La Parrilla de Argentina

December 7, 2008


It was a blistering cold evening when we headed out to Queens for our Argentina experience, one of those where you are chilled entirely to the bone after just walking one block.  Even when you are wearing your heaviest winter coat, hat, and scarf.  And this was November!

decorLuckily we warmed up right away upon entering La Porteña (74-25 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, 11372).  The hosts’ smiles, tasteful wood paneling, and soft light quickly relaxed our shivers.  Knick knacks, Argentine collectibles, memorabilia and photographs of Carlos Gardel adorned the walls.  We settled in to our table, and prepared to devour some meat.

La Porteña is a traditional Argentine style parrilla, or grill.  The menu features familiar comfort favorites like pasta (Argentina was heavily settled by Italians) but the crowds flock here for the grilled meats.  And there was definitely a crowd that Saturday night.

We were a group of five that week, and one of our guests was half Argentinian.  So we relied on her to order us the true parrilla experience.   She started us out with some grilled cheese, or provoleta, which is nothing like the stuff that goes in those sandwiches your mama used to make you, and is a common starter before a meal of grilled meat.  We also tried some slighted spicy and very tasty chorizo, (grilled pork sausage) and fried calamari (no different from any other decent calamari you’ve had elsewhere). These items were all devoured instantly, along with the basket of french bread that was set on the table.  We still had half a bottle of malbec to work on, so we sipped and chatted and waited for the main event.  So far so good.

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It may appear that we’ve broken two rules of this game.  We left NYC to find the Angolan food described in this entry.  But our travels only took us to nearby Elizabeth, NJ, which is certainly well-situated in the greater metropolitan area (just over the water from Staten Island).  And, because it is home to what was formerly NYC’s only Ikea, most New Yorkers know the town and consider it an extension of the city since most of their furnishings came from there.  So, forgive us, dear readers.  We left the 5 boroughs, but not so much as to lose the heart of the journey. In all honesty, we knew Jersey would come into play at some stage.  It’s inescapable.

The second rule we kind-a sort-a broke was getting food from Antigua and Barbuda before sampling Angolan.  Though this is an apparent breach of parameters, I have an excellent argument otherwise.  Late in October, I rang up the Permanent Mission of Angola to the United Nations, to inquire about Angolan eateries in the area.  The charming and friendly receptionist told me that there were in fact no Angolan restaurants in the city.  Sad news indeed.  We chatted for a while, and I asked her where she goes to eat food from her homeland.  She answered, “At my house!  I cook Angolan food every day.”  To which I naturally replied, “Well, can I come over to your house?”  And she said yes!  But then decided it would be even better if we came to her church on November 9, when they would be having a celebration of their congregation’s second year.  A feast was planned following the service, which would include all sorts of Angolan dishes.  That was certainly worth the wait, so we went ahead and checked out Antigua and Barbuda in the meantime.

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Ancient and Bearded

November 9, 2008


Our resourceful Nomad found Antigua & Barbuda at Pyramid Exotic Bar and Restaurant 3825 White Plains Rd. in the Bronx.  What happened to Angola you ask?  Oh faithless reader, the Nomad had already lined it up for Nov. 9, so she forged ahead not wanting to break our momentum.

ducana2When we walked in, there were maybe three or four people standing around the bar and we were greeted somewhat warily by a tall, solid, serious-looking woman. Noquar timidly asked if they were serving food because it certainly wasn’t apparent.  The room was mostly empty with a live music setup in the front and two folding tables along the wall, the larger of which was being monopolized by a kid and his coloring.  The woman seemed a little confused as she told us they were, in fact, serving food (which, by the way, only happens on Fridays and Saturdays).   “Antiguan food?” we asked.

