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Tortas and Lomitos

Tacos rico pierna torta

I wouldn’t exactly call it an epiphany but Saturday I woke up (I’d like to say bright and early but it was more like 11:30am) with the strange and sudden urge to know more about Mexican food. Not just to eat it, that’s easy (despite all of the transplanted complainers who seem incapable of looking beyond lower Manhattan), but to cook it more too, maybe even learn more about the cuisine first-hand (I know Oaxaca is a gastronomic destination but I’m thinking Merida).

Just how a certain subset of white dudes seem unable to resist an Asian girl, I have a fetish for the food (though I rarely dabble in the Korean or Japanese realms). It’s illogical and uncontrollable. Maybe I’m drawn to noodle soups, dumplings and curries because of their very foreignness. Though by that logic I’d also be a goulash or fufu fanatic, which I’m not. I think it’s the complexity of a spice blend or layers of sweetness, salt and spice that appeal. How lots of mixed up tastes blend into something exciting. But that’s not unique to Asian cuisine.

My resistance to Latin American food, Mexican specifically, stems from the feeling that I should know more about it. I wasn’t really raised with it, it wasn’t served in local restaurants growing up and I certainly wasn’t handed down any kitchen wisdom from a knowing abuela (nor an Anglo mish-mash grandma—to this day, I can’t recall my mom’s mom who’s still very much alive, cooking anything, period, let alone notable. My only memories involve puffed wheat cereal from enormous 99-cent store plastic bags, slicing Neapolitan ice cream from a rectangular carton into slices with a knife, and a mock apple pie) and yet it seems really accessible. I mean, I could be south of the border in a few hours by plane and even communicate with people (on a very rudimentary level, to be sure) when instead, I fantasize about locales that are literally my polar opposite where chitchat is futile.

I think that’s the scary thing. No one expects a foreigner in Malaysia or Beijing to know everything or to be able to speak Malay or Mandarin. You risk looking like a stupid American even when trying your best. But cultural floundering feels more shameful in a country so nearby, and one with which I share a heritage.

While cobbling together ingredients in Sunset Park for dinner, I discovered that epazote is easy to come by while recado rojo is not (they even sell the Yucatecan paste on Amazon so it’s hardly obscure). I (or rather James) had to make it from scratch.

Tacos rico torta

In the mean time, a torta was in order. We stopped at Ricos Tacos. My sugar and starch limiting means very few sandwiches in my life. But sometimes you simply need something gut-busting between two pieces of bread, in this case a fluffy bolillo. My pierna was a serious mess, only compounded by the copious amount of string cheese, avocado, beans, pickled jalapeños, and yes, mayonnaise, normally my nemesis. But just like with the banh mi, my aversion is waylaid by overall awesomeness.

I wouldn’t say that Ricos Tacos specialty are tortas, that’s just what I wanted. That might be the advertised tacos arabes, a take on schwarma stuffed into a pita. Maybe next time.

I can say that intrepid DVD hawkers know no ethnic boundaries. African-Americans tend to stick to subways and blankets strewn across sidewalks while Latinos and Chinese ladies prefer the restaurant-to-restaurant roaming approach. I have no interest in discounted copies of Hotel for Dogs, though that doesn’t stop genuinely interested others from completing transactions while eating.

What seems to be uniquely Mexican are roving bands setting up shop in tightly packed eateries. No stage or prior arrangements necessary; these are not Filipina entertainers. We happened to be sitting near the door, therefore entitled to an accidental front row seat when a five-piece band, accordion, stand up bass and all, decided to give the jukebox a run for its money. No one seemed to mind. There’s no way this wouldn’t wreak havoc anywhere else outside of a subway car.

Because one can never have too much pork (I’d already eaten two strips of bacon as breakfast), dinner was to be lomitos, based on a recipe from Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico. This was thrifty because we used leftover scraps from the Super Bowl ribs that had to trimmed St. Louis style.

