Hooters Has Nothing on Chile’s Sexy Coffee Shops

R&K Breakfast Photo - Café Alibaba
Sadly photography is forbidden within Café Alibaba – a café con piernas, or literally ‘coffee with legs’ – so you’ll have to allow the blackened windows and heeled half-women to inspire the imagination.

Life has a funny way of working out. One day you’re befriending a large group of Chileans at a boutique kitesurfing resort in northern Peru, and the next you’re standing in a dingy hole-in-the-wall with them, deep in Santiago’s underbelly, being caressed softly by the scantily-clad server delivering the worst espresso you’ve ever tasted. But then again, one doesn’t go to a café con piernas (literally, ‘coffee with legs’) for the crema.

23519381_10155961962657320_8059388938042164571_nTo be fair, my friends didn’t want to bring me here; in fact leading their visiting American friend to the seedy dives on her only day in their city made them highly uncomfortable. But I had requested a coffee and in return – half-jokingly – was asked: a normal coffee or an illegal one? Once I found out that these cafés con piernas not only existed, but thrived in – and only in – Santiago, there was no way we were not delving in to see what all the fuss was about. A little bit of grit in South America’s most conservative capital? Sí, porfa.

So a special shoutout goes to Rodrigo and Jorge, who against their best judgement, helped me discover the highly ridiculous but somehow totally logical strip club meets coffee shop during my 24 hours in the Chilean capital. These are the discoveries worth traveling for. The completo hot dogs found everywhere there, that absolutely drown in pools of mayonesa y aguacate, don’t hurt either.

IMG_0942

This story was published here in Roads & Kingdoms; one of my favorite sites for alternative travel stories from around the globe – of which the late and great Anthony Bourdain was a primary sponsor and Editor at Large.

WE COULD HAVE TOLD YOU PEOPLE DON’T GO THERE FOR THE COFFEE

It was 11 a.m. when the pounding in my head seemed to sync with the thumping techno and strobe lights illuminating an otherwise dark room. I had a flashback of the previous night’s dance club until a server, who delivered my piping hot espresso in a blacklight-activated thong and soaring platform boots, snapped me back to reality.

We were in Café Alibaba, a café con piernas—or “coffee with legs,” a Chilean institution where revealingly dressed waitresses serve cortados in establishments ranging from classy to clandestine, wearing skin-tight miniskirts or scandalous lingerie. (They don’t serve alcohol.) These joints, as prevalent as Starbucks in other cities, may seem at odds with Chile’s reputation as one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, but then again, perhaps they make perfect sense for that reason.

I had just 24 hours to explore the city and my two local hosts, Rodrigo and Jorge, had promised a whirlwind tour. That morning, after an obligatory stroll by the impressive Palacio de La Moneda and a breakfast of the city’s ubiquitous completo hot dogs, piled high with smashed avocado and swimming in pools of mayonnaise, I begged for caffeine to help me recover from the night before.

Rodrigo suggested heading to a café con piernas. Café Caribe, around the corner from us, was one of the more upscale options. I lingered at the brightly lit bar watching women in thigh-baring uniforms sling caffeinated beverages to a predominantly male clientele. Intrigued, I suggested we head somewhere less upmarket. Five minutes later, we escaped the weekday hustle of downtown Santiago and beelined for the tinted windows of Café Alibaba.

The original, and more wholesome, cafés con piernas date back to the 1960s. The story goes that servers in short skirts were meant to attract customers into the new Italian-style espresso shops springing up in downtown Santiago, in a country fond of instant coffee. It wasn’t until after Chile’s military dictatorship ended in 1990 that the tinted windows and skimpier clothing appeared. Café Barón Rojo, which opened in 1994, is credited with setting the standard for the more risqué versions. (It closed down in 2005.)

Inside Café Alibaba, black walls danced with neon lights like an adults-only laser tag arena. I shouted my order over the raging dance music before settling into the last free nook in a cramped room.

Servers strutted about in barely-there bikinis and heels so high my feet ached at the sight of them. The place resembled a daytime strip club, but with caffeine instead of cocktails, and flirting rather than dancing. I surveyed the businessmen on coffee breaks, and wondered aloud if they weren’t nervous about being caught here during work hours. The server who brought me my coffee laughed, and told me the men were likely to run into their bosses inside one.

I took a sip of my espresso, and immediately spit it out. But people probably don’t come here for the coffee.

Café Alibaba (Local 151)
Galería Santiago Centro
Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins 949, Santiago, Chile
9 a.m. – 9 p.m.

On a side note: I received a comment when this came out about how sad it is that commercializing women’s bodies is such a lucrative industry. While I wouldn’t argue this statement generally speaking, when it comes to café con piernas culture,the issue a bit more complex. When speaking candidly with my server in the café, and through various interviews I have read, the jobs appear to be highly-coveted – opening up job opportunities where women make a healthy income on a more or less regular daytime schedule, and without the less desirable effects of working in a strip club; they do not remove their clothes entirely and there are strict rules in place about touching and propositioning the servers beyond their duties of delivering caffeine with a side of light flirtation. Just some café for thought.

 

Advertisements

Playing Rat Roulette With Street Meat in Laos

This story was published on The Huffington Post today. Here it is on Boys Eats World, complete with photos.

I have always been an adventurous eater. From skewered bull penis in Beijing to beating snake heart in Hanoi to ant larvae tacos in Mexico City, I am a curious omnivore who is willing to try anything once. It took a village in the rural mountains of Laos, however, to truly test my gastronomic fortitude.

