Wednesday, April 28, 2010

One More From Chile: J Cruz M, Chorrillana and Valparaiso

As I pull myself out of my post-vacation lull and get back into the swing of things here in Denver, or more accurately, get hit over the head again and again by the proverbial swing that is my job, I thought I would bide some blog time by leaving you with one last post of my journeys down to Chile. I think I summed up my food highlights well (or at least thoroughly) in my last post, but I wanted to share some images from an amazing city: Valparaiso.

If you made it through my lengthy Chile mayo post, you may remember that Valparaiso was the town that enchanted me with its winding streets, vibrant murals, stunning views and of course, as the epicenter of the Chorrillana, which is served without any mayonnaise at all. The Chorrillana, it bears repeating, is a wonderful creation of fries covered in egg, grilled onion and slices of beef. I was lucky enough to enjoy one in its apparent birthplace, J Cruz M Casino Social y Museo.


There are imitators all over Chile, but the J Cruz M Casino Social has the original.


Also original was the amazing decor, which I guess was the museum part. And the entertainment by the host.


And, after I scoured the internet last week for a picture, I just realized that I captured a Chilean Dread Mullet right here at J Cruz M! And this is the less common She-Dread Mullet. (They become so commonplace that you don't even notice them after a few days.)

Although the Chorrillana does deserve multiple posts (actually Denveater's post makes it four mentions in a week for Denver blogs), I would like to turn your attention to the actual city itself, Valparaiso. Valparaiso is a port city just west of Santiago that was one of the main stopovers for ships going to and from the Atlantic and the Pacific before the construction of the Panama Canal. It is built on a series of forty-some cerros (hills) that rise steeply from the water, and each one is crisscrossed by winding streets, staircases and passageways. And everywhere there are murals.


In fact there is even an open air museum that takes you through some of the cities best murals.


Literally they are everywhere.


We spent two days just wandering the streets and looking at murals. This beats an inside museum any day. 



I could go on and on like this.


There were also amazing views.


Especially from our hotel. The lovely Cirilo Armstrong.


OK, here's a few more murals.




This one is slated to become my new profile image.



Our last night in Chile. Watching the sunset from the neighboring town of Viña del Mar.




Now back in Denver, you can see why it was so hard to get back to work, and even to sit down in front of a computer again. But I am beginning to feel invigorated again and am going to take up a new cause: try and convince a Denver area restaurant to come up with their own version of the Chorrillana. That way we can all come under its mystic and greasy spell without having to travel all the way to Chile.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cafe San Juan in Buenos Aires: PLATE & ENJOY

I spent my prime years of the 1980s as a smart-ass skateboarding punk. Let me play the old crotchety man that I hope to become some day and say that in the 80s we did our skating without such things as public skate parks (and rode uphill in the snow to and from school). Back in those days we had nothing but hassle from public officials and the general public, all with varying levels of hatred for our wooden sticks and, well, our punk-ass attitudes. When we skated, it was almost always on someone else's property and inevitably some damage was done, so logically someone was always chasing us or threatening to call the police if they hadn't already. Skating became as much fun for the chase and the attitude as it was for landing tricks (something else kids don't do these days).  As I came to embrace the sport, I came to embrace a saying that has become legendary with skaters all over the world:

It was with this background and bias that I entered Cafe San Juan in Buenos Aires a couple of weeks ago as part of a whirlwind tour of Argentina and Chile. The restaurant, located in the historic San Telmo neighborhood, is a small cozy place with an open kitchen off to one side. I immediately liked the vibe, and I smiled wide when I saw the chef behind the kitchen counter rocking a neon orange camouflage hat with the words:


This is not what I expected to see in Cafe San Juan, which is one of the top restaurants in Buenos Aires featuring one of the hottest chefs in the city, Leandro Cristobal. Leandro Cristobal. I like to think that with a name like that I could really go far in life. It's a power name if I've ever heard one, and lovely to hear said by someone with a Argentinian accent. In fact its English equivalent would without a doubt be Max Power, "The man whose name you'd love to touch, but musn't touch". But I digress as I easily do. In Chef Cristobal's kitchen none of the kitchen crew were touching anything but food, and all of them-- a sous chef, a prep cook and a dishwasher/ utility man-- were decked out in skate gear as well.


