It was clear from our first meeting that Jose Enrique was a chef we wanted to know better. We met at the 2013 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, and his enthusiasm for all things pork was a perfect fit for National Pork Board events. Jose Enrique joined us at our 2014 Pork Summit in Napa Valley as a demo chef, and after four days of tasting his unique take on Puerto Rican food, talking about the importance of pork in his culture’s cuisine and getting a better understanding of the San Juan food scene, our choice for the 2014 Pork Crawl location and host was obvious.
The Pork Crawl kicked off on October 9 with the arrival of fourteen national foodservice media editors to Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan. After hellos and a cool glass of sangria we boarded vans and headed to the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort for a caja China welcome reception. Jose Enrique greeted editors alongside Pedro Álvarez, owner of AlCor Foods Inc. and former sous chef at Jose Enrique. Everyone enjoyed drinks made with local juices and rum in the large palm tree-covered backyard of the perfectly appointed estancia (residence).
The 50-pound, brined, pig had already been roasting in the caja China box for hours when the editors arrived – just in time for them to watch Jose and Pedro flip the pig for even doneness and crispy skin. The editors enjoyed witnessing the technical elements of the cooking process, but the best part was sopping up the delicious roasted juices with pan de agua, a local Puerto Rican bread. The pig had another three hours, so cocktails and stories continued while Pedro served his longaniza sausage, a local favorite with achiote derived,vibrant red-color.
Once the pig was finished, we got our first bite of the perfectly roasted amber-colored skin. The rich, salty bites were addictive! The pig meat was pulled and attendees were invited to make their own sandwiches. A Puerto Rican tradition, the sandwiches start with a sturdy slice of pan de agua topped with roasted meat, pieces of crispy skin, pickled red onion, Puerto Rican avocado (different from the Hass avocado common state-side), a squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of farmer’s cheese and Jose Enrique’s house-made pique (hot sauce). On the side, Jose and Pedro served rice, beans and sweet roasted plantains. The food had people coming back for seconds, thirds and even fourths. The evening was a perfect introduction to Puerto Rican food and hospitality, and the editors went home excited for the next day’s activities.
October 10 kicked off with a traditional Puerto Rican breakfast at Hotel El Convento. Attendees started the day with strong coffee, fresh local juices, traditional Puerto Rican pastries, scrambled eggs with sweet ripe plantain mash, longaniza sausage and Sancocho – a pork stew traditionally served by locals as a hangover cure. Then everyone set off to explore Old San Juan on their own before the Pork Crawl started in the early afternoon.
The goal of the Pork Crawl is to introduce editors to where locals eat and to meet interesting, innovative and inspiring chefs, restaurants and pork dishes – and the first stop certainly delivered. Chef Wilo Benet of Pikayo served Fricase de Patitas y Cachetes de Cerdo, or Stew of Pigs Feet, Ham Hock and Pork Cheeks. Traditionally a rustic dish, Chef Benet elevated the ingredients to perfectly fit his Condado-located fine dining establishment. Paired with a glass of his DOBLEÚ wine, white rice, avocado salad, and a version of pique with the addition of bili, (a local fruit called quenepa, soaked in rum) the dish truly shined.
Originally we planned to head to another lechonera after Apa’s, but we ate so much that we switched the plan and headed up the trail to the town of Guavate. We strolled through the streets, sipped on coconut frappes and took in the local culture. Live music played and local families ordered lunch from one of the many lechoneras in town.
A little walking and exploring did the trick and attendees were ready for the last stop of the Pork Crawl. We boarded the vans and headed halfway down the Ruta de Lechón to Rancho Vega, a small lechonera that specializes in carne frita, or fried pork chunks. The meat is marinated and then fried to perfection – crunchy on the outside and savory on the inside. It was served with rice and beans, local root vegetables and housemade pique. A fitting last stop to a three-day Pork Crawl adventure!
