LOWER EAST SIDE, MANHATTAN — Arroz con gandules, mofungo and pastelillos are all beloved Puerto Rican dishes that were staples on the Lower East Side 50 years ago.
It’s what Mike Petrovitch remembers most about growing up in the old neighborhood.
“When I got back from the Marine Corps in 1988–89, I said where are the spots?” he recalled. “I was told they all closed.”
The fire to bring back the Puerto Rican flavor of his heritage to the LES was ignited in Petrovich, who would finally put the pieces together three decades later as his son Dominic, who is on the autism spectrum, grew older.
His wife is credited with pushing him in the right direction.
“I want to leave my son with some sort of little legacy and she said ‘why don’t you just open up a restaurant,'” he said. “I was like ‘sweetheart, that’s the craziest thing to do right now.'”
With no culinary experience – just a business operations background – Petrovich took the plunge and opened Que Chevere, an eatery located at the Market Line at Essex in the back end of 2019.
Bringing on a seasoned chef with more than 20 years of experience – Chef Maro Gjurasic – the goal was to stick to core dishes that defined the Puerto Rican cuisine but add their own spin.
“We layer flavors differently to give our food a very distinctive taste that is Que Chevere, [while] still being within the deep rooted Puerto Rican culture,” Gjurasic told PIX11.
The reviews from the neighborhood’s toughest critics give the Chevere team reassurance they are moving in the right direction.
“We’ve been complemented several times, even from older ladies, you know, the abuelas from the neighborhood,” Petrovich said. “This is the best I’ve ever had, [they say,] it tastes just like being back on the island.”
Just as they created a flow and built up a clientele, the business took a tumble, like many, at the start of pandemic.
Rerouting operations to takeout and delivery helped them stay above water and Petrovich’s passion to help organizations such as Autism Speaks — which a portion of his proceeds benefits — kept him going.
“I know we are going to survive and pull this off or at least bring some awareness,” he said.