These two words triggered a warm, broad smile.  She still clearly had no idea how or why we had ended up there but she was thrilled we had. The poor kid and his coloring were promptly cleared from the table and we were installed.  There was no menu, so she listed what she had, and since we had no idea what she was talking about, we afish2sked her to give us three of her favorite dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

Andorra redux

October 23, 2008

Because we couldn’t eat real Andorran food prepared by real Andorrans we went to Mercat in Manhattan to try Catalan food made by people who had once visited Catalonia. The room was tastefully lit and we sat at a heavy wooden table in the back of the restaurant. There were two shallow baskets containing plum tomatoes and green chilies on the counter in front of the open kitchen. A walk-in wine cellar, a large shelf, was built in to the wall above our heads.

On the very back wall of Mercat was painted a mural that looked like a drawing. In it, what I took to be a Spanish family sat around a long table. The women wore handkerchiefs on their heads and the man wore the clothes of a laborer. On the table were dishes and one steaming pot.  Maybe they were waiting for a more substantial repast, maybe someone outside the scene was preparing pots filled with rabbit stew and bringing in the wineskin from where it had been hung the previous night, but their eyes revealed their world to us. The artist included simple, single short lines, parallel to each other above and below the simple black dot eyeballs of each of her subjects denoting worry. These people were tired, and the lines in their faces betrayed their weariness and their fear that they would have to scrape by for another few days. They were tired and had little to share with us. They may have resented our intrusion into their lives.

In light of our recent forays into the outer boroughs and our research into our next country, Angola, we had started to expect welcomes into worlds that weren’t our own, but this trip served as a reminder that a lot of what people seem to be whispering and writing about Manhattan may regrettably be true. As we studied our surroundings, I couldn’t help but think that the worn down cobblestones running just outside had witnessed so much more than the conversations and goings-on of the well to do residents that lived at the architectural monstrosity across the street at 40 Bond.

40 Bond St, NYC

40 Bond St, NYC. Photo by Phillip Ritz

We had some interesting things. Grilled chilis, some spicy potatoes, a pasta with shrimp and black squid ink sauce. We had a decent bottle of wine and some cheese.  Everything was pretty good, but a tad expensive.  Maybe we’re the peasants, striving for something we think might sometime be attainable.  Peasants are supposed to be marginalized, some things are meant for people that can truly enjoy and understand them.  I felt that the simple, comfortable food here was somehow meant to be way beyond us.  We finished our bottle of wine and went to Red Mango.

Andorra: Part One

October 14, 2008

We’ve hit our first big challenge.  Andorra is a tiny, landlocked principality nestled in the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain.  Of its 72,000 residents, at least 67% of those are from elsewhere in Europe, mainly neighboring France and Spain, as well as Italy, Britain, and Portugal.  The national language is Catalan, which is also spoken in certain regions of Spain (including Catalonia, where you would find Barcelona), the Italian island of Sardinia, and the Roussillon region of Southern France.  Andorra’s main industry is tourism (i.e. skiing) and it’s tax haven status also attracts some wealthy types.

We started out by crawling the Internet in search of any mention of “andorra” and “New York.”  Nothing turned up except a few mentions of the UN Mission to Andorra.  So a friend of the Nomad actually rang them up for us (thanks again!) and they told her that in fact there are no Andorran restaurants in New York City.  Hardly surprising considering that there are only 28,000 or so Andorrans in the world.  The person at the UN Mission recommended that we go to Le Bernadin, as chef Eric Ripert used to live in Andorra (this is corroborated by his biography on the restaurant’s website).  Anyone who lives in NYC or has watched Top Chef probably knows of this restaurant and its famous chef.  And anyone who has been there can tell you it’s a seafood restaurant (not the type of cuisine I would associate with a landlocked, mountainous country), and it’s also one of the city’s more expensive. I hear it’s fantastic though.

We decided not to go that route.  It would be hard to justify a very pricey meal that wouldn’t even quite fit our mission.  But we still had to give Andorra its due diligence.  We came up with a two part plan:

  1. Make Andorran food at home
  2. Go to a Catalonian restaurant

This is the story of part one.

