Skip to content

Archive for

La Casita Blanca

While El Jibarto served solid Puerto Rican food I was familiar with, La Casita Blanca offered unique dishes and a welcoming, cookbooks and knick-knacks setting that I didn’t encounter elsewhere in San Juan. I hate to overstate the just like grandma’s house vibe (especially since my grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking—she did have lots of owl tchotkes, though).

Casita blanca exterior

Perhaps the character of this pocket of the Santurce neighborhood changes after dark, but I had been expecting a rougher area based on a smattering of online reviews. I only encountered bodegas, men working on cars outside, roosters on the loose (heard, not seen) and incongruously, a brand new luxury condo building at the top of road. (The only two times I’ve even been a crime victim were both in the Pacific Northwest, mugged in Portland and robbed in Vancouver, BC. Nothing bad has ever happened in Asia, Latin America or Europe, so I don’t worry about these things when traveling and I suggest you don’t either.)

Casita blanca chicken soup & bread bag

Casita blanca scallion fritters

When first seated you are given a little brown bag filled with strips of focaccia, and chicken rice soup in a paper cup. A pile of thin fritters colored with bits of green onion also show up. They were just like mini scallion pancakes and were exactly the type of thing that lend the home cooked feel. No one else in Puerto Rico provided a greasy snack while deciding what to order. 

Casita blanca entrance

No English is spoken and the blackboard menu carried table to table is written in Spanish. I would just take a chance on something if you weren’t sure. The only word that threw me for a loop was tenera. Not fish, beef, chicken, goat, duck, turkey, lamb, rabbit or pork, what else could it be? I was kind of hoping it was goat. I know that meat as chivo; maybe they use a different word in Puerto Rico? I asked about it in Spanish and our waiter tried responding in English but the only word he could say sounded like beer. Beer?

Ah, beef, I later realized. Tenera is veal. Instead of the mysterious fricase de tenera, I went for the fricase de pollo just to be sure. Ok, I just violated my advice to take a chance on something unknown.

Casita blanca fricase de pollo

The food is simple with colorful presentations. All that annatto orange looks inviting when completed by shreds of purple, framed by two lengths of sweet plantain. One of the only reasons I fear stewed dishes like this is that I worry that the meat will be bland and dry, but it’s never the case, not with chicken adobo or this fricase served with the classic mound of rice. Rich, tomatoey with added salinity from the green olives and capers, the stew transcends a plate of boiled chicken parts.

Casita blanca anisette shot

You are sent off with a shot of anisette and coffee beans. Like I said, I didn't want to to overstate the granny vibe, but get an eyeful of that lace tablecloth topped with plastic.

La Casita Blanca * Calle Tapía 351, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Chains For Good

Sweet dreams

I was like whatever when I heard about Blue Marble Ice Cream opening the new Brooklyn Bridge Park because big shared outdoor spaces are useless to me. (Seriously, I looked at a few One Brooklyn Bridge condos, and the neighboring park as selling point backfired. The Manhattan views were lovely, but you’d have to wear blinders. I’m trying to escape the families, bikes, strollers, dogs and lollygaggers of Carroll Gardens, not have hundreds of them concentrated outside my home.)

But Blue Marble Ice Cream in Rwanda? That’s totally different. The Brooklyn-based company has been involved in a training program teaching local women how to run a business. Inzozi Nziza, a.k.a. Sweet Dreams, touted as the country’s first ice cream show, will open June 5.

The big unanswered question is are Rwandans familiar with ice cream and do they like it? And even bigger—what will the flavors be?

So Cool: Blue Marble Opens Rwanda’s First Ice-Cream Shop [Grub Street]

Photo from Blue Marble Dreams

El Jibarito

The food at El Jibarito isn’t radically different from what you find in NYC; the photogenic cobblestoned streets, palm trees and macaron-colored stucco of Old San Juan just make it seem better (sorry, Spanish Harlem).

El jibarito
El jibarito interior

I don’t mind my first meal in a scorching, new-to-me city being in an air conditioned tourist neighborhood. I need to get my bearings in comfort. The comfortable restaurant wasn’t as hickish as its name might imply; a jibarito is akin to a hillbilly.

El jibarito fried pork

Knowing that I was about to embark on a long weekend of rich, fatty eating, I ordered the pernil instead of the fried pork even though that’s what I really wanted. Still pork, obviously. But they brought me the masitas fritas, anyway. My secret wish fulfilled.

El jibarito ribs in plaintain sauce

James opted for a pork rib dish in a plantain sauce. We ordered rice and beans and tostones as sides to share. Someone in the kitchen decided that the fried plantains went with my food and the rice and beans with the other dish.

El Jibarito * Calle Sol 280, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Gourmet Latino Festival

Gourmetlatino Every so often I'll take a break from being a self-obsessed (though rarely self-promotional) blogger and mention an event that has nothing to do with me. I tend to ignore all the cooking competitions (I can only be so Brooklyn) but I do have a soft spot for Latin cuisine.

