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A Patacon for El Presidente

8 Mar

To mourn the loss and pay tribute to the beloved Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, I indulged in what might be his country’s greatest export to ours. I’m not talking about oil, baseball players, or beauty queens, but something much closer to my heart: the patacon. And I’m happy to report that the mashed green plantain sandwich stuffed usually with shredded pork, beef or chicken and topped with a “special sauce,” similar to that other place’s special sauce has become almost a staple in this country’s Latin communities, whether served from a food truck or a store front.

The Patacon

The Patacon

The government of Venezuela has instituted a seven day mourning period to honor the late president. Everyone mourns in their own way. Here those seven days can be filled with a variety of food tributes in the form of the Venezuelan sandwich: the patacon one day, a cachapas (corn meal) the next, the delicious yo yo (sweet plantain), arepa (sweet corn cake), and pepito (hard roll sandwich) on others all the while juggling different meats including pernil (shredded pork), chorizo (sausage), carne mechada (shredded beef) to name just some of the filling options.

Cachapas chorizo

Cachapas chorizo

Seven days of Venezuelan sandwiches might take a toll on your cholesterol, but remember, sometimes we all must sacrifice to show respect to the leaders who themselves have sacrificed so much for their people.

Hugo Chavez: R.I.P

Hugo Chavez: R.I.P

Cuban Chuletas in a Casa in Chelsea

20 Nov

Rick’s choice of a Venezuelan place in Chelsea quickly raised some eyebrows amongst our group when we were notified. A few months earlier, we traipsed to Inwood for Venezuelan cachapas on Dyckman Street Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street.  It wasn’t only the relatively quick repeat of a cuisine that was odd, it was also the location. Chelsea, in its present incarnation, is not a neighborhood where we would think to find our kind of restaurant; meaning one suited more for our penny pinching tastes.

Still, we gave Rick the benefit of the doubt and to El Cocotero we all planned to meet. But a couple of hours before our meeting time, Rick sent an email that read as follows:  “Guys. Just got a call from the wife and we have to go to the hospital! It may be a false alarm, but please go enjoy Venezuelan food without me.”

The false alarm was a reference to the impending birth of his first child; the due date set for early December. We all wished the best for Rick, but his pronouncement was just too sudden and late in the day to stop us from heading to Chelsea.

Before anyone else had arrived at El Cocotero, Zio had scouted it out. “It’s so dark in there, you won’t be able to find your mouth with your fork,” he wrote in a text.

You couldn’t tell that power had been restored weeks ago in Chelsea judging by the lack of light in El Cocotero.

When I entered, I immediately thought Zio was exaggerating. It was dim, for sure, but the flickering candlelight wouldn’t stop me from stuffing my face. Reading the menu, however, was a more challenging issue. Without my reading glasses, the menu print seemed as insurmountable as trying to read a Russian novel without a magnifying glass.    Thankfully, Eugene’s eyes were stronger than mine and he informed all of us that the cachapas were ten dollars—almost $4 more than what we paid at Cachapas y Mas on Dyckman Street.

To make matters worse, the table we were given was so cramped that there was the very frightening prospect of rubbing thighs with Mike from Yonkers while trying to get the food from fork to mouth.

“This is a date place,” Eugene blurted out.

Indeed it was, and Mike from Yonkers was not my date. Since Rick was not going to be joining us, there was no reason to endure eating at a romantic restaurant with the likes of Eugene, Gerry, Mike from Yonkers and Zio—and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Our group slunk out of El Cocotero, lamely apologizing to the manager as we exited.

The prospects of finding something Chow City like in Chelsea, we knew, were not good, but we had to try. I knew of a nearby Szechuan place that I liked, though it was probably as expensive as the Venezuelan we just left.

And then I remembered passing a Cuban diner on 8th Avenue on my way to El Cocotero that looked like something closer to our criteria. I mentioned it and our ensemble headed in that direction.

In front of Casa Havana was a placard advertising Thanksgiving dinner for $10.95 and another displaying a glistening suckling pig for $12.95. Eugene didn’t have to see anymore to be convinced. He was halfway to a table when Gerry, still out on the street, whined that he had eaten Cuban food the previous day.

