Tucked into the corner of the newly opened Market Line—a bazaar-like food court on New York City’s Lower East Side—is a Puerto Rican restaurant called Que Chevere. Translated from Spanish as “how fantastic,” Que Chevere peddles traditional Puerto Rican food, a cuisine that is overwhelmingly lacking in prominent representation in this city. This dearth of Puerto Rican food in New York is one of the main reasons why Michael Petrovitch and his daughter Lillian Quinones opened Que Chevere in the first place.
“I’ve been here all my life, [and] there’s no Puerto Rican restaurants near me,” Que Chevere’s culinary director Lillian Quinones says. “I feel like our culture’s slowly dying.”
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When she does find restaurants hawking roasted pork or stewed red beans, it’s certainly not up to her standards: “It’s always dry and hard [and] not sauced. I never like it,” she says.
But Que Chevere is doing Puerto Rican food the way it should be done. Lillian developed all of the recipes for the restaurant, stringing together a tightly edited menu. Here, you’ll find golden tostones, or sweet fried plantains shaped like round coins, half-moon empanadas jammed with cheese and chicken, and crisp hunks of fried chicken. But what Que Chevere is most proud of is its pernil.
Pernil is typically slow-cooked pork leg or shoulder, roasted in the oven or speared on a stick and crisped-up over a spit (a practice most often employed in Puerto Rico). After emerging from the oven, the pork is wrenched apart into tender ribbons, just like pulled pork, and served with a side of potato salad and rice strewn with plump pigeon peas. It’s a dish prepared for the holidays or big celebrations, a plate that can be shared with many people. “It always brings family together,” Lillian says of pernil. “It’s just a love thing.”
Lillian learned how to make pernil from her grandfather. “He used to season [the pork] in our kitchen sink,” she says. “He cut holes in the shoulder and put vinegar, lemon juice, and lime.” Then, without relying on measurements, he would massage the pork with a slew of spices—everything from pepper to onions and garlic and culantro—then slide it into the oven to slowly cook overnight.
“[My grandfather] told me: ‘Don’t forget your culture,’” Lillian says. “Pass it on.” And that’s exactly what she’s doing at Que Chevere: introducing pernil and other Puerto Rican favorites to the neighborhood, along with allowing Puerto Rican locals to experience a taste of home through shredded roast pork sandwiches and crackly tostones.
So far, Que Chevere has seen a lot of success and feedback, with high praise from people comparing the pernil to their grandmother’s cooking. I, too, am a fan, having sampled the sweet pernil, yellow rice with pigeon peas, and chunky potato salad on a recent visit to the food hall.
But for those who can’t make it to Que Chevere, making pernil at home is still possible. Below you’ll find their recipe for pernil, one smeared with sofrito (a pepper, tomato, and cilantro sauce that is the foundation for Puerto Rican cooking) and adobo for a bit of a kick. Once you’ve picked up the pork shoulder, make sure to really get in there and massage it with all of the spices—it makes for a crispy skin and a soft, tender interior.
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“You gotta love [pernil] and massage it,” Lillian says. “It’s got to taste good—not just for you, but for everyone else.”
Pernil is often prepared for Christmas and other big celebrations, as a 10-pound pork shoulder is plenty big to feed a crowd. The pork shoulder must be massaged with a slew of uniquely Latin ingredients, like adobo seasoning, sazonador, and adobo seasoning with saffron, spices which can be purchased on Amazon and are often found in the international aisle of the grocery store.
- 10.5 lbs bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder
- 1 cup sofrito
- 1/4 cup lime juice
- 7 cloves garlic
- 5 tablespoons adobo seasoning (like Goya Adobo)
- 5 tablespoons sazonador
- 1 tablespoon adobo seasoning with saffron (like Goya Adobo with saffron)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 6 cups water
- Use the water to clean the pernil, then poke holes in the pork shoulder & separate skin from the meat to allow it to crisp up. Do not remove the skin entirely.
- Cover the pork in lime juice, sofrito, spices, and salt. Stuff garlic cloves into the holes created in step 1.
- Marinate for at least 24 to 36 hours.
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Roast in the oven for one hour.
- After one hour, lower the heat to 250°F and roast for an additional 6 hours.
- Briefly let cool. Pull pork apart & serve.
Header image courtesy of Andrew Bui.