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Sweeter than Chocolate

The New York Post has it all over the New York Times for sundry superficial reasons, one of them being their spookily democratic wedding coverage. Finally, there’s a place for the girthy, college-free and the non-white to express their love.

I’m afraid the Castillo-Boneta profile won’t be up much longer, so here’s the passage that matters:

“Boneta, now a New York City police officer, proposed on Easter Sunday in 2005, but it took a little coaxing to have Castillo find something even sweeter than chocolate in her Easter basket. ‘I was totally exhausted that morning, but after he and my mom nudged me a little bit, I opened it up and found the ring,’ Castillo remembers.”

I have no visual on said romantic Easter basket so I’ll just have to imagine the beauty.



As a nostalgic obsessive aside, I recently couldn’t help but Google my early-teen first stalkee/near date raper who tormented me all of 8th grade and freshman year with his grotesque hotness and put me off of straight guys for years. The very first hit was a five-and-a-half-year-old New York Times wedding announcement. I hazard to guess that he’s one of the very few, possibly only Gresham, Oregon natives to make the column (ah, there is one other possible candidate from 1997). I just wanted to see a grownup photo, that’s all. Um, he does appear to be living on the Upper West Side so I guess if I was dangerously curious I could always stake out the building.

“Creepy Easter” photo borrowed from The Seven Deadly Sinners

El Castillo de Jagua

It’s not like El Castillo de Jagua’s food or decor setting screams out for a photo essay (unless you were documenting the gentrification of the Lower East Side, which I’m not). You’ve likely seen fluorescently lit meat, rice and beans before. But photos are a fun crutch; it’s not always easy describing how food looks and tastes. Unfortunately, my batteries died.

I’ve always had a problem with that. I had rechargables that never stayed strong so I burn through double As now. Despite my camera being adequate (I’m fine with 3.2 megapixels. 7 and beyond is lost on me), I’d really like something smaller, lighter with a wider angle lens that can handle low light, a freaking foodie camera (actually, foodies use SLRs and mini tripods and shit). I’m acclimating to this new expendable income concept but I broke down this afternoon and bought a Canon PowerShot SD800 IS online. Whether or not the device will actually make it into my hands is the real issue (my current camera got lost in the mail the first time it was shipped, and if you don’t believe the horror that is the Brooklyn P.O. just read these accounts from last week [yes, I added my two cents]).

The restaurant’s no frills approach extends to their menu. There are only two appetizers: shrimp cocktail and chicken wings, and dessert is whatever cakes might be in the diner-style glass domes on the counter. But that’s superfluous; the main attraction are the hefty daily specials. There’s a lot of overlap between days so if you like pernil like I do, it’s available more than once a week (in fact, I think it’s on the permanent menu too). Supposedly, they also make a strong cubano but I'd just eaten one earlier in the week and couldn't justify it.

Their roast pork is super porcine, the opposite of white, bland supermarket chops and loins. A single plate is dedicated to a pile of soft, dark juicy-oily meat topped with a good sized square of crackling skin. Soupy fat brown beans and white rice (I’m not crazy about the more traditional yellow) come separately in a little bowl and on another plate. I’d ordered a very similar Cuban-style combo a few days before at Sophie’s, a block from my new office. Their version was better than acceptable and also around $8, but it couldn't compare to the old school Domincan rendition. And I tend to think that the tastiness level is directly correlated to fat grams.