I started out by cruising the web for Andorran recipes.  There were very few in English, but of those that I did come across, one dish was mentioned on nearly every site: Trinxat.   It’s a potato and cabbage pancake with smoky bacon, described by as, “probably one of the best-known dishes of Andorra.” And the recipe looked pretty easy.  I figured this had to be the thing to try.  Apparently it looks like this:

My methodology involved combining a few recipes I found for this dish, and boiling them down to the common elements.  It seemed simple enough.  Here’s is what I came up with:

4 large russet potatoes, peeled

1 head green cabbage

1 package bacon (12 strips)

3 tbs olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled

salt and pepper

(you are also supposed to use fatback, but since I couldn’t find any, I left it out.  Probably a critical missed step.)

1.  Discard the outer layers of the cabbage.  Cut the cabbage into fourths.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and boil cabbage for about 45 minutes.  Once that is going bring another large pot to boil, and boil the potatoes for about 25 minutes.  Allow both to cool.

2.  Discard the core of the cabbage, and press cabbage to release water.  Put cabbage and potatoes in a large bowl and mash together.  Salt to taste.

3.  Start cooking the bacon in batches.  Set on a plate covered with a paper towel to absorb grease.

4.  Drain off some of the grease from the pan, and then add garlic.  Cook for about 2 minutes until its about to burn, and then mix it in with the potato/cabbage mixture.

5.  (Here is the part where you are supposed to add the fatback to the pan, and cook it for a few minutes, but since I didn’t have any, I left that part out.  Did leave some extra bacon grease in there though.).  Add about half of the potato mixture to the same pan, and spread it around until it’s in the shape of about a 1/2″ think pancake.  Cook over medium high heat for about 10 minutes.

before flip attempt

6.  Here is the hard part:  put a plate over the skillet and the flip it over, so the pancake is browned side up on the plate.  Slide it back in to the skillet and cook for 10 more minutes until it’s finished. Crumble the bacon, add it to the top of the pancake, and serve.

Easy, right?  Wrong!  I attempted this flipping of the pancake twice, and met with disaster each time.  The first time, I was using a very slick, brand new, deep Calphalon skillet.  As soon as I went to flip it, the food just slipped right out and landed in a pile on my stove.  I figured it had to be the skillet.  Way too slippery!

So I went for a cast iron the second time around.  It wouldn’t brown.  I waited and waited and finally got too hungry to wait any more.  This time when I went to flip it, I found it the skillet was too heavy to hold with one hand, and hold a plate with the other.  So I got some help.  But the pancake was stuck.  And once again I ended up with a pile, luckily this time I managed to get it on plates, and throw some bacon on top.  Below you have the result.  Not as pretty as the picture above.  But I imagine the taste was somewhat similar…maybe.  Kind of an Irish-ish dish to my taste, but good nonetheless.

And there you have it.  If anyone else decides to try this, I recommend including the step that involves the fatback, and using a light weight, shallow skillet.  Let me know if you are successful, and send in some pictures.

Part two coming soon…

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

I ate kangaroo while I was in Australia. Twice!  And it was delicious!  Actually, when I wrote the earlier post on my Aussie culinary adventure, I had already had it once, and completely forgot to mention it (I was totally jet lagged and still savoring the flavors of huge nice bowl of pho at the time, so I do hope you’ll forgive me for this extra bonus post).

The first time it was in the form of a nicely grilled, tender steak, over a bed of grilled vegetables, on top of mashed potatoes.  Washed down with a local Savignon Blanc.  Eaten on a old, docked ferry-turned-restaurant on Darling Harbor, which rocked for a few minutes whenever anyone came aboard.  When we sat down to dinner, my dining companions (who grew up in Sydney a few decades back) told me stories about taking that very same ferry to the famous Manly beach area, on the far north side of Sydney Harbor.  They also told me about the kangaroos they often see outside their house in Canberra.  Then they encouraged me to try the kangaroo.  Fantastic!

