Mario Batali and Num Pang Kitchen Are Helping Puerto Rico in the Most Delicious Way Possible
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, restaurants across the U.S. opened their doors—and kitchens—to raise relief money, while celeb chefs like José Andrés served almost two million meals in satellite kitchens across the island. For New York’s Cambodian “sandwich king,” Num Pang Kitchen’s Ben Daitz, this was a cause that really hit home since many of his employees are Puerto Rican and had trouble reaching their families following the storm.
“At Num Pang, I’ve always made it a priority at least once or twice a year to really embrace a different cause,” Daitz says. “In this particular situation, I was also somewhat disgusted with our country’s reaction to this disaster and that personally motivated me to pull the program together as quickly as possible.”
He started thinking of his own way to help and turned to an area he knows best—sandwiches—calling up Mario Batali, another chef who has a history of giving back in times of need. “So many of our restaurant family are from Puerto Rico, and when family is in trouble, you take care of them; it’s as simple as that,” Batali says. “Food is such an integral part of their culture and this is a great way to honor their culinary culture.”
Daitz and Batali first worked together in 2012 to launch the limited-edition Brooklyn cotechino sausage and balsamic pickle-stuffed Batali Pang, the inaugural sandwich for Num Pang Kitchen’s Guest Chefs Give Back charity program.
Since the program debuted five years ago, Num Pang has invited everyone from Loring Place's Dan Kluger to Gramercy Tavern’s Mike Anthony to play the honors of guest chef for its charitable sandwiches. This time around, Daitz and Batali dialed rapper Action Bronson, host of VICE's "Fuck, That's Delicious," to help dream up a sandwich that would pay homage to one of Puerto Rico’s national dishes: roast pork pernil.
“Growing up as a native New Yorker, Puerto Rican culture is very much entrenched in the fiber of New York City, so we are all kind of like one people,” Daitz says. “My favorite Puerto Rican dish is actually pernil, and Num Pang’s kitchen manager, Michael Morales, is Puerto Rican, so when the idea was born, I asked him for his mother’s sacred recipe.”
Within three or four days, they received Morales’ heirloom recipe and started making it their own, pulling flavor elements from classic pernil to serve as inspiration for the Puerto Rico Pang and rice bowl. “Two pieces of baked bread is quite simply a brilliant vehicle for the delicious main event, whether it be salumi, Katz’s pastrami, a ribeye for a cheesesteak or a slow-roasted guava-glazed pernil,” Batali says.
Served on a house-made semolina baguette, the Puerto Rico Pang is layered with slow-roasted pork and chicharrones (fried pork skin), spicy pickles and Num Pang’s traditional toppings: chili mayo, pickled carrots, cucumber and cilantro. For the bowl, roasted pernil sits on a bed of jasmine rice crowned with honey-roasted plantains and pickles. Pernil is often cooked with pre-packaged products, but the trio decided to switch out ingredients like garlic salt with fresh garlic cloves, in addition to crafting a sweet guava glaze that’s drizzled over the pork in both the sandwich and bowl.
“Sandwiches are like a canvas with the bread being the backdrop. The good thing about a sandwich, as opposed to constructing a dish on a plate, is that you’re forced to experience all of the flavors in every bite,” Daitz says. “That’s kind of a unique thing with food, the ability to get that whole vision across in one bite.”