Beans and lomitos

These were eaten with soupy black beans and corn tortillas. Simple. Not the prettiest, but tasty.

1 tablespoon simple recado rojo
2 tablespoons Seville orange juice or substitute
2 pounds boneless pork, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or pork lard
12 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped
½ green bell pepper, finely chopped
2/3  cup finely chopped white onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 small head of garlic, unpeeled
1 whole habanero chile or any fresh, hot green chile
2 to 2 ½ cups cold water, approximately

Dilute the recado rojo with the orange juice and rub it into the pieces of meat. Set aside for about 30 minutes to season.

Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the tomatoes, pepper and onion together over fairly hight heat, stirring well and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, for about 10 minutes. Add the salt and set aside.

Toast the whole head of garlic on a griddle or comal, turning it from time to time, until it is browned on the outside and the cloves inside are fairly soft. Toast the habanero chile.

Put the meat into a large, heavy saucepan with the water, which should barely cover the meat. Add the tomato mixture and the toasted, unpeeled garlic and chile and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the meat, uncovered, until it is tender—about 1 hour. (The sauce should be of a medium consistency; if it appears to be too watery, turn the heat higher and reduce quickly.) Serve hot.

What Would a Libertine Do?

Just got back from discount oysters and nearly half-priced beers at The Libertine. Not sure if it’s a true indication of Wall Street’s collapse, but the bar was dead (granted, on a Monday night). As a cheap crowd-phobic who has a job for the time being, I will continue indulging in cut-rate specials. Enjoyed my half-dozen West Coast bivalves, but the most entertaining part was how due to renovations the bathrooms are actually in hotel rooms on the Gild Hall’s third floor via key cards available at the front desk. I guess only common decency would prevent one from bouncing on the bed or whatnot. It did not inhibit whoever used the room before me from taking a odorific dump in the toilet, though.

The Woodburning Pit

  This was the second time in less than a week that I had the lights turned off on me while still eating. Maybe someone’s trying to give me exposure therapy. They say you can overcome phobias by being repeatedly exposed to the scary-to-you experience. I say that’s crap but I’d rather tackle my aversion to talking to strangers on the phone or walking up-and-down staircases without using the handrail before dealing with my fear of being the last diner in a restaurant.

It was partly my own fault because I thought the newish Bay Ridge churrasquiera closed at 11pm not an hour earlier. Then again, I would’ve been done by 10:07 instead of 10:37 if it hadn’t taken 30 minutes to get half a rotisserie chicken. I’m still not sure what the deal was and whether or not running out of food on a Friday night is typical or an aberration. I noticed people waiting for takeout for long stretches of time and another couple who sat down left after being informed they were out of both chicken and ribs.

Portuguese food is scarce in Brooklyn and The Woodburning Pit serves a subset of the cuisine, focusing on grilled meat. They did have caldo verde, but this isn’t a formal place offering sit down dishes made with staples such as bacalhau, clams or sardines. The premise is not dissimilar to a Peruvian pollo a la brasa takeout joint or jerk chicken storefront. The main difference is that this eatery is aiming for a bit more ambiance, providing a handful of wooden tables for dining in, Portuguese beer (Super Bock to name one) and imported metal sconces (at least that’s what the Made in Portugal sticker visible from where I was sitting implied) to liven up the walls. Oh, and that normally you have proteins at the ready, waiting to be chopped up and crammed into aluminum containers.

We initially ordered a rib and chicken combo to share then freaked out that it might not be enough food. I’ve been trying to reign in my gluttony, though trying to be dainty is less attractive when faced with a $3 sharing charge. Obviously that wouldn’t apply to to-go orders, which only reinforced my initial impression that take away is probably preferable here.

Woodburning pit garlic shrimp

To supplement the unknown quantity of food coming our way, we ordered garlic shrimp. These were similar to Spanish gambas but had a touch of vinegar, as did much of the food. I think it comes from a Tabasco-like sauce if not actual Tabasco. I’m glad we did have an appetizer because we were informed our chicken would be another 15 minutes. I was not in a rush so this wasn’t a big deal.