A Conversation With
Pedro Álvarez never studied to become a chef – he learned hands-on in restaurant apprenticeships. He moved to Italy in 2003 and his three-year tour of Italian kitchens spanned everything from fish and pasta to the art of salumi. He eventually moved back to his native Puerto Rico as sous chef at Restaurant Jose Enrique.
During Álvarez’ five-year tenure at Jose Enrique, he saw a need for a commercial artisanal sausage maker – and in 2011, he founded AlCor Foods, Inc. with his three brothers. Álvarez now spends his days crafting flavorful fresh sausages for many top restaurants around the Island – including for his old friends at Jose Enrique.
We caught up with Pedro to talk about opening a commercial sausage factory, Puerto Rican cuisine and his favorite places to eat pork.
1. Can you tell us about your background and how you became a chef?
I started my career at a neighborhood bakery, where I learned how to make bread and sweets. From there I had apprenticeships in San Juan hotels and eventually left Puerto Rico for Canouan, a south Caribbean island, where I gained my first experience as a leader in a kitchen.
In 2003 I moved to Italy to learn the art of Italian cuisine and master the techniques. I started in Sardinia, where I worked in a coastal town for about three months – I learned a lot about seafood!
After that I moved to Verona in northern Italy to work under Fabio Momolo (Master Chef, Master Pâtissier, Ice Sculptor), where I stayed for about two and a half years before moving to La Cedrare under Chef Sagramoso. Here, I started to train in the art of making salumi under an expert.
I returned to Puerto Rico in 2007 to open my own restaurant, but the economy wasn’t right and I needed to reacquaint myself with Puerto Rican ingredients. I met Jose Enrique through mutual friends, and I loved his style of cooking and the ambiance in his restaurant. There was a sous chef opening, and I got the job. I spent five years working at Jose’s restaurants.
2. Do you have a favorite food memory?
My passion for cooking comes from my mom, so my house has the best food memories! Even though I’ve had amazing food all over the globe, my mother’s pig’s feet stew with chickpeas over white rice is the best!
3. You have traveled across the globe, how have your travels affected the way you approach cooking in terms of ingredients and flavor profiles?
It’s interesting – Puerto Rican food is very complex and has a lot of ingredients. In Italy, most of the dishes are pretty simple – three ingredients can make a very flavorful dish. Knowing this, I approach my cooking style by how complex I want the dish to be. Do I want to layer the flavors or keep it simple? Once I make this decision I use my Puerto Rican or Italian skills respectively.
If I had to say just one thing, it would be to always use the fresh produce that grows around you. Those products will make the best dishes.
4. What inspired you to leave the day-to-day restaurant industry to focus solely on sausage making?
When I was working at Jose Enrique I saw the restaurant industry overall having success, but there was a piece of the puzzle missing – there was no artisan producer focusing on sausage-making on a commercial level. Since nobody was doing it, and I saw the gap, I started having the conversations with restaurants, and looked into the USDA certification process.
One of my chefs in Italy said to me, “learn the art and put it in your pocket and keep learning other things. Later on in your life you will need that information and you can just pull it out of your pocket!” – I did just that.
5. Can you tell us about AlCor Foods, Inc. and your customers?
Once I realized the need for a sausage-maker, I talked with my brothers – Jose, Heraldo, and Eduardo – and they agreed to use a family property to make sausages. All four of us had to work together to make the sausage factory – it took about two years to build out and practice everything to be up to code with USDA inspection. We did all this in our free time as we worked day jobs!
I’m the only full-time employee. My brothers have day jobs – a Segway tour company, a photographer, and a chef.
The name comes from a combination of our family, Álvarez and Cortez. We specialize in Longaniza, the traditional Puerto Rican sausage made of pork. The red color is from the addition of boiled annatto seeds. We also make a Spanish chorizo and Italian sausage.