It was Tuesday night at 10:30pm, and we were seated at the last open table in a tightly packed dining room when another couple walked in and was offered a seat at the counter overlooking the kitchen. They wandered up there, turned up their noses and came back whining to the hostess (actually Chef Cristobal's mom I later learn) about not having enough room or something lame like that. Overhearing the conversation and being the gentleman that I am, I offer our table for a chance to watch this man cook and see first hand how they do things in Buenos Aires.


We squeeze our way to the counter and Chef Cristobal smiles at us appreciatively as he takes some of his sauce bottles down to make more room. It is cramped among the other random cooking miscellany and prep materials that are left, but it is certainly fun to watch the action in this small kitchen space.

The first thing that I notice is that every plate going out is huge. I normally like that, but some of these plates are ridiculously large. None of those gourmet sissy stacks that we are used to in the US: a ring of delicately stacked food in the middle of the plate with a six-inch circumference of white porcelain surrounding it. No, at Cafe San Juan, while they do take care in the presentation, they don't shy away from using the whole canvas, so to speak. The food is framed by the table (spills onto it maybe) and suddenly your voracious American appetite becomes very timid.

What are micro greens good for anyway?

The menu itself is curious. Not in the selections, which I had described to me as "Comida muy Porteña", meaning of the port city of Buenos Aires. No, what is a little strange is that the menu of heavily Spanish-influenced options is written on two tablet-sized chalkboards: too small to read from across the room and simultaneously too large to be comfortably carried and displayed by the servers. In fact, as you may be aware, decision making is not something I readily or easily manage, so I felt a little bad as our server (one of two in the entire restaurant) stood holding these tablet-sized chalkboards like Moses on the mount while we tried to make up our minds. We felt so hurried, in fact, that we both picked the first thing we saw, and then ordered the first two tapas as well. Wow.

Our appetizers came and were the size of some entrees that you would find in a stateside restaurant. Simple Spanish-style tapas: bruschetta of tomato, basil, jamon crudo and a wonderful herb-infused olive oil; and a tortilla española with a mouth-watering marinated mushroom topping. Fresh and delicious.

 

Thus far it was indeed quite joyous. We were halfway through a bottle of very suitable Malbec, and we were thoroughly entertained watching the chef and his crew man skillet after skillet on just a half-dozen or so burners. I had ordered the bife de chorizo, or tenderloin, and had seen a few go out already plated with a medley of grilled vegetables and potatoes (and Spanish chorizo). It was generally a huge portion as in keeping with the apparent philosophy of this country: eat until you start crying.


I think possibly because we chatted with the chef some, and took the seats at the counter in the first place where we were looming over him the entire evening, literally sharing his work station, that he gave me an even bigger cut of meat--with even more chorizo and potatoes on the side, which is, of course, ludicrous. I don't think it was just the wine or my whiny American appetite that made my cut look so thick, because I saw a few others go out, and they were noticeably thinner. Nevertheless it was delicious and well-cooked. It was topped by a wonderful chimichurri sauce and the vegetables were perfectly browned, the potatoes had the consistency of patatas bravas and everything was mixed with big chunks of Spanish chorizo.



Simple and delicious. And large. When you sit in front of the chef you feel as if you need to finish your food. But this truly was a large portion. And it was close to midnight. I did my best, then I pulled out some of the eight-year-old in me and did my best to push the food around my plate to make it seem like I ate more than I actually did.


My wife struggled through her plate too, which was a seafood pasta in a red sauce. I actually didn't even try it but it looked good and she, like me, was groaning in pleasure by the end of the meal, which is, of course, a valid and accurate way to measure the deliciousness of food.


So went our night at San Jaun Cafe. In fact, we loved it so much, that in our brief stay we decided to dine there again instead of a more traditional steakhouse where we had planned. Our second meal was equally as grand in scale and also very worthy: steamed mussels, beef ribs and a perfectly cooked salmon served under a big salad.