The service, by the way, was pleasant in a mom-and-pop, part of the community, knows the locals kind of way you see in parts of Brooklyn you’d expect like Bay Ridge and still thriving in enclaves like Carroll Gardens despite its increasing new-school nature. They just seemed to have misjudged supply and demand. I’ll make allowances for businesses getting up to speed.

Woodburning pit ribs and chicken

I do think that half a chicken and four ribs supplemented by some of the longest fries I’ve ever seen and a slew of rice was plenty for two. The meat was a little gnarled, at first glance it was hard to tell the pork from the chicken in the pile of burnished brownness, but nothing was dried out. The skin could’ve been crispier, but everything was moist and had a peppery zing.

This would’ve been a perfectly acceptable mid-week meal but I require more oomph from a Friday or Saturday night dinner. Is that weird? The Woodburning Pit would be suitable for takeout or delivery if you happen to live near the Bay Ridge/Sunset Park border.

The Woodburning Pit * 6715 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Check, Please

If you believe what you read in trend pieces, separate checks, perhaps the ultimate in dining gaucheness, is apparently becoming more acceptable in Chicago. Will this “I only had water while you downed five $15 glasses of wine” craze hit NYC?

While I think separate checks are juvenile, I have never found equal check splitting to be fair. I don’t think it’s tacky for everyone to pay for what they consumed and only what they consumed. And I still can’t believe that the only polite and socially acceptable way to handle a group birthday dinner is for the guest of honor to treat (must be the same people who have second homes and destination weddings. I don’t know these people). At least according to the Times, who irked me by not only disallowing comments on the Social Q's column but removing all old comments–there were originally quite a few in favor of the host as benevolent payer.  Serious Eats commenters seem split on the concept.

Group birthday dinners are an awful beast worth avoiding at all costs anyway, and yes, I’ve had a few. I’ve literally ended friendships over them.

Image from a 1985 review on Relive the 80s

Hamburger Helper

Pereg hamburger

All of this fenugreek talk has got me thinking about exotic spices. You know, like American Hamburger Mixed Spices.

While perusing Sunset Park’s lovely Rossman Farms, better known to me as The Produce Store, I noticed a new friendly black-and-white cat that hangs out by the cabbage and a moderately revamped side room.

Pereg luisa

One shelf was filled with a brand of Israeli spice blends from a company called Pereg that looks like Perez in the script font. American Hamburger spices jumped out at me in two different packaging styles. I’m actually not sure what American hamburger spices are. Based on the photo (no, I didn’t look at the ingredient list) it appears the jar may contain chile, garlic, coriander, allspice, cumin and salt, not sure. Isn’t adding packet of Lipton onion soup mix as wild as we get in this country?

Other blends include Meatball, Falafel, Kabbab and Za’atar, the source of monkfish trouble on last night’s Top Chef.

A Porpoise-Driven Life

Are you a chef if you don’t cook? I keep seeing headlines like “Dolphins are Talented Chefs” detailing recent findings that porpoises meticulously prepare and clean cuttlefish before eating them. Yes, it’s impressive that they are smart (and finicky) enough to remove ink sacs and tenderize flesh. But that’s more like being a prep cook than a chef, don’t you think? Raw foodists and ceviche-makers may beg to differ.

The Cardinal Rule

Ah, Super Bowl. The perfect excuse to drink too much on a Sunday and fry the heck out of things. Luckily, the lack of an F train (could a subway line possibly be more useless? And don’t say the G, it’s always come through for me) didn’t dampen spirits or scare away guests. 

Buffalo wings

Of course there were wings. And unusually hot this year. I think someone got carried away with the cayenne pepper.