During my three weeks traversing the country, street meat stalls became a comforting constant in my ever-changing surroundings. There is no better way to slip into the leisurely Lao pace of life than by noshing on succulent pork ribs, marinated chicken thighs, and unidentifiable meaty bits while crouched on plastic stools with the locals. I felt a sense of camraderie with my neighbors who smiled approvingly when I mopped the juices from around my mouth with sticky rice, before eating it too. In these inclusive roadside eateries, language barriers are trumped by a universal appreciation of grilled meats and no one questions whether it is too early for your first Beerlao of the day. It was here, among the street meaters, where I belonged.
img_2623
That feeling of solidarity with my tribe was shaken to its core one foggy morning on my routine breakfast pilgrimage to the stalls clustered in Nong Khiaw’s center. Approaching the squatted grill master with a smile, I stopped dead in my tracks. A knotted pink tail was swinging between her legs as she vigorously removed the rat’s coat in swift, deliberate strokes of the blade. Drops of blood pooled at her feet as she expertly sliced up the rodent and tossed it onto the grill alongside the other meats. My stomach lurched and a feeling of acute nausea spread through my entire body as I made the connection between these carriers of disease and my daily dining ritual. My mind reeling, I beelined for the neighboring produce stand and began to chain-eat oranges instead. My unshakeable relationship with street meat had just become complicated.

The near certainty of having unwittingly eaten rat disturbed me deeply; its hidden presence within the humble cuisine I had come to love was an assault on my psyche. Had I found my culinary kryptonite in the filthy dwellers of subway systems and dark alleys the world over?
As I pondered my conundrum, the valuable lessons and genuine relationships formed through my Laotian street encounters came flooding back.
When I first arrived in the unfamiliar southern city of Pakse, weak and disoriented after a nine-turned-fourteen hour bus ride from Bangkok, I found nourishment in streetside lemongrass and ginger-infused pork sausages and a kindred spirit in the amiable local hand-stuffing each one with pride.
During a three-day motorbike trip through the elevated Bolaven Plateau — a region ripe with Arabica coffee, picturesque waterfalls, and streetside grill huts galore — I cured my hunger on the road with crisped pork belly and tender balls of mystery meat. In one smoky den a gracious griller taught me proper sticky rice etiquette by urging me to rip off a hunk of the dense starch from a communal basket and wrap it around my meat before dunking it in a slew of fermented pastes and chili-spiked vinegars. Days later, hovering over a heaping plate of road snacks, I was invited to join a table of students at an underground karaoke club where being publicly serenaded was made tolerable, and then hilarious, by hosts who never let my cup run dry.

img_1149
img_2449As the sun sank lazily behind Nong Khiaw’s dramatic karst cliffs that evening, my initial disgust was replaced with the realization that street meat — rat likely included — had been at the heart of my most meaningful memories in Laos, prompting me to question my bias against the rodent itself.

If I’d been aware of the possibility that its flesh was simmering within my sausages, would I have enjoyed them with such unadulterated joy? Would I have made the same connections with locals who found amusement in my undiscerning enthusiasm to try everything on offer? Perhaps most importantly, could I really fathom giving up street meat in a country where it had become an all-encompassing lifestyle?

The following week, after enjoying the final sunrise of my trip in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, I strolled through the morning market where ingredients were sold for the day’s cooking. I wandered past stalls of live frogs bound together at the feet, slithering snakes in bowls, and baskets piled high with dried scorpions. It wasn’t long before I spotted the rats. They had been butterflied, leaving their charred innards exposed, and I picked one up to examine the creature that had triggered my internal dilemma. Its tiny bones and sparse pockets of meat did little for my appetite, but it no longer revolted me, either. Strangely enough, I felt a kind of gratitude to the rodents that had taught me that my desire for authentic feasting experiences was far stronger than my fear of vermin.img_1143

Burmese Curries & Monastery ‘Monk’eys: What’s Hpaan-ing in Hpa-an, Myanmar

Weaving through throngs of oncoming traffic and a cacophony of horns – my mouth tingling from the perfectly balanced spicy noodle soup I just finished slurping – I dare to unwrap my grasp around Nick’s torso only long enough to wave back to the beaming children greeting us from their homes on the river’s edge.  Our motorbike jolts forward as we finally break free from the bustling center of Hpa-an, where the chaos melts away into lush, idyllic countryside punctured with dramatic limestone cliffs that stretch to the sky in all directions.  I have dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since its doors opened to tourism in 2012, and the capital of the Kayin state proves to be the ideal introduction to a country that has long captured my imagination.

Myanmar – or Burma, depending on who you ask – is a country that begs to be explored.  After decades of isolation from the outside world, much of the country is now accessible to anybody with a tourist visa and a sense of adventure.  With several years of tourism under their belt, it may no longer be the virgin land void of foreigners, ATMs and WiFi connections that it once was (although these luxuries are never a guarantee). It is, however, a fascinating destination with a complicated history, a myriad of over one hundred ethnic minorities and cultures, and a varied cuisine that weaves flavors and techniques from neighboring countries into a culinary identity all its own.  In a land whose majestic temple-strewn landscape is nothing short of spectacular, it is the locals’ infectiously warm spirit that leaves the greatest impression.  Being invited for a beer or passed a plate of spicy ginger salad by your neighbor at a street stall – simply because it is delicious and you really must try it – is normal.  They are, of course, correct – and will nod with approval as you order one of your own.

As an explorer of Myanmar, the more you put into understanding and experiencing what makes it unique – and delicious – the deeper your connection will be.  For those looking to delve into its culinary landscape, sampling an array of richly spiced Burmese curries is an admirable way to start.  Accompanied by the pack of fellow nomads that I met at the bus station, I arrive at the Burmese curry house San Ma Tau ravenous – peeking inside each simmering pot and lingering in the medley of warm and sharply pungent aromas, before concluding that we would like to try them all.  As we hydrate with ice-cold Myanmar lager, the small bowls of curries bathing in their own oily juices begin to hit the table in waves until nothing can be seen but pickled quail eggs, tender braised duck and roasted chicken that glows a neon shade of turmeric.  The never ending – and often unidentified – condiments that accompany most meals range from fermented tea leaves (a national favorite) to umami rich bean pastes to cilantro spiked ground chilis, turning each feast into a ‘choose your own flavor’ adventure.  The crunchy local eggplant and fresh herbs at the table’s center act as a palate cleanser amidst the waves of spice.