We looked at him. You could never tell whether Gerry was joking or serious.

“Really, I did—in Montclair,” he said.

We all hesitated. Eugene came back out of the restaurant. “What now?” he barked.

This was becoming a fiasco and Gerry knew it.

“All right, let’s just go here,” he gamely conceded.

While our Mexican waitress brought the Cuban menus to our ample table, Dominican meringue played over the restaurant’s loudspeakers. Glancing at it, I noticed that the prices were lower than what we would have experienced at the Venezuelan place around the corner, but more than we would have paid for similar food uptown.

There was nothing out of the ordinary on the menu; rice and beans, fried pork, fried fish, roast pork, shrimp in garlic sauce, beef stew, etc.

“Do you have the turkey?” Eugene asked our waitress, referring to what was advertised outside the restaurant.

She shook her head. “No, we just have that for that other day,” she said, meaning Thanksgiving.

Instead, he settled on shrimp criolla while Zio, keeping to his fishy pattern whenever we gather,  ordered the “lubina frita,” fried bass.

After his Cuban meal in Montclair, Gerry eschewed the entrees and instead chose a Cuban sandwich with a small bowl of black bean soup. Mike from Yonkers was rebuffed by his first choice of fried snapper and had to go to plan B: the baked chicken. I decided on the “chuletas,” (pork chops) in red sauce with yellow rice and black beans.

While we waited for the platters to decorate our table, all of us except Zio, who sipped a mango “batido,” had $5 Mexican beers.

Embargo beer options at a Cuban Restaurant.

The food came and we plowed through it without many exclamations. No one complained. No one praised. The chuletas were skimpily thin and swimming in a non-descript tomato sauce that benefited greatly by a large dousing of the house hot sauce.

Shrimp Criolla, yellow rice and black beans

Because the food did not inspire discussion, we had no choice but to listen to Eugene describe the annual Christmas party he attends—the one with the Viennese dessert buffet—as well as the many meals he eats at the all-inclusive resort he frequents in the Dominican Republic.

Who knew Shakespeare vacationed in old Havana?

Gluttons for punishment, to name just one of the things we are gluttons for, we could have just called it a night in Chelsea. Instead, hoping we would find something to praise, we all had dessert. Sadly, even the desserts; coconut pudding, coconut cake, tres leches cake, and chocolate cake, did not surpass uptown standards.

And, as he suspected it would be, Rick informed all of us that indeed the trip to the hospital was a false alarm. If only we could have said the same thing about our trip to Chelsea.

Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street

31 Jul

Cachapas y Mas
107 Dyckman Street

There was a small booth on Dyckman street where corn along with other farm fresh goods were being sold. Across the street a vendor was selling roasted corn and batata (sweet potato) cooked on a gas grill. Further down the block another vendor had homemade empanadas hanging on hooks inside his makeshift cart. This was the scene I encountered on Dyckman Street on a humid summer evening on the way to Cachapas y Mas, the Veneuzuelan fast food place Zio had chosen for our group.

Roasted corn for sale on Dyckman Street.

Besides the abundance of corn, Dyckman Street, in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan was bustling; teeming with urban humanity—the street congested and loud with honking livery drivers. On the sidewalks, microscopic shorts for women hugged tightly over curvy female mannequins, while for men there were flamboyant, colorful dress shirts on racks. Wedged between the retail stores were an assortment of fast food fried chicken places, Dominican bakeries, and a number of Latin-style steakhouses; in other words, my kind of street.

Cachapas y Mas was clean, with a row of wooden picnic tables along with a few smaller, plastic-topped tables and chairs. A slick, flat screen television broadcast soccer from a Spanish language station. The menu was displayed on a digital screen above the cashier that electronically would shift from a picture of “cachapas,” to one of “patacones,” to one of “arepas,” and finally to “yoyos;”

Yoyos, patacones and empanadas.

I did scant research once Zio announced his pick, but enough to learn that the food was Venezuelan and that the specialty were meats sandwiched between either griddle toasted corn cakes (arepas and cachapas) or fried green plantains, also known as tostones (patacones) or yellow plantain, i.e. maduros (yoyos).