Later I came across the ‘roo again on a menu at a little cafe in a town called Katoomba.  This is in the famous Blue Mountains World Heritage area, where my colleague and I had spent a very full day hiking through the hills.   How could I resist kangaroo burger and chips after a long day of bushwalking?  Though not as tender and juicy as my first experience, the kangaroo burger hit the spot.

'Roo burger and chips

Did I actually see any living kangaroos during my trip, you ask?  In fact I did.  On the way back from a tour to Canberra, I spotted a number of ‘roo families grazing on the grass in the late afternoon sun.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see a close up.  Nor did I see a koala.  I did, however, see an echidna while in the Blue Mountains.  This little creature is both a marsupial and an egg layer, one of only two in the world!  Apparently, I am very lucky to have sighted it, as they are shy creatures.

Think we’ll find kangaroo on the menu when we eat Aussie in NYC?

Special Report: Live from Oz

September 20, 2008

So you decided we are a bunch of slackers because we haven’t written in a while?  Well, fear not fellow travelers, for we have not abandoned our mission (we’ve even done part one of Andorra, to be posted soon), but have merely been taking a break while I am in Australia.  I have been here now for a week, and have a week more to go.  The trip is work related (conference), but I’m finding time to get in some great sightseeing, and eat lots of different and yummy things.  I figured since Australia is an “A” country (on our list), and we’ll have to be eating some of their cuisine in New York in a few weeks, it would be worth a preview since I have a first hand look right now.

I should clarify that I am in Sydney, and have not been outside the city as of yet.  But there are plenty of culinary adventures to be found here.  What is Australian food like, you ask?  Well, there is a lot of this:

But there are also loads of other things.

Particularly notable is the delicious Asian food.  It’s also convenient that my hotel is a couple blocks from Chinatown, so I’ve been sampling some of the excellent Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese around.  Chinatown here is different from the Chinatowns of New York.  It is much less residential, and much more touristic than the Chinatowns of our fair city.  There are a lot of young Asians running around in packs, and fewer hunched over old ladies.  There are restaurants a plenty, but few vegetable shops (and no vege stands.  In fact, I have not seen any street food in Sydney at all, which is a little disappointing).  That said, I think the food might surpass that found in NYC.  The Thai food is far more dynamic, with more flavor and dimension that what one finds in a typical Thai joint in the Big Apple.  And the Chinese is also outstanding.  The other day, whilist walking home from a long day at the conference, the wind suddenly carried a distinctive smell my way.  It was familiar, but from a long time ago.  It took me a minute to place it, then it hit me: China.  It smelled like China.  Not in a stinky fish head way like you get in Manhattan C-town, but in a delicious, street food in Xi’an kind of way.  I haven’t smelled that since I was in China in late 2003.  So immediately I wandered into the first Sichuan restuarant that i found, and enjoyed the heck out of a scallion pancake and some Kung Pao chicken.

Cafe life in Bronte Beach

I’ve also had some cheap and excellent sushi (surprisingly cheap, considering food is generally rather expenive here), Italian and Spanish, as well as grilled fish, octopus, prawns, and scallops (more local fare).  They certainly do seafood right.  Sydney has a fantastic cafe culture; sandwich shops and pubs typically have tables spilling good vibes and eats onto the street.  And they have killer coffee.  Now, I am not a coffee drinker at home (maybe one cup every two years), but immediately upon arrival here (at 7:30am after a 23 hour journey) I grabbed a cup, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  The name of my new found love is the “flat white.”  This is a shot of espresso with milk.  I also add a little sugar.  And being the talented baristas they are, the Aussies make it look beautiful too.  You can also get a flat black, a long black, and the familiar latte.  Yum.

So we’ll soon be eating Australian in New York, and will have good basis for comparison.  I’m assuming it will be lots of grilled and fried seafood, to ensure the experience is typically Aussie.  I hope its as good as the food here.