It goes without saying that a true culinary exploration of Myanmar requires hitting the streets.  Those willing to forego the formalities of restaurant service are rewarded by markets teeming with vendors that sling local delicacies like spicy shan noodles, deep fried samosas and sticky sweet pastries all day long. In the dusty street markets of Hpa-an, we indulged in the light-as-air chickpea crepes drizzled in sweet chili sauce for breakfast, while noodle-stuffed egg rolls and sweet corn fritters deep-fried in a roadside wok and dunked in a tangy ginger-cilantro sauce killed our afternoon munchies.  The wok master exuded a disposition so jolly it was easy to pass an hour crouched at her table snacking, laughing and playing with the groups of giggling children who came to join in on the fun.

Once properly fueled, we took to the countryside and explored the ancient Buddhist cave temples for which the region is known.  Dating back to the seventh century, exploring the spectacular time capsules decorated with giant Buddhas, chattering bats and dripping stalactites, induces a Planet Earth meets Alice in Wonderland sensation, while the monks and praying locals remind you of the caves’ inherent holiness.  Cruising to the aptly name “Bat Cave” at the town’s edge for sunset grants the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of bats flock from a small hole in the cliff’s side to begin their nocturnal feasting.

Having heard rumor of a (half) mile-high monastery, we made the grueling two hour vertical pilgrimage up the side of Mount Zwegabin to feast and sleep atop the highest limestone cliff in the region.  The less than luxurious accommodations (read: mat on floor) was more than made up for by the epic panoramic sunset that made us question whether this was all a dream after all.  Our jellied legs that propelled us to the top, however, acted as an earthly reminder that we had earned the right to sleep amongst the monks and clouds.  The modest yet delightful vegetarian feast served soon after sundown lulled us to sleep (along with the aid of Myanmar’s prize ‘High Class’ whiskey) – while the 4 am prayer call woke us back up in time to watch the ascending sun paint the sky with fiery watercolors.

My renewed sense of peace was cut short by the grabby monastery monkeys, who snatched and annihilated my bag of peanuts as I pondered my place in the universe.  An anger arose within me but was quickly washed away by a Buddha quote that came to mind:

In the end, only three things matter:
how much you loved,
how gently you lived,
and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Perhaps these peanuts just weren’t meant to be; and besides, if Myanmar has taught me anything, it’s that unexpected adventures – and snacks – are just a mere cliff, cave or mountain’s climb away.

Michelada, Te Amo

Some say that if you’ve never had a good michelada, you’ve never truly lived.  Okay, that person was me – and while it may seem a bit hyperbolic, just hear me out on this one.

A michelada is a magical frosty beverage with the ability to quench the thirst of mind, body and soul in a way that nothing else quite can.  Why is that, you may ask.

First off, its fundamental components also happen to be ingredients necessary for a happy life: beer, lime, hot sauce and salt.  From that base you can branch out into hundreds of regional varieties that include everything from Clamato (a tangy clam-spiked tomato juice), to tropical fruits like mango or guava, to full on mountains of shrimp bathing in your beloved chela helada.  If you hit the miche jackpot you may even be treated to an XL michelitro that comes complete with a snack of crunchy jicama and juicy piña, garnished with a spiced tamarind wand and generously drizzled in salsa picante.  Hypothetically speaking you could even substitute one of these bad boys for a meal, but nothing marries with the savory, spicy elixir like a heaping serving of straight from the sea-viche.   

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 17.16.04

Like many the best things in life, micheladas can and should be modified to cater to your individual tastes.  If you want to add some depth, why not splash in a slew of salsas negras like Worcester, soy, or the beloved Mexican Jugo Maggi?  If the room is still spinning from the night before, try adding a loving dose of Clamato and think of it as a Mexican Bloody Mary – tequila spike optional – which much like the infamous hangover healers, will cure your crudo in no time.  No matter how you mix it, the michelada is bound to seduce and leave you wondering why you hadn’t jumped on to the bandwagon sooner.

Here’s my personal go-to for post-beach (or midmorning) sipping:

Savory Rims Make the World Go Round

If you want to make a michelada right, you’ve got to have the salt to back it up; and not just any salt.

For this drink you’re going to want Grade-A coarse sea salt.  Nothing is more dismaying than a michelada that comes with either no salt (the horror) or refined table salt, which does little except to numb your palate and leave you yearning for a true briny rim.

Thanks to the many gems I have discovered in the local tienditas across Mexico, I am now unable to make a salted rim without tossing in some Tajín – an addictively tangy seasoning that literally enhances everything (I even use it to dust my morning mango smoothies).  A quick swipe of a halved lime around the edge of your pint glass and a nice, healthy dusting of your speckled salt, and it’s onto step 2.

IMG_6729

Pick your Poison

I tend to mix and match my sauces depending on my mood.  For salsa picante, I like to hit it with several punches of habanero to kick up the heat – like the intense but flavorful Chimay – and add something with a bit more smokiness and depth; in this case I went with Tajín chipotle.  I will generally add a third hot sauce for good measure – Tapatío or anything comparable will work well.  Add 4 dashes of Jugo Maggi – a concentrated Mexican seasoning that explodes with umami goodness (or if you’re feeling an Asian influence, try substituting this with Ponzu sauce).  Squeeze the juice of two large, ripe Mexican limes and you’re ready for the most important ingredient of all.

IMG_6731

IMG_6734

IMG_6735

Mi Chela Helada 

When you think of Mexican beer, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not craft brews with exciting flavor profiles and inventive varietals.  I’m happy to report, however, it does indeed exist, you just haven’t heard about it yet – (more to come on the relatively young and totally booming Mexican craft beer scene pronto).