Buenos Aires is an incredible city that left us absolutely enchanted. Often while wandering the cobblestoned streets and gazing at the colonial architecture we were transported back to Spain or Italy. In Cafe San Juan, Chef Leandro Cristobal (and his mother) have created a gem of a restaurant highlighting these strong European influences that helped shape Buenos Aires into what it is today. In that sense, it truly is "comida porteña". However you choose to describe it, it's a great place and worth a visit when you are there.


Cafe San Juan is located in the San Telmo neighborhood in Buenos Aires on Avenida San Juan 450.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Street in Chile: Here Comes the Mayo

I recently traveled to Chile with my wife to visit some friends and get a whirlwind tour through a very small portion of what is an unfathomably long country. In our short stay we were able, among other things, to see the enchanting hills of Valparaiso, hit the streets of Santiago and take a long walk up to a tall glacier in the Andes.

The Andes make the Rockies look very small

Along the way I, of course, sampled whatever food I could; from upscale restaurants to the greasiest, late-night-iest street food, some of which is actually called Ass (but more on that later). I could probably dedicate several weeks of blogging to my food experiences in Chile, but I will try and condense it into one post by focusing on what I really love: street food. Oh, and then there's the mayonnaise.

Chile is not only the land of rugged mountains, pristine coastline, world-famous wines and the like, it is also likely the epicenter of all things mayonnaise. It is mayo heaven. (It is as common as the Chilean dread mullet--on the left-- but unfortunately is not a trend.) It is a land where the question is not would one like mayo on his or her food or not (and certainly not whether said food item should even have mayo slathered all over it in the first place), but rather how much mayo and which kind. Yes, in Chile there is not only copious and altogether excessive use of mayo, but choices of mayonnaise as well. Mayonnaises you might say. And that brings up another point: before Chile I had never put any thought into the plural form of mayonnaise. After Chile, I had to look it up. Apparently it is correct grammatically, though on many levels it is of course, very wrong.

Would you like mayo, mayo or mayo? 

It is not just the omnipresence of mayo that is uncomfortable, it is its excessive scooping, dolloping and spreading that makes it a creamy nightmare on most foods. Take the wonderful Chilean hot dogs as an example. This infamous street food was first on my list, and my first order from a stand in Santiago's Plaza de Armas was the Italiano: red tomato chunks, wonderfully green and fresh avocado (palta in Chilean) and of course the ubiquitous white mayo. It is actually still good even with the huge mayo serving, but the overall creaminess of this dog outdoes the meatiness, and this is just a strange way to enjoy a hot dog. Good nonetheless, but without the mayo, great.

After trying a couple more dishes and their respective mayo excesses, I decided that I more than understood the traditional Chilean street food experience, and for the rest of the trip I chose to skip the mayo in order to actually taste the rest of the food. Without the mayo there are some true street food winners. The absolute best of which is the Choripan. Only to be found on choice street corners, usually starting in the late afternoon and well in to the wee stumbling-drunk-home hours, it is a chorizo-like sausage on a bun. Simple and delicious sans mayo and with any number of other toppings like saurekraut (chacrut), avocado (palta), tomato and some greenbean-like things.

Lomito with that great Chilean palta (avocado)

A close second was the Lomito and the Churrasco. Followed by the Ass. Actually these are all basically the same thing, the first two of which come on a large round bun with the same toppings as the hotdogs and the Choripan (and everything else). Lomito is shaved pork while Churrasco is shaved beef. The Ass, whose origins were unknown to the woman who scraped it off what looked like a diaper and cooked it for us, is also shaved beef (short for Asada?), only it is served in a hot dog-style bun. All are actually very good. Without the mayo.

