechon Burger. Thorne estimates they go through 125 pigs each month to satisfy the demand for lechon. It’s especially popular with Puerto Rican and Filipino customers who crave a taste of home. “It’s a challenge, because their expectations are high,” Thorne laughed, noting that a customer once told him that his lechon was better than their grandmother’s. High praise indeed!
Also popular at Lechon Latin BBQ are the Peruvian style roast chickens. Thorne sources Peruvian Panca peppers in order to emulate the flavors he was used to back home. He estimates they go through about 350 chickens a month served as part of a platter with sides, on top of flatbreads, or to-go as a family-style meal.
The menu expands from there, truly living up to its pan-Latin roots. Thorne and his team created the various offerings as part of a conscious effort to stand out from the crowd. “We don’t compete with traditional barbecue, and we don’t really compete with Mexican restaurants either,” he said. Sure, you can get tacos (jerk chicken, queso lechon, carnitas, and more) but the menu also features wings, burgers, flatbreads, and rice bowls. The Ranchera Burger comes with Adobo-seasoned fries and homemade hot sauce for dipping, along with an entire jalapeno for those who like it hot.
Several dishes incorporate salchipapas, a hotdog-like fast food common across South America. A wide selection of Argentinian empanadas are also on offer. Sides span from Cuban black beans to Mexican elote salad to fried yuca. All of this can be washed down with margaritas, mojitos, and cult favorite Latin American drinks like Inca Kola, Malta Goya, maracuya (passionfruit) juice, and more.
By casting a wide net, Lechon Latin BBQ has garnered a loyal following of customers from across the Triangle and beyond. It’s not uncommon to find families that have driven in from an hour away, Thorne says. “They come here and they eat the food that they grew up with,” he said. “You can bring these people closer to home with the food.”
All that praise has led to glowing online reviews and accolades. Whereas a lot of restaurants struggle to survive their first year in business, Lechon Latin BBQ thrived, being named one of the best barbecue restaurants in the state by Eater and one of the best new restaurants of 2022 by The News & Observer. The restaurant has even garnered the attention of Univision and will be featured on an undisclosed upcoming television series (shhh, it’s still a secret).
Through it all, Thorne has leaned on his familial roots as an entrepreneur and cook. His mother came up from Florida during the restaurant’s first weeks to help him tweak some recipes, and he says he regularly hears from his father about how proud he is that his son is creating his own legacy and working for himself.
Right now, Thorne and his team are focused on maximizing the potential of their space at Triangle Town Center, although he fields regular requests from customers for new locations. “People are asking us to open in Chapel Hill and in Durham,” he said, “but we’re still making baby steps here.” New locations might be in the cards for Lechon Latin BBQ down the road, but for now you’ll have to pop in to the original spot to get some perfectly roasted Peruvian chicken, juicy burgers, and of course a platter of that meltingly tender lechon. This culinary adventure across Latin America doesn’t require a passport, but be sure to pack your appetite!
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