In the case of a michelada, though, the flavor of your beer will be overwhelmed by the other components, thus using a fine ale is simply unnecessary – your frosty Pacífico or Modelo will do just fine.  If you are looking for a bit more depth while retaining a light body, opt for the amber Vienna style lager, Victoria.  Fill your pint glass up, and don’t forget to leave room for a few ice cubes.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is worse than having your perfectly curated elixir slosh over the side of your glass at the last moment, destroying your beautifully salted rim and leaving behind a mere ghost of the drink that once was.  Don’t make that rookie mistake.  Think ahead, plan strategically and execute with precision; trust me, vale la pena.

IMG_6736

¡Salud!

Now comes the best part of all – raise that beautiful glass to the sky (don’t forget to snap a shot for your future Insta fodder), and imbibe deeply in the delicious Mexican tradition you’ve got in your mano.

Felicidades, you now know how to make a michelada – now I just dare you not to have 6 más.

IMG_6737IMG_6677

2015: A Delicious Year, Revisited

A new year, a fresh palate; 365 days ripe with unlimited potential for future feasts.  When reflecting upon 2015 I can’t help but think about the tasty times; having moved to Mexico one year ago, there has been no shortage of spicy street eats, beach ceviches and endless interpretations of the beloved michelada this calendar year. There’s been a lot more than that, too.  From my first culinary foray into the Big Easy, to Michelin starred lunches in NYC, to inquisitive explorations of the booming restaurant scenes in Mexico’s largest metropolises, 2015 has been nothing short of ricissimo; here’s a list of some of my more intriguing bites (and sips) of the year.  2016, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

      1.  Smoked Crab Tostada, Quintonil, Mexico City

There are few places more exciting to be an eater today than in Mexico City; a dizzying megalopolis whose vibrant culture is woven with culinary delights of all kinds.  I was lucky enough to enjoy my first meal in Mexico City two years back at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol.  This September it was all about Quintonil, Polanco’s newest contemporary Mexican eatery led by Jorge Vallejo, a young and passionate Olvera-trained chef who who has been attracting international buzz for his own concept, and fast.  Not only did the restaurant join the ranks on this year’s San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants list, but it also sits as the #6  best restaurant in Latin America.  Having looked forward to this meal for months, my friend Zach and I excitedly booked the last table available at 10:00 pm; primetime for feasting in Mexico.

Settling into our cozy corner banquette, the server explained how the restaurant sought to honor and express the traditional plants and flavors of Mexico in modern interpretations; they even have their own urban orchard where they grow and source many of their ingredients.  Quintonil is itself an indigenous relative of the amaranth leaf, and a favorite of the chef’s.  Ordering one, then another, of the signature cocktails of muddled quintonil, lime and mezcal with a crushed grasshopper and chili-rimmed glass, we sprung for the tasting menu and settled into our intimate, minimalist surroundings, letting the ten course journey commence.

The meal was thought-provoking and well-curated: inspired by a unique and specific vision to bring to the forefront locally-sourced ingredients and flavors that have long played a role in the country’s culinary history, but remain unknown to many (think pillowy soft ants eggs snuggling with pan roasted chanterelles).  Each course acted as a chapter in a very intriguing and deeply felt story.  Delicious, surprising, and at times even challenging; Zach had previous unfavorable experiences with cuitlacoche or “corn smut”, a pungent fungus that grows on corn, but when prepared as an earthy broth served with local squash blossom and seaweed, the flavors were complementary instead of overwhelming. 

Each dish was in itself a work of art, looking like a very still shot of nature in some magical, lush land where I imagine fairies must feast well.  The unifying botanical theme of nature resonated though the entire experience from the leafy menus, to the green cocktails, to the organic plating, to the lush back wall of the dining room.  Perhaps my favorite dish of the evening was the smoked crab tostada: a succulent and meaty mountain of crabmeat smoked then dressed in lime and crowned by a thin tostada adorned beautifully with shaved watermelon radish, pickled onions and dollops of impeccably spiced habanero mayonnaise.  Together they created a natural harmony of bright acidity, smoked brininess, textural ‘crunch’ and just the right amount of heat.  When in Mexico City the story of Quintonil is one worth eating for yourself, and of course, sharing with your friends.

FullSizeRender (15)

FullSizeRender (14)

FullSizeRender (12)

 

      2. Le Pig Mac, Cochon Butcher, New Orleans

There’s a lot of deliciousness to be had in NOLA, as I discovered last March during my five day Mexican visa run turned food and cocktail bender in Sin City.  One of the more vital lessons learned is that a visit to the 2-in-1 butcher shop/packed sandwich joint Cochon Butcher is non-negotiable.  Less negotiable still is ordering the mouth-watering Le Pig Mac once there; a burger that still has me yearning a year later.  Drawn to the higher-quality rendition of my favorite fast food item (sorry, not sorry), which like its namesake it is comprised of two pattys, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onions, on a sesame seed bun, I dug in without reserve.  The first bite, however, reminded me just how unlike its namesake it really was; succulent, tender and addictively flavorful, almost everything in the burger was made in house and expertly assembled, having me fantasizing about my second Mac long before I finished my first.  With a dash of their signature sweet potato habanero hot sauce on every bite, Le Pig Mac made it unfair for all other burgers I would eat this year.

(side note: this hot sauce was so good that it induced extreme withdrawal, forcing me to have it overnighted to Maine one month later so a visiting friend could fly it down to Mexico, a country with no shortage of its own spicy salsas)

IMG_1015 (1)

      3. Torta Ahogada, Torta Toño, Guadalajara

When going anywhere new for the first time, I like to research its culinary specialities so I know what I can’t leave without eating.  When asking around what I must eat while in Mexico’s second largest city, I heard back a resounding: tortas ahogadas.  Literally meaning “drowned sandwich”, one can choose from a variety of proteins which are packed into a crunchy baguette and then drenched in various sauces ranging from sweet to very spicy.  Nick and I visited Tortas Toño, recommended as the best in town by local torta-vores, ordered both chicken and pork, and proceeded to make complete gringos out of ourselves.