6. What is your favorite sausage to make? How do you recommend serving it?
My favorite sausage to make is definitely the Longaniza. I love all the flavors – oregano, black pepper, annatto oil, garlic. I personally like to add Medalla Light beer in the mix, because it gives the sausage great flavor and goes well with the other ingredients. I think it makes it more elegant.
The best way to serve it is simply, because it is already so flavorful. Typically I grill it, slice it and serve it with tostones and a squeeze of lime.
7. It seems artisan sausages are appearing more on menus today – even having their own dedicated section at times. What are your thoughts about the emerging trend?
Back in the day, the butcher was a very important person in the community. The influx of supermarkets made it hard to find unique sausages. Now, little by little the tradition is coming back. The customer can see the difference and they are liking what they’re tasting. They want more of it!
8. What’s so unique about the Puerto Rican Cuisine?
It’s a melting pot of Spanish, Taino and African cultures. The food is a product of the three cultures – an ingredient from one, cooked in the style of another. Take Mofongo. It is typically made with fried green plantains mashed together, and can be filled with pork or vegetables. The Spanish brought the plantains to the Island from the Caribbean, and the African technique of frying was applied.
9. Can you tell us a little about pork’s popularity in Puerto Rico and its impact on the local cuisine?
Everybody loves pork here on the Island, and not just for special occasions. In a Puerto Rican home you will eat it at least twice a week – mostly pernil, which is the back of the leg marinated and roasted. Especially during holidays, it’s a very big deal to get lechon asado (whole-roasted pig). Some families head to the pit-master on Sundays to pick one up, some families roast their own.
In Puerto Rico, we really eat nose to tail. A lot of the traditional dishes use cuts that are uncommon in America, like whole pig’s feet and cuajito (stomach).
10. Besides sausages, what are your favorite things to eat with pork?
I really like the roasted pernil, and I also enjoy the stomach. There’s also this dish called Gandinga. It’s a stew made from the pig’s liver, heart, and kidneys. It’s excellent served with pique and tostones!
11. What are your favorite pork dishes in Puerto and where can we find them?
In Bayamon, where my factory is, there is a guy with a food truck. He makes incredible ribs and pernil. I wish I could have taken the editors there during the Pork Crawl. I probably eat there twice a week. Also, Apa’s is legendary and one of my favorites. The crispy skin of the pork and the arroz con gandules is the best!
Garnish2 oz fennel sliced
2 oz Vidalia onion sliced
Butter as needed
3 oz avocado diced
3 egg whites boiled and chopped
1 oz micro cilantro
Pork Belly4 oz pork belly
Rice4 oz morcilla (blood sausage) casing removed
2 oz Spanish olive oil
1 cup Spanish bomba rice or regular medium grain rice
2 cups chicken stock
Adobo Mixture2 oz Spanish olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon annatto paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon bay leaf crushed
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne
- Sauté blood sausage in olive oil, and crumbling the sausage.
- Add the rice stirring on high heat for two minutes.
- Add the chicken stock and lower temperature to simmer for 18 minutes.
- You can use any recipe for belly and season with the adobo mixture for 24 hours ahead.
- Use only the skin to garnish and the meat for mixing.
- You can even buy cracklings and add them if you can't find pork belly.
- Mix olive oil, garlic powder, annatto paste, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, onion powder, and cayenne.
- In a sauté pan, caramelize the fennel and onions in butter.
- Combine the rice, fennel, onions, belly meat until heated through.
- Mix in avocado and chopped egg whites.