Our group of five, soon to be six once Rick arrived, grabbed one of the picnic tables and added two of the plastic chairs at either end to accommodate all of us. From where I sat, my eyes were just not up to the task of reading anything from the digital screen so I got up for a closer look.

The “man in charge,” either the owner or manager, noticed my curiosity—and my trusty camera—and offered advice. He suggested a drink called papelon to start. Over the din and through his accented English, he explained that the drink was made from lime with brown sugar—two of my favorite ingredients. How could I resist?

The papelon was a bit too sweet for me, but I found it refreshing. A little less sugar and maybe a shot or two of rum would have transformed the drink into a very exceptional cocktail.

Papelon: The Venezuelan cocktail, sans rum.

I brought the drink back to the table. A line to order was beginning to form. Though proper etiquette would have us wait until our party of six arrived; we were still waiting for Rick, but Mike from Yonkers and Zio, especially when noticing the line, would never let etiquette stand in the way of their gluttony, immediately got on the line.

Eugene, Gerry and I shook our heads at the rude behavior of our comrades.

“No class,” Gerry said, glancing at the time. “It’s not like Rick is more than a few minutes late.”

“I know. It’s pitiful. Sad, really.” I added while shaking my head at their disgraceful behavior.

Eugene said nothing; instead he rose and joined the line.

I sipped my papelon, squinted at the digital menu again, peered out onto Dyckman Street and not seeing Rick, took my place on the line behind Eugene.

As the line moved slowly forward, I turned around. Rick had arrived and was already on the line, a few spots behind me.

Yoyos or patacones? Those were the two finalists. But stuffed with what? They all pretty much had the same choices; cheese, ham and cheese, chicken, shredded beef, roast pork, steak, chorizo, grilled chicken or, if you had a thing against meat, and if you did, why were you here, then there was the avocado salad arepa offering.

I decided on a shredded beef patacone along with a pastelito; an empanada like snack the owner recommended that was stuffed with meat and cheese. What harm would a little more grease do?

All of us returned to the table to wait for our names to be called with our orders. Of course, Mike from Yonkers and Zio were first. Both ordering cachapas; Zio’s stuffed with chorizo, Mike from Yonkers with shredded beef.

Chorizo cachapas

Zio generously offered me a taste. The corn cake was slightly sweet and dense, but rich with the flavor of fresh corn. It complemented the salty chorizo perfectly. While they ate, I dug through the pastelito. It reminded me somewhat of a meat and cheese calzone, but with a Latin flair.

I heard the Spanish sing song of my name and shot up from my seat returning moments later with the patacone. Using the plastic fork and knife provided, I tried to saw through the fried green plantain. Both utensils were not up to the task, bending to the tough tostone exterior. Giving up, I ate it how it probably should have been eaten; like a sandwich. And though I was able to maneuver some of the juicy shredded beef into my mouth, much of it dropped onto my plastic tray.

Patacone with shredded beef

Zio easily finished the chorizo cachapas, but despite its gargantuan size, it just was  not enough for his prodigious appetite. “I need more,” he mumbled and got up and ordered a beef empanada. The ground beef, onions and spices stuffed into a cornmeal pastry.

After taking a few bites, Zio put the empanada down. “It has a distinctly Alpo-like flavor,” he commented.

Nothing Alpo-like about this empanada.

He offered the remains of meat pie to me. I took a bite. “Hmmm, maybe, but it’s the best Alpo-like empanada I’ve ever had,” I said approvingly. The cornmeal pastry was crunchy with bits of coarse ground cornmeal and the meat was pungent, even aromatic, I was guessing from the amalgam of spices.

We make quick work of the cachapas, patacones, and empanadas and soon the dirty paper plates and napkins were piled high on our trays. With the exception of not experiencing a yoyo, I was more than satisfied with Cachapas y Mas.

The mess left behind.

As I made my way to my car, I could feel the patacone and all the other bites I had at Cachapas y Mas laying heavily in my belly.  The buzz on Dyckman Street had subsided somewhat.  I noticed that though the men’s flowered dress shirts had been removed from the street, the microscopic shorts on the female mannequins were still on display.  Dyckman Street, I realized, was a place for those with better self control than I.  I would be back.  But it wouldn’t be soon.

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