Approaching the “DIY” torta bar, we were faced with 5 different tubs of various sauces.  Watching the guy next to us quite literally drown his sandwich in one of the more mild options, with just a splash of the spicy stuff, Nick aggressively decided to drown his own in the pure picante.  A year’s worth of gaping stares from locals as we loaded most everything we ate with the hottest sauces we could get our hands on, had taught us that we generally liked comida “que pica” more than most natives.

As Nick unsuspectingly ladled on his molten lava, heads began to turn and by his fifth everyone in the entire room was staring.  The concerned counter lady rushed over and offered to replace it with a fresh sandwich before we had even dug in.  Figuring she was just taking us for mild-palated Americans, we each took a big bite to prove this wasn’t our first rodeo…and immediately regretted it.  By far one of the most scorching bites we had ever encountered, pride alone forced us to continue chewing.  We nobly forced it down before conceding that, yes, perhaps it was a bit hot and, why yes, we would graciously accept a new one, which this time came with a personal tutorial on the do’s (and do nots) of drowning your sandwiches in Guadalajara.  The result, topped with pickled onions and absolutely swimming in chile de arbol infused goodness, marked a milestone in our evolving etiquette on feasting in Latin America.

FullSizeRender (9)

FullSizeRender (10)

FullSizeRender (11)

 

      4. Shaved Razor Clam, Le Bernardin, New York

Entering into Eric Ripert’s 3 Michelin-starred seafood kingdom, you are transported to the middle of the hungry ocean.  Renovated in 2011 by architectural powerhouse Bentel & Bentel, the massive portrait of the sea that dominates the back wall of the restaurant acts as a focal point from which the dining room outwardly flows.  The movement of water as a conceptual theme is felt everywhere, even the walls give the impression you yourself are ebbing through an elegant sea of haute cuisine.

After six months living abroad in Mexico and sustaining myself in large part on street tacos (see #6), it seemed only appropriate to enter the US again with a splash.  Opting for the three course tasting menu (with a handful of supplemental appetizers for the table), the bounty of the sea began to land on our table in waves.  Every aspect of the meal was technically flawless and refined almost to a fault; I secretly longed for a hard pan sear on my fluke and a little camaraderie in my service, which while efficient was also bone-chillingly cold. 

The razor clams, however, warmed me back up.  Shaved, layered delicately, bathing in a subtle lime dressing, and topped with clusters of wasabi tobiko and lively micro-greens; the dish was bright, clean, perfectly balanced, and had just enough Asian influence to make my taste buds giddy.  When reflecting on the most expensive lunch I have ever indulged in, it is that razor clam I will not soon forget.

FullSizeRender (6)

FullSizeRender (20)

11709589_10153497450519579_8260029335596276917_n

 

  5. Lobster Tartine, The Honey Paw, Portland, ME

Being a Mainer, it’s hard not to brag about the superiority of my home state’s favorite crustacean.  Whether it be in a roll, a composed dish, or preferably straight out of the ocean and into a pot of boiling seawater on a roaring beach fire, there’s simply nothing better than a Maine lobster in summertime (or wintertime, or…okay anytime).  And don’t just take it from me, the ex-president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, once poetically recounted to me that time he and Gabriel Gárcia Márquez enjoyed their first lobster bake together on an island off the coast of Maine, agreeing there was nothing quite like it in the world. 

Taking a three week escape from Mexico’s Pacific coast last August to soak in the sun and shellfish on the rocky coast of Maine, I had some red claw milestones that will be hard to outdo.  At a beachside family gathering of fifty, we cooked (and annihilated) an impressive 300 lobbys, giving birth to a new hashtag; #crushtaceans. 

A mere week later Nick and I gathered on that same beach with a group of fellow lobby lovers and had a more traditional lobster bake.  Digging a three foot hole in the sand, a fire was started, covered in large rocks and then smothered in seaweed on which our red beauties were lovingly laid (along with several pounds of mussels) – they were then smothered yet again with another layer of ‘weed, allowing the sea’s bounty to steam organically underground.  Fifteen minutes later we uncovered our feast and dug in contentedly, rinsing our buttery lobster meat down with crisp summer ales.  As the sun set, the tide came in and slowly extinguished our natural oven.  No cleanup required, we watched as the coals sizzled and the cracked shells were dragged out to sea once again, from whence they came.

When I wasn’t baking and boiling them myself, I enjoyed some sensational lobster dishes in Portland’s booming restaurant scene.  One highlight was the lobster tartine from The Honey Paw, an Asian-centric “non-denominational noodle bar”, and brother to the wildly popular Eventide Oyster Co. and its upscale, innovative big brother, Hugo’s.   A thin piece of toast smothered in lobster and scallop mousse, deep fried, and decorated artfully with lobster, shaved radish, cilantro emulsion, crunchy hijiki seaweed and fried shallot, the tartine is both a stunner and a refreshingly new take on what can be done with Vacationland’s underwater mascot.    

11822488_10104183679764019_516730453864735420_n
#crushtaceans
FullSizeRender (17)
Maine: the way lobster should be
FullSizeRender (3)
lobster tartine @ the honey paw

 

6. Tacos Tropicales, iLatina, Guadalajara

Tacos; in every way the perfect food.  In my 27 years on this Earth, I have yet to meet a taco I didn’t like.  One reason for this may be that not only is it unnecessary to use utensils while eating them, it’s downright ludicrous.  This year I had the pleasure of hand-feeding myself hundreds of authentic tacos on the streets of Mexico and can honestly say that not only am I not tired of them, but my mouth still literally salivates when I hear the word.  There is nothing quite hits the spot like an order of tacos “al pastor” in Mexico City at 4 am, cut straight from adobada spice-rubbed pork rotisserie, roasting on a spit in its own juices for hours.  If you ask nicely enough, the guy manning the spit may even give you a tutorial before you take a go at it yourself, giving you a new appreciation for tacos as an art form.  