When in Chile you should eat some Ass

Then there was the Chorrillana. Of all the world's varying hangover-curing food remedies, this might be the best. It is a monstrous pile of greasy fries covered in fried egg, grilled onion and shaved beef. It is disgustingly delicious and actually so powerful that two plates of it at once cured four hangovers and somehow greased out a little stomach bug I had acquired a few days before. Amazing. And the best place for the famous Chorrillana? J Cruz M. Down a hidden back alleyway on the streets of Valpariaso, Chile's gritty equivalent of San Fransisco. It is all they serve there, and while you will find variations of this dish all over Chile, this is, apparently where it was invented. Genius.


Likely the best food experience we had was, not surprisingly at a market. Markets in any country are often the best way to experience food in a country, and Chile is no exception. Santiago's La Vega market serves up some amazing cuisine. One of the specialties is apparently the chuleta, or pork chop. Unfortunately, it is so popular that by the time we got there it was just being erased from the board, and having already ordered our drinks, I felt bad (and a little scared) of bombing out on what seemed to be some very serious-looking old ladies who had just made space for us at a table. Instead of a pork chop we shared an excellent light and crispy fried fish and a beef cazuela-- a richly flavored broth with a fat cut of beef, fresh herbs and some vegetables.


Back to the mayonnaise. We also went to a thing called Cafe con Piernas, which translates to coffee with legs. Here, scantily clad girls serve you coffee (actually refreshingly good coffee--the best we had on our entire trip) and then sort of stand there and talk to you. Sounds awkward? It is. You may remember the Bourdain Chile episode where he has a cup of Joe in one, bathed in daylight and cleanliness. This is not the typical experience and not where we went. Our place was advertised with a neon sign and the entrance was dark, like one of those entrances where illegal things are almost certainly going on. It is a legitimate business our server assured us, "Only coffee," she insisted as she brought out three rum and Cokes. Oh that? That was because she knows our friend. That is for the special clients. "But no lap dancing and definitely no touching," she tells us. Interesting I think, as I peer over her shoulder to watch one of her colleagues grinding away on a customer also sipping away on a rum and Coke. Must be a very special client. I excuse myself and head down to the bathroom where I spy another girl slipping out of a private door in the grungy basement space-- probably she was just in the breakroom eating dinner, or roasting some coffee.

Unfortunately most of the "nicer" Chilean food we ate was plain and well, just not that good. The best single food we had in Chile was probably ceviche from a Peruvian restaurant, so I guess that says something. But again, there were some street food winners once we learned it was OK to say no to the mayo. Even if you like mayonnaise, the Chileans will without a doubt overwhelm you with it. If you can handle it, you will do well here, if you can't then learn this phrase and you will do much better: "Sin mayonesa, por favor."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Patricia Quintana Is My Julia Child

There was a movie made recently about a blogger that became famous by cooking a bunch of Julia Child's recipes. What she actually did was only slightly more interesting than that: she cooked every recipe in the book in some random amount of time while sharing her feelings with the masses along the way. Then a bunch of people started reading it and she ended up with a movie deal. It was, I think, described to me as a "cute" movie; and while I don't have an opinion either way on the amount of cuteness, I did think the role of Julia Child was indeed well-portrayed. More than anything, though, it made me think.

It made me think that if I ever did something like that, it would be with the recipes of Patricia Quintana in her cookbook Mulli, el Libro de los Moles. Mulli is the Nahuatl word for Mole, which describes a wide variety of sauces and salsas, from simple to complex, made from chiles, nuts, herbs and other spices (it is not limited to the bitter chocolate mole negro that many will think of). Patricia Quintana, in her book, along with photographer Michel Zabe, has created the bible of moles, complete with elaborate history, glossary and gorgeous award-winning design. It is a masterpiece of a book, full of incredible recipes (click here to check it out from the library, otherwise the stateside prices get a little steep). If you read Spanish, then you will enjoy it much more, if not, keep reading this post and I'll tell you about my experience cooking one recipe.

