N.Y. (Heart) Trans Fat

Quick-stop diners like 116 Cuchifritos, a restaurant in Spanish Harlem, are trying to figure out how to comply with New York's new ban.
Quick-stop diners like 116 Cuchifritos, a restaurant in Spanish Harlem, are trying to figure out how to comply with New York's new ban. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

NEW YORK -- What New York does better than any other American city is the risky $4 lunch, the culinary answer to betting it all on red 32 in roulette -- fun in the moment, ill-advised later on. We're talking about establishments like 116 Cuchifritos, a restaurant in Spanish Harlem on 116th Street, not far from Third Avenue.

"Cuchifritos" is a genre of quick-stop diner, Puerto Rican by heritage, and the name loosely translates as "Bring Your Own Lipitor." If you didn't know better you would think the cuisine here was part of some "Apocalypto"-style enemy attack on the hearts of the Latino population, except through the arteries instead of directly through the chest.

For a buck and change per item, you can order a Whitman sampler of fried pork skin, fried pork, fried blood sausage, fried plantains, fried plantains with meat, fried chicken. All of it is on display at the front of the store, against the windows, in tin trays piled high with food of a yellowish golden hue that one imagines can be achieved only by frying in pure pork fat, owner Jose Coto's fat of choice.

"I'll be honest with you," Coto says, "this ban is going to be a big problem and I don't know what will happen."

The ban, of course, is the ban on trans fat -- basically, partially hydrogenated oils, margarines and shortening -- announced last week by the city's Board of Health. It bars anything with more than half a gram of trans fat by July and eradicates all trans fat a year later.

So the giant sighing sound you hear coming from the five boroughs is the sound of chefs and bakers bracing to rejigger their recipes. Most people in the food biz know the city government is just trying to fight heart disease. But how this rather obscure cooking staple -- basically fat that has been chemically altered with hydrogen gas -- became public health enemy No. 1 has caused a lot of head-scratching here.

And the bafflement goes beyond health science to a philosophical question: When did New York transform itself from all-purpose Gomorrah to that annoying friend from Los Angeles who says things like "Dude, you shouldn't eat that"?

It's one thing to reduce crime, shutter porn shops and spiffy up the joint. It's another thing to legislate cholesterol levels. And here, of all places, home of the Maalox moment, the implied setting for every antacid commercial ever filmed. That guy in the raincoat, wincing in front of the hot-dog stand, popping Tum-te-Tum-Tum-Tums to "Dragnet" theme music in those old TV commercials -- that guy was in New York City and it was his inalienable right to a cardiac infarction. You knew he'd return the next day, waving his money, demanding the mustard.

Actually, Cuchifritos 116 probably won't have to change its recipes, as Coto fears, because pork fat is one of those natural fats currently touted as an alternative to trans fat. That's right, lard is the good guy, all of a sudden. But Coto, like a lot of restaurant owners, is a little hazy on this whole subject, so in recent weeks he's begun experimenting with trans fat-free soybean oils. He's been unimpressed by the taste and appalled at what happens when the product sits in those tins for more than 10 minutes.

"When it comes out of the fryer, it looks fine. But then it dries out and gets this waxy look, which is no good," he says. "What we want is something that is dry on the inside and greasy on the outside. That is the way its done in all Latin American countries."

The trans fat-free oil he's used in initial trials produced chicken that reminded him of the birds served by arch rival Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"They make chicken that is juicy on the inside and its much less greasy."

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