- Serve in a bowl garnished with the pork belly cracklings and the micro cilantro.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Mario Pagán
Sandwich2 (4 1/2-inch) loaves freshly baked crillo bread from a Spanish panaderia (or small hoagie rolls, Cuban rolls, or baguettes)
2 TBL spicy mayo
1 TBL pineapple jam
2 cucumbers seedless, sliced lengthwise 1/4-inch thick
Kosher salt as needed
2 TBL olive oil
2 slow-cooked pork with crisp skin, sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 leaves lechuga del país or Bibb lettuce
Spicy Mayo1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 TBL fresh lemon juice
1 TBL white wine vinegar
1 small shallot finely chopped
1/2 TBL Dijon-style mustard
Kosher salt as needed
3/4 cup olive oil
2 TBL Sriracha chili sauce
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 TBL cilantro chopped
Pineapple Jam1 cup pineapple peeled fresh and very finely diced
3 TBL butter
1 1/2 TBL light brown sugar
1 tespoon balsamic vinegar
- Whisk together the egg yolk, lemon juice, vinegar, shallot, mustard and a pinch of salt until well combined.
- Add the oil a few drops at a time at first, then in a thin stream, whisking continuously until the mixture begins to thicken.
- Add the Sriracha, white pepper, and cilantro, and whisk a few times to mix well.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
- Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan.
- Heat over medium-low heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, for about 35 minutes, until it has reduced by about half and thickened.
- Remove from the heat and let cool.
- Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
- Preheat the oven to 375° F
- Place the two loaves of bread in the oven for two minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and with the palm of your hand, press the loaves hard against a cutting board. Using a long, serrated knife, cut each loaf in half horizontally.
- Spread one tablespoon of the spicy mayo on the cut side of each bread slice.
- On one of the slices of each loaf, spread one tablespoon of the pineapple jam.
- Lay a slice of cucumber on top of the pineapple jam and sprinkle with a little salt.
- In a small nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and heat the two slices of pork on both sides, about 1 minute per side.
- Dab the pork slices a bit with a paper towel to remove excess oil, and place one piece on each of the slices of bread with the cucumber and pineapple jam along with some of the crisp pork skin.
- Add the lettuce and close the sandwiches.
- Serve immediately.
Ingredients10 pounds pigs feet cooked, bones removed and diced
10 pounds pork cheeks diced
6 pounds smoked ham hocks skin removed, diced
1 cup sofrito
1/4 cup garlic cloves slivered
1 quart onions small diced
1 quart Spanish tomato sauce
3 bottles (750 ml) dry Spanish sherry
1/2 quart raw English peas
80-100 Petit Parisienes (raw) of "Apio" or any other root like Tanier, Taro etc.
- Place all the ingredients with the exception of the "apio" and peas in a heavy bottom pot large enough to accommodate all the ingredients, stir to incorporate all of them well and simmer for two hours.
- At this point taste for seasoning and correct with salt and pepper to taste, add the peas and apio.
- Continue cooking for three to five minutes.
- Serve immediately or hold in a water bath for service.
- Serve stew with white rice, pork cracklings, fresh avocado and pique to compliment according to tradition and personal preference.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Wilo Benet
Did You Know?
The history of pig roasts goes back centuries, and every culture has a favorite preparation method using different heat sources and flavoring agents – from Southeast American barbecue, Hawaiian imus and Cajun cochon de lait to Balinese rotisseries, Cantonese char siu and Argentinian lechón al asadores. Most pig roasts are synonymous with social gatherings, whether for family and friends, special events or holidays.
In the Caribbean, the preferred whole-hog cooking method is using a caja China, or “Chinese Box” – a roasting box that delivers succulent pork with crispy, crackling skin. The name “China” actually comes from a common Hispanic Caribbean term that describes something magical, exotic or mysterious. The name is attributed to the “magic” that takes place when the pig goes into the box and stays closed in the box until it is ready to flip and roast again skin side up. The perfectly roasted pig emerges from the box after hours of concealment and is ready to eat.
The box itself is a wooden, rectangular box lines with galvanized or stainless steel. It is raised above the ground by four legs and has a heavy metal lid that fits tightly on the top of the box. The lids will have long handles that allow you to remove the top while covered in hot coals. They often have wheels on one end of the box for ease of setup and transportation.