El Castillo de Jagua * 113 Rivington St., New York, NY

Crossed Wires

I don’t know if March 2007 is a watershed moment for internet savviness or if people are just particularly social this week, but for no reason at all I’ve been receiving more than a typical amount of email from strangers (which is to say perhaps six or seven messages rather than the usual zero). I was weirded out by someone clearly (hopefully) ESL asking why his name was on my website and where he could find this person with his name (I don't want to type the name or else there will be two hits pointing to me). I had no recollection of the name in question. After Googling it, my random mention from April 2003 was the only hit. I absolutely forget what minutiae I’ve posted over the past eight years so there was no way I’d remember something as miniscule as having my phone number accidentally swapped with someone who lived a block away from me in Sunset Park four years ago. When I called people on this particular day, a different number registered on caller I.D. I then Googled the phone number and the name I found was the same as the guy who just emailed me wanting to know why his name is on my website. I don’t know how to succinctly explain that to an eager ESL emailer. Of course, most bloggers wouldn’t bother but it’s the information professional in me that feels the need to provide answers. I’m so not service minded or helpful or caring, so it’s a mystery how I ended up as a librarian (I’ve never actually had a business card job with that title. Newly and currently, I’m a Researcher, plain and simple).

Pork Loin with Fennel, Chile and Garlic Roasties

Sunday roast isn’t so much of an American thing, is it? Occasionally my mom would put a pot roast and some chopped carrots and potatoes in a crockpot before going to church so we’d have a meaty early dinner but that was infrequent. While briefly in Wales this summer, Sunday carvery seemed to be a thing; restaurants and pubs would serve lamb, beef and pork roasts with various mushy vegetables, Yorkshire puddings and sauces. This month’s Olive had a Sunday roast feature, which we attempted to adapt to American cuts and ingredients.

My love of Western Beef is no secret, it’s my go-to all-purpose supermarket. They were hyping up pork shoulders for 68 cents per pound over the PA, but they were paired two to bag, which is excessive even for a household with two fridges. But damn, that’s cheap. Think of all the carnitas you could fry up. (I know, I know, low cost meat equals grotesque practices but I’m a grocery store girl. As charming as they sound I’m phobic of $8.50/lb humane organics as well as old school butchers. What you never hear about are those live animal markets scattered throughout the outer boroughs.)

Where else can you find prepped, ready-to-use goat meat, tripe and cow feet plus red currant jam (the makings of future cooking projects) all under one roof? Western Beef’s apt slogan “We know the neighborhood” plays out in Polish shelves stocked with jellies in hard-to-find flavors (currants are totally un-American) and the recent addition of Bosnian canned goods. No fresh tarragon or Yukon gold potatoes, though.

James was convinced that they wouldn’t have fennel. I guessed that they would but that there would be trouble at the checkout. Cashiers not recognizing lesser purchased produce can sometimes work in your favor, they’ll just give it to you cheap. As our cashier was ringing up our goods, I caught her glancing at the frondy bulb and stealthily avoiding it. Eventually she had to pick it up and asked, “What is this?”

Me: Fennel. F-E-N-N-E-L
Cashier: F what?
Me, slower: um, F-E-N-N-E-L

No luck, she finally had to ask another cashier who tried to ignore her question then admitted that she didn’t know what it was called. After a spell a male employee sauntered over and bluntly declared, “Anise, it’s under A” That’s so not right and everyone looked at us like we were delusional and making words up. I guessed maybe anise was a Caribbean misnomer since even in Spanish fennel isn’t anise, it’s hinojo.

Bastardized terminology was the theme of this meal. I can’t bear to type chilli so I’m sticking with chile but I’ll leave their roasties, which appear to be roasted potatoes. And the recipe called for maris piper potatoes, a British spud. I also substituted baking dish or roasting pan for roasting tin. That’s just wrong. Pork loin on the bone that’s been “chined” was too esoteric so we substituted a boneless, skin on pork loin and cooked it for a shorter time. And don’t get me started on Celsius oven temperatures and milliliters (or calling desserts puddings then shortening that to pud).

When all was said and done, we ended up with an unusually seasoned roast, very spice rich but not spicy hot. It might’ve been slightly overcooked, partially due to tweaking the cooking time and not having the bone-in cut. The potatoes were actually the best part of the meal but anything slowly browned in large quantities of butter olive oil is bound to be pleasing.

P.S. A few slices of pork, a couple fennel wedges and a swipe of Dijon mustard between two slices of french bread makes a great lunch sandwich.  I'm saving $7 by avoiding Pret a Manger this very minute.

