For many of us, roasted pig on Nochebuena is a holiday tradition. We sat down with Pubbelly cofounder José Mendín to talk about Christmas in Puerto Rico and his secrets for the perfect roast.
If you call Miami home, then you probably have at least one friend who roasts a pig on Christmas Eve, since Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and plenty of other Caribbean islanders like to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus by roasting and devouring a 100-pound beast. And while every chef’s recipe varies, from the way they roast to the way they season, there’s one ingredient that remains the same: Nochebuena pig roasts are in-your-face festive, with copious amounts of alcohol and good times flowing between family and friends.
Pubbelly founding partner and culinary director José Mendín says that’s the kind of Christmas cheer he grew up with in Puerto Rico. “Nobody celebrates Christmas like Puerto Ricans,” Mendín says. “We start at Thanksgiving and go until three days after Three Kings Day. It’s over a month of partying.”
As a kid, Mendín spent the holidays roasting pigs on a spit in his uncle’s backyard, a Puerto Rican tradition for pig roasting that’s a little more complicated than the Cuban caja china. “It’s just as much a social thing as it is about the cooking,” Mendín says, reminiscing on the dishes that were served alongside the guest of honor, including arroz con gandules, mofongo, and Puerto Rican morcilla.
Typical of Puerto Rican Christmas celebrations are parrandas, where neighbors go from house to house and, basically, eat everybody’s food. Each year, Pubbelly hosts an annual La Parranda to bring a taste of home to his loyal cult of fans. “As a chef from Puerto Rico that lives in Miami, I know it’s hard for people who don’t get to go home for the holidays,” he said. “This is what I do, so it feels like Puerto Rican Christmas in Miami.”
As Miami’s own king of swine, Mendín just so happens to be the best man for the hog-roasting job. An accomplished chef who saw the need for a casual fine-dining spot for locals, Mendín and his partners Andres Schreiner and Sergio Navarro opened Pubbelly in 2010. “We knew what was missing were the kinds of places that we wanted to go to,” Mendín said. “Miami needed more places like that, instead of expensive restaurants in hotels.” Mendín, who had spent his career catering to strangers at highly trafficked restaurants like Sushi Samba in Las Vegas, was eager to make food for locals he would see smile in delight again and again.
Pubbelly’s menu, inspired by European and Asian flavors, has always gone pretty heavy on the meat. From Mendín’s famed porkbelly dish to more Mediterranean flavors like the rabbit mezzaluna, it’s not exactly the prime spot for a die-hard vegetarian. Mendín has spent years – an entire career, even – on perfecting cooking techniques for various game. But preparing pig is Mendín’s crown jewel, and for Pubbelly Nochebuena, he infuses the hog with Puerto Rican flavors.
Want to roast your own pig at home? Well unless you have a few uncles or abuelas who are truly skilled at firing up a rosy pink pig, it’s best you leave the dirty work to the professionals. Mendín instead suggests that roasting the smaller and equally flavorful cochinillo might be the perfect technique for the novice chef.
“The most crucial element of roasting the pig, is of course, its marinade,” Mendín says. “For Nochebuena, I always go with a traditional Puerto Rican mojo, using cilantro, oregano, and tons of garlic. I let the pig marinate for at least 24 hours, and then I brine it, confit it under oil, and blast it in the oven.”
Of course, you can always just ask Mendín to let you join the parranda instead – every night in December, for dine-in or take out, Pubbelly is offering 6-, 11-, or 12-pound cochinillos served with mofongo, arroz mamposteao, yuca with mojo, heirloom tomato salad, Brussels sprouts, and a variety of sauces. Says Mendín, “That’s the way I grew up eating pig on Christmas.”