Using a caja China is a relatively simple process – and one of the faster whole-hog cooking methods. Using a butterflied roaster pig (about 50 pounds dressed), the drawn pig is fixed (skin-side down) between two racks, dropped into an insulated wooden box and covered. The lining and cover are made from galvanized or stainless steel. Coals are placed on the cover and ignited to heat the box to approximately 225 to 250°F. The whole process takes about six to eight hours. Halfway through the process the pig is removed, juices are drained from the chest cavity and reserved for jus, and the pig is flipped and the lid is covered in coals again for even doneness and crispy skin.
The Cuban inspired Puerto Rican specialty is best served between slices of local pan de agua bread topped with roasted meat, pieces of crispy skin, pickled red onion, chilled slices of avocado, a squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of farmer’s cheese and pique (hot sauce).
In Cuba, the pig is marinated in a citrus mojo sauce and served with Cuban bread, black beans and rice, yucca, tostones, and plantonos maduros (fried sweet, ripe plantains).
Whether for a private event, off-site catering or dinner series, give the caja China a try. You can build your own, or purchase one from http://www.lacajachina.com/
Menus across the country are getting more creative. Pork’s popularity continues to grow and savvy chefs are serving up unique preparations that show off its versatility and incredible flavor. From spicy sausage breakfast sandwiches to candied bacon-topped burgers, discover who’s cooking with pork.
- Wendy’s introduced the three pulled pork items nationally that they tested early this year: (5,791 units, HQ in Dublin, OH)
- The BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich features hickory-smoked pulled pork and crunchy slaw on a brioche bun, with a choice of sweet, smoky or spicy barbecue sauce.
- The BBQ Pulled Pork Cheeseburger features a Wendy’s beef patty topped with hickory-smoked pulled pork, a slice of Cheddar cheese and crunchy slaw.
- The BBQ Pulled Pork Cheese Fries start with Wendy’s Natural-Cut Fries and add on warm Cheddar cheese sauce, hickory-smoked pulled pork, diced red onion and a choice of barbecue sauce.
- TacoTime added pork carnitas to the list of protein options for their menu. (156 units, HQ in Scottsdale, AZ)
- Cracker Barrel added Apricot Glazed Pork Chops with pecan wild rice to their seasonal menu. It features two tender, seasoned pork chops grilled, topped with a sweet apricot glaze, layered with brown rice pilaf pecan dressing, and is served with a choice of two country vegetables and made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins. (625 units, HQ In Lebanon, TN)
- Seasons 52 offers an autumn menu with Wood-Roasted Pork Tenderloin and Portobello, made with soft herb polenta, broccolini, caramelized cipollini onion and roasted onion jus. (35 units, HQ in Orlando, FL)
- Applebee’s added new Crosscut Ribs – crosscut from the pork loin and slow-cooked for juicy, bone-in flavor, then tossed in a choice of sauce and served with BBQ-spiced fries and coleslaw. (1,861 units, HQ in Kansas City, MO)
- Dunkin Donuts is bringing back the Spicy Smoked Sausage Breakfast Sandwich for a limited time. It features a split spicy sausage link with egg and American cheese on an oven-toasted English muffin. (7,677 units, HQ in Canton, MA)
- Glory Days Grill is offering a Brewer’s Sausage Sandwich: beer-braised German–style sausage tossed with sautéed onions and peppers on a split-top bun served with seasoned fries, stone ground mustard, sweet red cabbage sauerkraut and a crispy pickle. (21 units, HQ in Gaithersburg, MD)
- Brio Tuscan Grill added a Fennel Sausage and Roasted Tomato Trecce Pasta, made with fennel sausage, juicy tomatoes, broccoli, chili flakes and rosemary topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and sourdough breadcrumbs. (61 units, HQ in Columbus, OH)