Vietnamese wings

My annual plea for non-Buffalo wings was finally granted this year. I never man the fryer but I do try to influence what gets dipped into the bubbling oil. This Vietnamese-ish recipe came from the chef of Pok Pok, a Portland Thai restaurant that I always read good things about but have never tried because I am bad and never visit my hometown. Thai food is not enough of a draw, I’m afraid. These were sweet and salty. I would’ve liked to have eaten more than one.

Smokies wraps

I’ve never made wiener wraps out of Lit’l Smokies in my life, and then the one year I do someone brings a big pack from Stew Leonard’s. Call them lowbrow if you will but there was not a single piglet in a blanket left by the end of the evening.

Salt and pepper ribs

An attempt to recreate the salt and pepper ribs at Irving Mill was not unsuccessful though not exactly the same either. These were braised in soy-orange juice blend, which added a touch of sweetness. And the finishing lime squeeze added more citrus punch, as you can see pulp got all over the place. As you can also see, the pile was decimated by the time I realized ribs had been brought out. The crisp-and-tender interplay was right on.

Vietnamese summer rolls

Trying to balance the fried with the fresh, I made Vietnamese rolls (there wasn’t an intentional Vietnamese theme), some with pork belly and shrimp, others with smoked tofu. The vegetables included bean sprouts, lettuce and carrots. I just can't bring myself to use rice vermicelli, a crime akin to rice inside a burrito. For dipping there was a hoisin-peanut sauce based on White on Rice Couple’s recipe and a nuoc cham that used both lime juice and rice vinegar. Maybe a little too tart? You could make 50 of these (think I made around 35) and they will still all get eaten. 

Avocado salsa

Also, a Japanese-flavored avocado dip/salad with jicama, watercress and wasabi-soy dressing for the sake of variety. I figured others would bring guacamole (for the love of god, don’t say guac) and sure enough two showed up bearing the chunky green gift.

No photos of the two cakes that were randomly brought from New Jersey Wegmans by two different people. Everyone in the know goes to Wegmans.

For whatever reason, certain party-goers watch the smaller downstairs TV instead of the big HDTV in the living room. The 30-or-so seconds delay between analog and digital becomes apparent when wild screaming bellows from the basement and nothing exciting happens for upstairs until half a minute later.

I don’t even follow sports. I just like having people over, drinking and making food (not the cleaning, however. James went on such a scrubbing and mopping rampage that he’s now physically sick. I honestly don’t think the average person notices dirt the way he does). However, guests did get riled up as evidenced in this video documenting the downstairs/upstairs divide. I had no idea such fervent Cardinals fans were in the house.

Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

While french fries and hotdogs aren’t an unusual duo, wieners and fries as a standalone dish is bizarre by most standards. And as it turns out, the unhealthy duo is more international than I ever knew.

Urubamba salchipapas

I’ve always associated the two with salchipapas, the Peruvian treat that’s not too hard to find in NYC. Here’s a basket I recently had the pleasure of digging into at Urubamba.

Asian salchipapas

In December I was shocked, (ok, no Asian food combos really surprise me after finding the 7-11 Big Gulp mashed potato meal) to encounter crinkle-cut fries and sausages commingling behind a glass counter in a Singaporean food court. This one leaned heavily on the meat.


Photo from The Last Appetite

Let’s not forget the Korean fry-coated frank.

Photo from kevincrumbs on Flickr

Resto La Banquise in Montreal serves poutine with cut up hot dogs. I’m sure other Quebecois eateries must do the same, though I’ve never noticed such a thing on any visits. I’m not sure if the curds and gravy would distract or add to the meat and potatoes.

Photo from Slice

And now Italian pies in my own backyard? Ziti pizzas have always given me the heebies. I won’t even stand for rice in my burritos so pasta on pizza is beyond the pale. I assumed this was Brooklyn hubris, but no, it’s an honest to goodness Neapolitan style.

We have four continents represented: North and South America, Asia and Europe. I have little hope for Africa but there must be something in Australia. Probably with a fried egg and beets tossed into the mix

Is anyone familiar with other examples of fry-wiener goodness?