There's nothing like the glow of a TV to illumimate a plate of food.

Pork Loin with Fennel, Chile and Garlic Roasties

2 pounds boneless pork loin with skin scored
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon, crushed dried chiles
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves
Zest of one lemon
Maldon sea salt flakes
3 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into wedges
1 tablespoon olive oil

Garlicky Roasties
3 pounds firm white potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 crushed garlic cloves
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon flour
1 ½ cups Marsala or white wine
2 ½ cups chicken or vegetable stock

Heat oven to 350 F. Pat the pork dry with paper towels and put into roasting pan. Using a mortar and pestle, pound together the fennel seeds, chiles, peppercorns, garlic and lemon zest and work the mixture into the slashes on the pork skin. Sprinkle the salt, rubbing well into the skin.

Boil the potatoes in salted water for 10 minutes and drain well. Give them a really good shake to rough up the edges. Heat the butter and olive oil in a separate baking pan. Add the potatoes, season with salt and toss to coat in the hot fat. Roast the pork and potatoes for 20 minutes then arrange the fennel around the pork and drizzle with olive oil. Cook for a further 20. Add the crushed garlic and parsley to the potatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

Remove the fennel from the pork dish and keep warm. Transfer the pork to a clean pan, turn the oven up to high and return the pork to the oven for 10 minutes to crisp up the skin. Meanwhile make the gravy. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pork roasting pan and put over low heat. Add the flour and cook for 30 seconds. Pour the wine into the pan and bring to a boil scraping any carmelized bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce by half and then add the stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Season and serve with the pork, fennel and potatoes.

Serves 6

Chiles & Chocolate

I can’t think of a restaurant in recent history with such surface potential that’s so horrendous in practice. I knew better too. I was intrigued by reports of Oaxacan food on bland Seventh Avenue back in January but thought I’d wait a few months to pay a weeknight visit. We still weren’t safe from overcrowding due to the studio-sized dining room.

They were at full capacity around 8:30pm on a chilly Thursday. The cheerful hostess/waitress proclaimed a little too loudly “This table will be leaving soon,” indicating the only table for four and prompting nasty glares from the lounging middle aged women. That’s exactly the cunty type of attitude I expect from Park Slope. It’s impossible to even stand in the restaurant without sucking up precious space so we killed a good twenty minutes, getting BYOB St. Peter’s stouts up the street, smoking a cigarette, then hovering near the door in artic temperatures. No one inside was going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the huffy lingerers refused to get up until we were eventually seated at a tiny circular table in the back. We were irked that the next twosome that showed up was almost immediately seated in the spacious four top.

Chiles_chocolate_quesadillasThe waiters were really trying, and were way friendlier than you’d anticipate in such harried environs. The female was strangely upbeat, the male positive and frank enough to steer us away from the chicken mole because it had been coming out overcooked. I feared as much actually, though I was a little bummed because moles oaxaqueños: negro, verde and coloradito seemed like a feature to try. The menu is very appealing and they’re using non-mainstream ingredients like chapolín, dried grasshoppers, huitlacoche and serving drinks like atole and champurrado. Almost everything sounds good, and so staunchly professing regional allegiance, “we are not a Mexican restaurant,” you would expect them to deliver.

Appetizers fared better than the entrees. My cheese and huitlacoche quesadilla and James’s tacos dorados were enjoyable, at least initially. Chiles & Chocolate would fail a basic Top Design (I only half-watch this show but I find Matt strangely attractive, though it's worrisome to me that he's 32 and has been married for ten years) challenge due to crazy poor planning. In a best case scenario involving their circular tables being bare, two huge white square plates couldn’t possibly fit in the two-foot circumference. With a candle, daffodil in a vase, salsa, chips, two tumblers of beer, two beer bottles and two appetizer plates, there was absolutely nowhere to put our main dishes when they appeared before we’d adequately wrapped up our first course. More and more I’m realizing we’re slow eaters. This constantly happens at chains, we throw off their timing but I don’t expect much from Applebee’s, plus booths allow for multiple plates. But at a “real” restaurant it’s disastrous.