June 4-12, the Gourmet Latino Festival will be held in New York City. That means parties, educational seminars and food and wine pairing dinners. Zarela Martinez, Sue Torres, Maricel Presilla, Julian Medina and Jose Garces are among many chefs represented. And the cocktail side isn't shabby either: Dale DeGroff, Junior Merino and Julie Reiner are just a few who will be involved.

Restaurants in the New York area will be serving special menus during Authentic Dining Week, June 8–12. Here is the list. I've been meaning to try Cucharamama in Hoboken for a million years, so maybe I will.

Operation Dessert Storm


I like keeping tabs on American chains infiltrating other countries (by the way, Taco Bell is making its second attempt at getting the UK to embrace gorditas) but the Middle East is giving me a workout. They seem to have every franchise you’ve ever heard, making the region seem more American than  chain-averse NYC.  In fact, the latest company to land in Dubai is called Great American Cookies.

Luckily, I just discovered a food blog, B&D Kuwait, that is a treasure trove. It doesn’t appear that they are exclusively writing about American chain restaurants, but at first glance I spy Coldstone Creamery, T.G.I. Friday’s, Applebee’s and Burger King. Also, who knew Dean & DeLuca existed in Kuwait and Dubai?

It’s notable that even when a written language doesn’t use the Latin alphabet (Thailand was rife with these beauties) you can still recognize American brands from logo alone.

When Taco Salad Won’t Do

Taco salad My June/July Taste of Home couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time. A chunk of family I rarely see (aunt, uncle, cousins, grandma—ok, I did see her last year) will be visiting over Memorial Day weekend. I suggested they come out to Brooklyn Sunday afternoon since it seems like it would be easier just to cook than to deal with a large group in a neighborhood that's not big on taking reservations (Lucali would be ideal but I can't even subject myself to that nightly pileup) and offers little more than Italian-American food (I already acquiesced on Little Italy for Thursday!) within a reasonable walking distance for car people.

Not everyone has relatives that would enjoy Jean Georges, Scarpetta, Pulino's, The Modern or wherever else it is that blogs and magazines often recommend you take adult out-of-towners. Two-starred as of a few minutes ago, Prime Meats, is the closest restaurant to my apartment but cramped, two-hour-wait eateries staffed by "a crew of handsome men and women dressed as if ready to ride horses back home to Bushwick, where they trap beaver and make their own candles" just isn't going to fly even with these visitors from The Beaver State.

But now I am mildly, only mildly, concerned because I know when people say “oh, I’ll eat anything” that is absolutely untrue. And frankly, I have no idea what this crew likes to eat. You never know what will give someone pause. In the past it has been cilantro and banh xeo (I know, I know, but it’s just an omelet filled with vegetables and meat). I am not saying they are yokels. One West Coast peculiarity is an affinity for wine even if you’re not a foodie type—they are bringing wine from a friend’s vineyard—but American flavors are probably a safer bet, cuisine-wise. I will temper my love of the fishy, fermented and mouth-burning.

And this is where I look to Taste of Home for guidance. So, what does America like to eat? I’m baffled by a taco salad recipe that is to-the-letter what we’d eat on a regular basis 25 years ago, the only difference being something called Western dressing instead of Catalina (I thought that maybe they were the same, but I’ve been schooled). I only turn into a food snob when I think about things like taco salad–Americans should not be eating like this still.

A search for taco salad on the Taste of Home site brings up 176 results, including a taco salad waffle, tater tot taco salad and the pictured patriotic taco salad. Readers undeniably score high marks for creativity.

Amidst the enchilada lasagna and chiles rellenos casserole, there is also a recipe for flour tortillas. Impressive, and more labor-intensive than I would expect from a weeknight cook. On the other hand, there’s nothing remotely spicy about the Thai chicken salad, all full of sesame-ginger dressing, peanut sauce and chow mein noodles.

I also couldn’t ignore the Cooking for Grandma contest featuring a 10-year-old boy who loves to fry (doughnuts and fried pickles are his two specialties). He came up with a recipe for Mexican ice cream (vanilla rolled in crushed cornflakes, sugar, cinnamon and honey). What’s up with all the Mexican-ish flair?

I almost went down that vague path myself; the grilled leg of lamb with ancho chile marinade in the new Bon Appetit jumped out at me (yes, I quickly eschewed Taste of Home for Bon Appetit). But lamb? Not always a crowd-pleaser. Ancho powder seems benign, as well, but who's to say.

Tunisian chile sauce is no one’s taste of home either, but I am leaning toward the harissa-marinated top sirloin tips from the same issue. Everyone loves steak, right? Well, they’re going to, dammit. Now, I just need a few sides that don’t involve cream cheese.