The most creative taco of the year goes to the funky “ser y ser visto” hotspot iLatina in Guadalajara whose tacos tropicales substitute tortillas for crispy disks of jicama and load them with plump fried shrimp, grilled pineapple salsa and chipotle aioli, served with tajin-crusted lime wedges (an addictively tangy powder available in corner tienditas everywhere).  Come for the tacos, stay for the inventive mezcal cocktails, and let the decidedly dean crowd of Guadalajarans lead you forth into the noche.

FullSizeRender (1)
tacos tropicales @ iLatina
FullSizeRender (7)
mexico city, 4 am
FullSizeRender (8)
tacos are the gateway drug to new friendships

 

7. Turtle Bolognese, La Petite Grocery, New Orleans

A 20 minute cab ride from the French District landed us at La Petite Grocery, an upscale French neighborhood bistro with Southern twang, on a Thursday night. Sans reservation, we managed to squeeze into the very last table available and settled on two dishes; this being just the first stop on a city-wide restaurant hop.  Our server was less than impressed with this decision (and made no attempt to hide it), and after our blasé first course of fried green tomatoes with lump blue crab, we were ready to move along.  The turtle bolognese, however, was worth the wait.  

Wide strips of handmade pasta swimming in a rich, steaming bolognese sauce loaded with succulent ground turtle.  Perched on top was a soft-boiled egg, fried to perfection, which when cut in half oozed its yellow nectar, soaking everything in its yolky goodness.  I would find myself reflecting on that first bite of pasta all year, not because it was the only turtle I would have in 2015, but because it was the only bite that would bring involuntary tears to my eyes, making me choke up every so slightly with emotion; it was that good.

o

8.  Jakarta, Tempo Dulu, Portland, ME

Everyone loves a good cocktail.  If you’re lucky, however, once in a rare while you may find yourself sipping a cocktail that takes you off guard, surprising you with complexity without feeling forced, and brimming with a unique and intriguing vision that makes your introduction feel as though you are meeting an old friend and an exotic, sexy stranger at the same time.  I had one such elusive introduction this summer while sampling the better half of the innovative cocktail program at Tempo Dulu, Portland’s new Southeast Asian fine dining establishment in the recently renovated and painfully classy Danforth Inn; his name was Jakarta.

Watching head cocktail curator Trevin Hutchins prepare the libation using a slate and a small kindling pile of Chinese five-spice logs which he torched to a crisp, covering the smoking chips with an absinthe-misted glass, letting its coated interior absorb the rich, oriental musk.  Meanwhile he prepared a reinterpretation of the classic Manhattan, using Knob Creek Rye, Averna Amaro, Carpano Antica Vermouth, and local Coastal Root Bitters, serving the finished product in a beautiful beaker.  Tipping back the smoke filled glass, he introduced one to the other, letting smoke and rye frolic playfully, mingling and dancing before your palate, engaging all of your senses.  The first sip proves that the cocktail’s preparation was much more than a show, and that in the right hands, cocktails have the power to transport you to another time and place.  After one sip Nick immediately declared it to be his favorite cocktail of all time; thanks for that Trevin, you rock.  

If you’re feeling splurgey, don’t miss out on the tasting menus in Tempo Dulu’s elegant dining room, including an Indonesian Rijsttafel or “rice table”, where you can sample an elaborate array of artfully prepared small plates.

FullSizeRender (18)
trevin hutchins in action
FullSizeRender (4)
the jakarta

 

Bivalves, Beautiful Bivalves: A Thanksgiving Tale

A little late to the repost, but here’s a story about our favorite pearly temptresses: Bivalves, Beautiful Bivalves, as featured in the Huffington Post “Taste” section last fall.

Oysters are the most magical bivalve of them all. A true oyster devotee has been in a torrid love affair since his very first half shell. The experience of eating a freshly shucked oyster is not unlike a deeply erotic encounter; the naked organism sits in front of you bathing sensually in its own juices, just begging to be taken. Once you tip that temptress from her pearly shell into your mouth, the oyster-gasm sets in. Your nerve endings spark as though they’re bathing in a pool of Champagne as you reach a pure, briny state of Nirvana.

A raw oyster is an expression of the ocean in its purest form, and while each is sacred in its own right, not all bivalve feasts are created equal.

My most memorable feast to date occurred not in my home state of Maine but China, on a humid Shanghai night. It was Thanksgiving and our university had generously treated us exchange students to a holiday dinner in the form of an upscale hotel’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Coincidentally, my friend’s parents visiting from Massachusetts were staying at that same hotel and invited us up to the “Executive Lounge” before our school-sponsored feast.

After four MSG-fueled months abroad, the beautiful bounty before us, juxtaposed against the futuristic Shanghai cityscape, seemed nothing short of alien. Bagels topped with lox and plump capers neighbored an irresistible spread of creamy cheeses that blended into a symphony of cured meats and luscious pâtés. A few Johnny Walkers and several thousand calories later, I rolled out of the elevator and through the lobby, but not toward the exit. Instead, I was right on-time for our Thanksgiving feast.

I looked around at the spread in front of us — and a true spread it was. Cornucopias overflowed with autumnal produce not native to the continent underfoot but ripe with the golden and red hues I associated with my New England upbringing. Roasted turkeys perched proudly upon ornate stands that swam in lakes of piping hot stuffing, steaming fragrances nothing short of sublime. While my fellow classmates dove in hungrily to their holiday feast, I ambled around bleary-eyed and uninspired. Already filled to the brim with food and spirit, my bed was starting to seem more appealing than the heaps of traditional fare that surrounded me. As I lazily completed my lap around the room, I had all but mentally conceded to my lethargic fate when suddenly my eyes leapt from my skull and my mouth began to salivate at the majestic sight before me; bivalves, beautiful bivalves.

The mountain of shells formed a fantastical landscape and I stared transfixed, blindsided by the fact that an unlimited oyster bar was to be a part of this holiday celebration. The shucker looked up at me half-laughing.

“You like oyster?”

I do like oyster. I like oyster a lot. And with that, my evening took a turn for the delicious.