Chiles_chocolate_duck Cramped quarters, rushed courses, unpleasant patrons could all be excused if the food transcends the circumstances. Alas, it didn’t. Dry and flavorless seemed to be the M.O. The chaos also worked as a natural appetite suppressant. I’m rarely un-hungry so that was quite a feat. Pato cacahuate y chocolate, a grilled duck breast with peanut-chocolate-chipotle sauce somehow blended those three ingredients to create a watery yellow paste that genuinely tasted like nothing. The duck was cooked more than I would’ve liked, only one slice had any hint of pink. James got the mole negro with stewed pork after being scared away from the poultry. Eh, the pork was about as blah as a frozen chicken breast.

There was no way we were risking dessert though we could’ve partaken out of spite, just to pass along the torture to another waiting couple.

Chiles & Chocolate * 54 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, NY


I’ll admit that Bushwick isn’t a neighborhood I’ve ever frequented. When I moved here nearly nine years ago, I briefly slept on the couch of a zine penpal and her roommates, smack up against the BQE off the Graham stop on the L. I didn’t know the first thing about New York City, let alone Brooklyn neighborhoods so I’d walk around a lot, almost autistically. I was fascinated by those uniquely NYC shopping strips containing Radio Shack, Petland, Jimmy Jazz, Pretty Girl and similar nowbrow chains but after the girls I was staying with semi-seriously warned, “Don’t go past Grand Street,” I became skittish and began heading the opposite direction up Manhattan Avenue into Greenpoint where they had a classy Rainbow and Genovese (now Eckerd).

I eventually moved six stops plus a transfer from Graham Avenue and always wondered what the landscape was like above ground between the two. I’m sure things have changed, but in the late ‘90s stops like Morgan, DeKalb and Jefferson (I’m still not sure what Jefferson looks like from the outside) seemed desolate and unpopulated like the eerie Bowery M station.

Barzola_cevicheBarzola isn’t quite that remote, optimists/liars might even try describing that pocket as East Williamsburg. The restaurant is almost randomly placed on a quiet sort of residential street, and on my Sunday afternoon visit was teeming like an Ecuadorian Cheesecake Factory (sure, I could’ve referenced Little Owl but I’d actually attempted CF the night before and the mob was so thick that there was a line just to put your name on the list and be quoted an hour and 40-minute-wait. WTF? We then tried Benihana across the street and risked death on a pedestrian unfriendly service road with no stoplights just to be faced with an equally ugly crowd with slightly fewer strollers. We ended up at the weirdly appealing Skylark Diner again where you can at least drink cocktails while waiting).

I’ve always wondered why young white folks, college kids, vegetarians who are old enough to know better but only seem to eat pasta and burritos, embrace pseudo-Mexican food but rarely go further geographically. No Williamsburg trickle was in evidence. I’m guessing that the average person isn’t clear what Ecuadorian food is exactly. I’m still figuring it out. I’ve experienced meatier fare, not the famed cuy, but Barzola is seafood-centric.

Barzola_humitaWe stuck to ceviches, pink, soupy affairs with tomatoes, onions and cilantro. I tried for the black clam, which sounded unusual. They didn’t have it. I never have much luck when ordering the mildly offbeat option. Instead, I ended up with shrimp and octopus, which seemed to be lightly cooked rather than raw. There was a competing hot and cold sensation depending where I dipped my spoon but the dish settled on a consistent temperature after a few minutes. 

I have a serious sweet and savory tooth so the dulce humita, a sugared corn and cheese tamale was a perfect treat. Our waitress seemed a little perplexed that we didn’t want any sides like plantains or rice (they also had fried rice, which I’m starting to realize is a South American favorite) but corn tamales are just enough starch for me.

Barzola * 197 Meserole St., Brooklyn, NY