Patricia Quintana owns and runs Izote, one of the most renowned Mexico City restaurants. I have dined there three times, and once, out of some combination of hopeful planning and dumb luck, my wife and I dined with Chef Quintana, her assistant and two other friends. Izote itself is simple and elegant, and everything is very much in order. From Chef Quintana's immaculate whites to her neat, slicked-back ponytail where not a single hair is left out of place. The same can be said about the cooks and wait-staff, who gracefully and efficiently run a small but packed house day in and day out. Chef Quintana can often be found cooking as well, or at least patrolling the kitchen and dining room like a general, assuring that everything is up to standard. (Photo from Starchefs.com)

Her mere presence, not to mention her body of work, demands respect. I admit I was nervous to meet her and was timid as I sat down at the table. As we dined over several hours we got a peek into the Chef herself. She was very personable and almost immediately we felt very much at ease. She is stern yet friendly, calm, insightful and quick to smile. Oh yeah, and it was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life.

But back to my movie deal, which, of course, would be the next logical step after I started my recipe blog. I would first need to cast the appropriate actors. Chef Quintana could be played by, well, any actress that could keep a ponytail like this would fit the bill.


And for my role, in keeping with the Holloywood traditional of glorifying one's appearance while casting for the "true-story" role, Jack Black would likely be the perfect fit.

In stretchy pants, of course. 

Or, being a half-Filipino American, my role could of course be played by one of Hollywood's half-Pinoy actors, such as Lou Diamond Phillips (you thought he was Mexican, didn't you?). He is getting a little old, though, and his hair a little short; ideally he would still be in his mullet years for this role.


So anyway, stop staring into Lou's dreamy eyes and follow me as I explain how I cooked this incredible recipe. I have cooked many recipes from this book, but I went for something I hadn't done before: Camarones en Adobo, or Shrimp in Adobo sauce.

Cooking mole can be complicated and intimidating, starting with the ingredient list. This recipe starts with 10 chile anchos, stemmed, seeded and roasted. Then add them to a blender with 1 medium white onion, 8 garlic cloves, 1/2 cup each of white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, water, olive oil and piloncillo (a hard Mexican brown sugar that you will need a rock or a hammer to break up). Also add a teaspoon each of white pepper, black pepper and allspice; along with a 1/2 teaspoon of cumin and 6 cloves. Sounds interesting so far, no? You will also throw in 3 bay leaves, 8 sprigs of thyme and a couple stems of basil. Finish it off with 3/4 of reduced chicken stock. Salt to taste.


Despite the complexity of the ingredients, the process for this sauce is incredibly simple: blend all the above until you have a sauce. Let it sit for up to 12 hours (I sat mine for 3 or 4 hours) and then marinate a couple of pounds of shrimp in it. Sauté the shrimp and adobo in some olive oil for a few minutes and you are done.


She also suggests serving it with plantain. For these, you look for yellow-black plantains, slice them into long, not-too-thin slices, thickly coat a pan with vegetable oil, and fry away until golden brown on each side. Of course, Chef Quintana gets intricate with her presentation and throws in some rice and her fabulous refried black beans:


But here is mine, not looking all that bad, minus the basil garnish:


It was absolutely delicious. Knowing what went in to an intricate sauce like this helps discern all the flavors while eating it. It was also fun to see how the taste and smell changed through each stage of cooking. At first it was a strong smell of thyme, pepper and vinegar. After sitting, the chile began to dominate. During the cooking process, it smelled like walking into a spice store as hints of clove, allspice and cumin came out-- it was tremendously aromatic and powerful. The final product has a fine balance of many of the complex flavors-- it is bitter and spicy, sweet and salty-- the thyme is still pronounced and the shrimp does not get lost in the least.

It might be good that I never start this blog, because, cooking like this could become obsessive. And I wouldn't want to destroy my marriage by obsessively writing a blog about cooking someone else's recipes, getting a movie deal and then deciding that it was better to throw it all away and start chopping up animals in the back of a butcher shop in upstate New York. Apparently this is what happened to Julie herself. So I will just cut this off at the pass and say no to the movie deal up front. No doubt the only offer I would get would be from Kevin Smith and it would bomb anyway.

Until then, I will select another Quintana recipe to share in the not-too-distant future. Hope you enjoy.

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