Deep in a spiritual state, I vaguely noted that only two other people approached the raw bar that evening, hesitantly asking for one, maybe two oysters, just to try. I on the other hand was slurping them down as fast as my new best friend could shuck, bathing in the sensual glory of each briny moment. Every time I returned to the table with a new oyster tower in hand, my onlookers laughed and cheered; amused, intrigued and ultimately bewildered by my relationship with these opulent creatures. After personally putting away thirty beauties, I proclaimed that I should have only one more, a feather in my cap, because 31 oysters in a row was just so damn sexy.

Those 31 oysters coming back up one hour later was not so sexy. My belief in Bivalvism, however, is still afloat today and I remind myself daily that a close encounter with Poseidon is only a shell’s pry away.

Pujol: La Experiencia

If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s convincing myself that I need things. Once a seed has been planted, my brain instinctively showers it with water and sunlight until I can’t fathom it not blossoming into fruition. It’s no surprise then, that upon discovering Restaurant Magazine’s 17th “Best Restaurant in the World” (sitting pretty between Per Se and Le Bernardin) was located in Mexico City, dining there became not a desire but a necessity. Throwing our backpacker budget to the wind we called to book an incredibly last minute table at Mexico’s finest and after 45 minutes of searches and transfers and “imposible”-s, we were in. Pujol (Catalan for “pork”), here we come.

It was our first night in Mexico City and we were ecstatic to be there. Intoxicated by the sights, smells and sounds of the dizzying metropolis, in addition to the nice tequila buzz we had going, the prospect of our first dinner made us downright giddy.

Upon entering Pujol we were greeted by several smiling faces and escorted through the main dining room to a private table for two tucked in a windowed alcove. We had definitely snagged a last minute cancellation, our server informed us with a wink – these tables were booked at least two weeks in advance, even for a Thursday. The interior of Pujol was like a nice suit – dark, sleek, simple and just plain sexy to be inside. I scanned the room, noticing we were the only white people in the restaurant; an assuring sight in any foreign eatery.

Our server greeted us with cucumber-mint infused water while warmly introducing us to the 9 course tasting menu (all in Spanish, much to Nick’s confusion). After making several selections and popping a Cab Franc blend from Baja, we were fully equipped to feast.

pujol3

noname

After igniting our palates with an ice of juniper, fennel and lime, we were presented with what was arguably the highlight of the meal. A hollow, aged gourd was placed at the center of our table and as the lid was removed, a fragrant smoke pillowed out. We peered in to find two skewered baby ears of corn sitting atop a bed of charred husks, slathered in a mayonnaise of ground chicatana ant, coffee and chili. Delicious is not the right word to describe it; “moving” does it better justice. My eyes instinctively shut as I was transported away – the unique blend of flavors evoking memories that laid just beyond my grasp. It defied classification. At once wholly Mexican and strangely personal, after three bites it was gone. My eyes reopened to see Nick across the table with a similar expression of wonder on his face. Whoa.

corn

corn3

Next followed a vibrantly fresh broccoli mole topped with cauliflower, romanesco and cabbage curls that sang with green color and playfully delivered my vegetables for the meal. I squirmed with anticipation for the taco course to come.

What arrived in front of us were unlike any tacos we had ever seen. Snapper ceviche laid artfully across a blue corn tortilla pressed with “hoja santa”, topped with a micro-herb salad then finished with fish skin “chicharrones” and dollops of black bean emulsion. Paired with a custom smoked salsa, it was a celebration of both earth and sea complemented by acid, salt and that essential “crunch” factor. The brother taco was equally handsome. Cacao rubbed pork loin slow-cooked to perfection sidled by avocado purée, wrapped in a poblano tortilla and paired with salsa verde. The flavors were classic Mexican and yet eating this taco transcended time and place.  It was tender beyond belief, it was creamy and ripe, it was spicy in all the right ways and it sang with a modern timelessness many cooks strive for and few achieve. This was the type of taco that will haunt your dreams. I yearned for, needed, more but it was gone. That first bite of taco would cross my mind multiple times a day, every day for the next week.

fish

pork

At this point the red wine had fully enveloped me in a fuzzy blanket of warmth and my level of satisfaction was through the roof. The server could sense how much we were enjoying ourselves as he delivered our next course and immediately befriended us – wanting to know everything about who we were, where we were from and how we happened to find ourselves at his table. I loved him – not only was he incredibly personable but he was also changing my life for the better every time he delivered our next course.

I excitedly examined my entrée of pan fried pork belly on salsa verde with leafy purslane and potato confited in egg yolk – the kitchen’s play on ham and eggs. It’s sister entree – the “pesca del día” – was lime-infused, seared yellowfin tuna paired with purée of eggplant and a smooth habanero sauce; an unexpected combination of flavors that delighted us with their compatibility. We couldn’t decided which we liked better – it almost seemed irrelevant – at this point we were just surfing the wave of gastro-fun that had been so carefully generated by the platoon of 26 chefs out back.

belly

tuma

After more wine was poured we were presented with a traditional mole that had been aged for ten months and topped with crispy chicken skin, accompanied by hand-made tortillas. Complex and interesting as any good mole should be – my only complaint was that it wasn’t slathered over a delicious slab of meat.

After a small course of guayaba and sweet potato spheres to assist our transition from savory to sweet, we had arrived at dessert. Preserved papaya on a yogurt foam with crystallized lemon and a scoop of honey ice cream delighted. The toasted brioche with tropical fruits, crumbled cheese and a tomatillo-mint marmalade reminded me of the breakfast I should eat more often.

dessert3

Unable to take another bite, our last course was thankfully in liquid form. A soothing cup of corn tea brewed with star anise and lime peel was the final salute to the culinary heritage of a country who truly knows how to feast.