Auf Wiedersehen, Currywurst

Berlin tacos I haven't traveled extensively in Europe; it's not my continent of choice. So far, I’ve yet to explore beyond Spain, France, England…and ok, Wales (for a familial wedding weekend). Now that I keep hearing about the sad state of the Euro and restaurant parity, my tune might change. Plus, Mexican food in Berlin?

Five real, i.e. no burritos with mayonnaise, Mexican restaurants appearing in nine months sounds like an awful lot. A taco truck is even in the works for the German capital. What's going on over there?

In Texas, there is apparently an oddity called the German taco, a.k.a. a polaco or Polish taco. Kielbasa, tortillas, sauerkraut and melted cheese are involved. I’d try one.

Berlin taco cart photo from Laurie Isola.

The Breslin

Monday night I might've been unwittingly eating stoner food at The Breslin, however, I was merely tipsy on scarlet-hued drinks (I'll try cocktail called The Fashionista if it's free, ok?). Inebriation does help temper a wait—30 minutes around 9:30—but I appreciated that half-an-hour meant exactly that (sometimes it means nothing). At the precise moment when I started wondering if the hostess would remember my friend and I and if she'd find us in the fray (I am paranoid because relaxing has resulted in being passed over on the list more than once. My inner suburbanite understands why some need the security of those clunky plastic chain restaurant beepers), there she was, table ready.

Scrumpets I will return another evening for a full-on meal since these were really no more than shared snacks with a glass of Tempranillo. I need that pigs foot! I hadn’t expected going out to eat on this particular night so I didn’t have my SLR on me (I’m not so crazed that I lug one around daily). iPhone pics, not taken by me because I don’t have one, sufficed.

Scrumpets, a.k.a. breaded, fried lamb planks, almost made me wish you could find these boxed in the freezer case like chicken tenders. The mint dipping sauce was vinegary, not sweet or goopy like a traditional jelly, which helped balance the richness of the meat and coating.

Terrine-board The small (there's also a large) terrine board was filled headcheese, liverwurst, all sorts of spreadable, chunky meat products. I do recall that one was rabbit and prune, but didn't realize until after looking at a menu later that another was composed of guinea hen and morels. The mushrooms eluded me. Piccalilli, pickles and grainy mustard were the condiments.

Bibb-salad Those earlier Fashionistas (can't believe I typed that twice) were downed with the help of fried pickles and buffalo wing lollipops, so we needed at least one low-meat, un-fried item. I wouldn't look to The Breslin for salads, but they did have three on the menu. The Bibb lettuce with bottarga and fennel sounded like the least traditional compared to a Caesar and a blue cheese walnut thing. It was crunchy and refreshing with a dusting of salty roe.

The Breslin * 16 W. 29th St., New York, NY

The Poor Man’s Macaroni Grill Chianti

Chianti I don’t give much thought to wine lists in chain restaurants, though at a white tablecloth joint like Bonefish Grill (I mean that literally, not metaphorically, though on my last visit they’d stopped using tablecloths) I will order a glass or two even if the rest of the diners are drinking Diet Coke in glass tumblers. Bonefish also has inexpensive martinis with blue cheese-stuffed olives, but that is getting off track…

Little did I know that Macaroni Grill has had its own house wines—Chardonnay, Chianti and White Zinfandel—since 1988. Maggiano’s Little Italy started their own label, Salute Amico, last month and un-Italian P.F. Chang’s just launched two private-label wines under the name Vineyard 518.

A few days ago this search string landed a poor misguided stranger here: I need names of wines that compare in quality to Macaroni Grill’s Chianti but not as expensive. That is awesome and so very specific. I wish I could help but the prices aren’t listed on their online menu so I’m not sure what not as expensive might mean.

Lilliputian Chianti bottle photo from Miniature Cottage.

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

Heinz israel

I thought I might be the only one who wanted to know more about Israeli-style burgers, i.e. what are they?  But no, based on my search logs, strangers are clamoring (ok, in my world five people is considered clamoring) for the scoop. And luckily, someone has since written about it.

Ruvy, a current resident of Israel who used to manage a Burger King in the US, claims that the only difference between Burger King and Burger Ranch is the condiments. Heinz is used by the American chain.

“Heinz catsup is not as sweet as the Israeli catsup sold here; the Heinz mayonnaise has a different flavor from the local brands; and the local mustard is sharper than the mild Heinz mustard used on the hamburgers and double hamburgers at Burger King. The result is that there is a distinctly different flavor of the Burger Ranch hamburgers compared to the analogous Burger King products.”

Meanwhile, old folks in Bay Ridge are upset that Heinz is reducing the salt in their classic ketchup. Says, Joe Oliva: "I'm 80 years old, and I haven't died yet. It's really hard for me to eat without salt. I think it's infringing on our rights!

Israeli Heinz ketchup ad from Coloribus.