- Denny’s added Apple Danish Stuffed French Toast with chorizo-topped hash browns. The menu item is made with whipped cream cheese and warm apple filling stuffed between two thick slices of French toast topped with cinnamon sauce and served with hash browns topped with crumbled chorizo sausage and onions. (1,599 units, HQ in Spartanburg, SC)
- Spritz Burger offers Babe’s Demise Pork Burger – a seasoned pork patty topped with root beer-braised apple, bacon and white Cheddar cheese on a butter bun. (1 location in Chicago, IL)
- Papa John’s latest limited time offer is the Ultimate Meats Pizza, featuring premium pepperoni, deli-style salami, sausage, center-cut Canadian bacon, hickory-smoked bacon and mozzarella cheese with all-natural pizza sauce on hand-tossed crust. (3,207 units, HQ in Louisville, KY)
- Jack’s Wayback Burgers introduced the Pepperoni Pizza Burger – a burger patty topped with pepperoni, mozzarella slices and pizza sauce. (83 units, HQ in Cheshire, CT)
- Carl’s Jr. and Hardees have added new bacon menu items, including: (Carl’s JR: 1,157 units, HQ in Carpinteria, CA and Hardees: 1,749 units, HQ in St. Louis, MO)
- The Double Loaded Omelet Biscuit: a biscuit topped with two folded-egg omelets stuffed with crumbled sausage, diced ham, chopped bacon pieces and shredded Jack and Cheddar cheeses and topped with American cheese.
- The Mile High Bacon Cheese Thickburger, featuring thick Applewood-smoked bacon on a Thickburger with American cheese.
- Ruby Tuesday also added two new items: (736 units, HQ in Maryville, TN)
- Pressed Cuban: slow-roasted pulled pork tossed in a tangy mustard barbecue sauce, pressed Cuban-style on a hoagie roll with melted Swiss cheese.
- Shrimp Po’ Boy Flatbread: a flatbread topped with Andouille sausage, bacon, fried popcorn shrimp, Parmesan cream sauce, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and drizzled with creamy chipotle sauce.
- Kona Grill launched a Cuban sandwich featuring pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, housemade pickles and mustard on a baguette with sweet potato fries. (26 units, HQ in Scottsdale, AZ)
- Slater’s 50/50 is featuring a Rustic Ravioli Burger, made with a 50% Italian Sausage and 50% beef patty topped with fried ravioli, grilled broccolini, roasted tomato, and pesto Alfredo on a brioche bun. (7 units, HQ in Anaheim Hills, CA)
- IHOP added Bac ’n’ Cheddar Waffullicious Waffle – a Belgian waffle with chopped hickory bacon and Cheddar cheese baked in the batter, topped with bacon pieces. (1,564 units, HQ in Glendale, CA)
- ·Marco’s Pizza added the new Spicy Double Pepperoni Fresco featuring double pepperoni on a three-cheese blend with Italian pepper relish, red bell peppers and red onions. (422 units, HQ in Toledo, OH)
- Philadelphia’s PYT added a new Bacon Cheeseburger D’oh Nut. The warm glazed donut is filled with a bacon cheeseburger and topped with bacon sprinkles. (1 unit, HQ in Philadelphia, PA)
- 5 Napkin Burger added the BBLT Burger, topped with cider- and bourbon-braised bacon, lettuce, herb-roasted tomato and a spicy mayo. (5 units, HQ in New York, NY)
- Friendly’s added an adult Mac & Cheese, made with penne pasta and cheese with prosciutto, topped with a crisp crouton crumble. (339 units, HQ in Wilbraham, MA)
- Red Robin introduced two new delicious bacon items: ((477 units, HQ in Greenwood Village, CO)
- Beam-N-Bacon Boozy Shake: Made with Jim Beam Maple Bourbon, caramel and vanilla soft serve blended and topped with bacon bits and a strip of candied bacon.
- The Southern Charm Burger: A brown-sugar glazed patty topped with candied bacon, house-made honey BBQ sauce, extra sharp Cheddar, seared red onion, lettuce and mayo on a toasted ciabatta bun.