By Christopher Lux
In 1975, Piedad Segarra and her husband Luis Figueroa turned the first floor of their house into a pernil, or pork, sandwich shop. Located on the east end of Juan Jaramillo, this is no ordinary sandwich shop.
Sanduches de Doña Piedad opened with no sign and no employees. Luis served the food and Piedad prepared the pernil sandwiches. “Only she has the secret recipe. It’s in here,” says her daughter, Miriam, pointing to Piedad’s head.
Pernil is similar to hornado, the whole roasted pig popular in the Ecuador highlands. The main difference is that pernil meat is from the leg of the pig and the skin is always removed. The rub is made not only with the standard seasonings like cumin and garlic, but also with sweet spices like cloves, allspice, and cinnamon. The additional spices are different with each cook, and the ingredients are often held as secrets.
Piedad’s seasoned pork is roasted for eight hours. It’s then cooled, cut, and reheated with the drippings.
The finished product is served in a bun. Other shops might add toppings like lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. But when you ask Piedad what goes with the meat she answers without hesitation, “Pan. Yo no tengo salsas, no tengo cebolla, no tengo nada. Tengo ají.” (Bread. I don’t have ketchup or mayonnaise, I don’t have onion, I don’t add anything. I only have ají.).
At Sanduches de Doña Piedad, the ají sits along the counters in big white bowls. Prepared with tomate de árbol, onions, ají peppers, the ají seeds, and Piedad’s secret ingredients, this delicious sauce is all the condiment you need. In fact, without it, the sandwich seems incomplete.
Sanduches de Doña Piedad is an example of what is called a hueca, which translates to “hole in the wall” in English. Huecas are small shops that usually, but not always, serve food, such as pork sandwiches, hamburgers and other short-order meals.
Needless-to-say, Sanduches de Doña Piedad is considered by locals to be one of the top huecas in Cuenca. And many of its patrons say that the spicy ají that garnishes the pernil sandwich, is among the best in town. The sandwiches, lathered up with ají, are typically washed down with jugo de coco, or coconut juice. “I usually have two jugos de coco to cut the burn after I load up on the ají,” says one regular customer.
While the traditional sandwich is made with pork, Piedad also offers roasted turkey for the sandwiches. Lately, a trend has started in her restaurant of people asking for a mixto which combines both the pork and the turkey. Customers can also ask for the sandwich to be “mojadito,” or wet. For this variation, drippings from the roasting are drizzled over the sandwich meat.
When Luis passed away last year, Miriam left her job to help her mom in the restaurant. Miriam had a good position in a pasta factory where she was involved in the complete production of the pasta, from obtaining flour to selling the final product.
She was happy to join the family business, located in the first floor of her childhood home. But she felt it needed a new image and more space. Her mother agreed and they renovated the restaurant earlier this year. It wasn’t until the renovation — 40 years after opening — that Sanduches de Doña Piedad put up a sign.
They’ve also hired two employees to help with the increasing demand for their huecas, and Piedad’s grandchildren help in the restaurant too.
One of Piedad’s grandsons — Miriam’s teenage son — is in high school and has learned perfect English by taking classes outside of school. He loves talking to the Gringo customers, helping them order their food, allowing him the chance to practice his second language. He’s also happy to be paid in free food. “My grandmother always tells me that I eat more than I would be paid if this was a real job,” he says.
Miriam is also learning English. She says more than 80 percent of their customers are Ecuadorian, but she likes to speak English to expats and tourists.
If you’re a real sanduche pernil aficionado, you might want to try some of the other pork sandwich shops nearby — there are five more within a block. If you do, chances are you’ll come back to Piedad’s on your next trip.
Sanduches de Doña Piedad is located at Juan Jaramillo 1-119 and Miguel Angel Estrella. It’s open 9 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on Saturdays 9 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Piedad’s also offers delivery service.