By Stephen Vargha
One of Cuenca’s newest restaurants’ fare is based on the 1989 American romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally,” directed by Rob Reiner. More specifically, Pig & Cow’s sandwiches are inspired by the productions of Meg Ryan, aka Sally Albright.
“We know from the movie about Katz’s pastrami. I saw Meg Ryan’s sandwich and we wanted to serve something like it,” says César José Quintero Mucarcel with a big smile.
Mucarcel is referring to the 132-year-old iconic Katz’s Delicatessen in New York’s Lower East Side. It is the site of Meg Ryan’s famous fake orgasm scene with Billy Crystal. The scene lasts only three minutes, but its impact has endured for decades. And now it comes to Cuenca.
“Venezuelans love to watch movies. The movies influence us,” the Venezuelan restaurant owner explains. “You can find special tastes and foods from the movies.”
This love of the big screen is why you will find huge New York-style pastrami and corned beef sandwiches on the menu of Pig & Cow. “People say it’s a New York sandwich,” Mucarcel said. Their XL Pastrami sandwich is double the size of their regular sandwich. It is a whopping one pound of crackling corned beef.
Mucarcel has several stories from Americans who are familiar with what one gets in New York City. “A guy came in last week and said the sandwich was incredible!”
An American woman came to Pig & Cow due to word of mouth. “She told me that she knew my place because she had played poker with some friends. One of the players showed her a photo of the pastrami, and she exclaimed that’s what she came for,” Mucarcel said.
The restaurant business is not where Mucarcel, a native of Maracaibo, Venezuela started. In that northwestern coastal city, Mucarcel was a “one man band” in the television business. He shot, edited, and produced documentaries. For ten years, Mucarcel did this hard work before he realized that family is too important to be in the television business. On top of that, Colombia’s drug violence had spilled over into Maracaibo.
In 2017, Mucarcel made the 2,500-kilometer (1,550 miles) trek to Cuenca. He brought a candy store business from Venezuela but that venture lasted only three months.
Then, he started making lunches at Feria Libre. Along with his lunches, he started selling slices of cake at the huge market. The cake baking brought Mucarcel and his brother, Eduardo, to Ital Deli, where they sold their cakes.
That morphed into smoking meats and barbecue, which he learned in Venezuela. “I do not eat too much in the salad bar. I eat beef!”
The passion for beef started with a grill so he could take a class to learn how to make sausage, salami, hams, and other smoked meats. “We practiced many, many times to get the right taste for our pastrami and corned beef,” Mucarcel said.
In August of last year, Mucarcel and his family expanded beyond that simple grill. Located less than two blocks north of Avenida Diez de Agosto, Pig & Cow smokes all its meats. Various dry rubs are used for the meats that include chicken.
It was slow going at first. “Starting a business in this time is very difficult, But the gringos have helped us make it through these times,” Mucarcel said. “The good products are bringing them in. We have lots of loyal customers.”
Because more and more people are discovering Pig & Cow, Mucarcel has ambitious goals. “The goal is to have a bigger place for our restaurant and for our smoked meats. We started with two pounds, three pounds, four pounds of meat… Now we have doubled the amount of meat we need.”
Pig & Cow offers more than their smoked meats and their bacon which is immensely popular. “The whole idea is to sell artisan products, be it the meats, the pickles, and now… cheeses,” Mucarcel said.
The Mucarcel family business has expanded as it now selling cheeses from another family. Alafi Alimentos is a family business run by a fellow Venezuelan, Alexander Cueva. He was a chemical engineer in the agro-industrial sector. The Venezuelan decided to provide Cuenca with a variety of cheeses not typically found here.
Venezuela produces a wide variety of fresh artisanal cheeses. At Pig & Cow, you will find Queso de Mano (Hand Cheese). Because it is handmade cheese, it is produced on a smaller scale. Typically made with raw cow’s milk, the flavor is mild and less salty. It has an elastic texture, with a creamy taste. Some say it reminds them of provolone.
Another popular cheese that will be offered is Queso Semiduro (Semi-Hard Cheese). From southeastern Venezuela, it is a fresh pasteurized and pressed cheese to give it a particularly good texture and consistency.
Mucarcel is confident Cueva’s cheeses will become popular as he says the cheeses in Cuenca are “pretty much the same.” Pig & Cow’s owner adds, “If you want a good cheese, you have to pay a good price. We want to change that.”
Pig & Cow is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is in a row of small businesses. Look for a deck with outdoor tables, seating, and umbrellas. Of course, there will be a grill or a smoker nearby, too.
Photos by Stephen Vargha