It was an unforgettable experience; a trifecta of impeccable service, unbeatable company and a truly outstanding meal served with a twist of modern whimsy. I wobbled from my table drunk on wine, food and life, nearly hugging everyone in my path on the way out. A tray of truffles appeared out of nowhere and after a profusion of thanks and compliments we cruised into the warm night air. We had made it almost two blocks when I heard feet pounding behind me. I turned to find an out-of-breath employee with an outstretched arm handing me the moleskin in which I had taken notes from the meal and left behind. Shaking away the tip Nick tried to offer him and wishing us a good evening, we continued on our way knowing that we had found a friend in Mexico City.

http://www.pujol.com.mx/

“Don’t Eat the Street Meat” Advice Ignored

As we cruised through the winding roads that lead from Tijuana to the port city of Ensenada, teetering on cliffs that dropped dramatically to the open sea below, my stomach began to rumble. Upon hitting the border my taco fantasies became more vivid than ever and I was ready to make them a reality.  Commence feasting: Mexican style.

The first stop was my brother’s roadside taqueria of choice, El Paisa, where large chunks of meat were roasting on spits and a symphony of salsas and pickled vegetables danced before our eyes.  Lunch was prepared by a masterful taquero who pumped out an impressive nine in under a minute; a display of auto-drive at its finest.

They were exceptional.  Smoky carne asada perfectly balanced by creamy guacamole, garnished with pickled chiles and every available salsa blended together in a fiesta of flavors that set the precedent for future feasts.  The advice Nick had been given before departure, “Just don’t eat the street meat” was ignored entirely and life was all the better for it.

Image

The next day we set out on a mission to eat as much street as possible.  Upon entering the city, we landed in the heart of the gringo district where cruise-ship passengers wandered the streets in search of tacky sombreros and Viagra prescriptions.  Pushing through the swarm of vendors promising us the best “junk” in town, the signs switched from dollars to pesos and we found ourselves in the true Ensenada of friendly locals, festive music and eats galore.

Wafting aromas of grilled meat drew us to the first stand we could find where we hungrily ordered a taco and quesadilla.  The dish that arrived, however, was far better than anything we could have imagined; the quesotaco. Two grilled corn tortillas oozing with melted cheese folded around roasted pork to create the ultimate fusion of Mexican comfort foods.  Que rico.

Next we headed to “La Guerrerense,” a ceviche stand that had won awards at L.A.’s street food festival two years running and had accrued an international following.  We ordered one of each of the winners, sea snail and urchin ceviches piled high onto a crispy tostada topped with avocado and dressed with hot sauce.  Fresh, slightly chewy and nothing like the uni we have back in Maine, we crossed it off our lists and foraged on.

Image

Nothing marries more perfectly with street meat than cerveza, so after putting away a liter in a parking lot, we set out in search of Ensenada’s infamous fish tacos.  We went to two stands – one recommended by an American blogger and one by Forrest’s Mexican wife Rubi – it’s easy to guess which won.  The fish was heavily battered and fried to perfection, then piled high with pico de gallo, shredded lettuce and an array of fresh salsas.  We annihilated ours, did a lap and came back for seconds.  The lady that served us laughed knowingly.  If there is one thing that can be said about the people of Ensenada, they know good street food and they also know that theirs is worth crossing the border for.

ImageImage

A Maiden Voyage

Any trip to California, no matter how brief, requires a trip to the cult burger chain In-N-Out. This is especially true when your travel buddy has never had an encounter with the Double Double before. Four beef patties, two mounds of fries and a strawberry shake later, Nick was devirginized and Forrest was revved up about launching the rip-off Mexican franchise “Adentro-Y-Afuera.”

In-N-Out defies all stereotypes of a fast-food chain. Family owned, with fries cooked to order and an incredibly friendly staff that almost make you wonder if everyone is on something (seriously, why are they all beaming like that?) – any trip to In-N-Out is the perfect embodiment of breezy SoCal living. Whether familiar with the secret menu or not, it’s hard to walk out not feeling like life is better animal style.

20140202-121723.jpg

¡Vámonos!

The day we have all been waiting for (well, at least Nick and I) has at last arrived!  Our epic five week adventure begins today as we set sail from Boston to San Diego – then South of the border from there.  I can almost taste the freshly-fried fish tacos and zesty margaritas from my pillow castle, as Portland’s sub-zero winds whip at my windows.  But I digress – back to the origins of this adventure. 

Having not had an international frolic since last April, come September I was starting to feel the stir-crazy.  I craved abstract unknowns, inspired spontaneity and getting myself into strange situations that I probably shouldn’t tell mom about.  I needed to travel.  My boyfriend, Nick, being the up-for-anything partner that he is, suggests “How about this winter?” The seed had been planted. Where to? “How about Central America?”  Boom.

Over the coming months our trip morphed and evolved.  We zig-zagged all over a map plotting how much we could do and see, and for how long we could do it before being rendered unemployed entirely.  At last we had it – three weeks starting in Guatemala, ending in Nicaragua, with infinite possibilities for playtime in between. 

But, wait. My brother Forrest, stationed in Ensenada, Mexico, not only suggests that we start our trip there instead, but he also has a purpose for us: To Feast.  His online Mexican restaurant directory, ComerBeber, would be launching around the time of our trip and our help was needed to “research” (aka devour) the country’s culinary offerings.  Nick and I, being the food geeks that we are, had already eaten a celebratory taco before the proposal was completed.  Ou trip had taken a turn for the delicious.  Viva México.

Our now five week trip begins in Ensenada  – then it’s down to Mexico City for a few days of exploring the city by mouth.  From there we will discover the rich culinary history of Oaxaca in the forms of mole and mezcal before heading to Puerto Escondido for some much needed ceviche y sol.  Three weeks will then remain to romp in Mayan ruins, scuba dive with whale sharks, and see what other various forms of trouble we can get ourselves into.   

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” It’s all about the journey and embracing the unknown is half the fun.   This is a journey linked together by feasts.  By saying no to nothing and why the hell not to it all, we will become intimately acquainted with new places through their flavors and people.  As a first-time-blogger, my posts will not always be pretty or polished.  They will, however, be a record of my experiences on this odyssey, both gastronomic and otherwise, that I wish to share with you.  The world is just too damn delicious to enjoy alone.Image