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Locavore When Cochon 555—the five pigs, five chefs, five winemakers competition that travels around the country—came to NYC, people ate pork and blogged about it.

When Cochon 555 came to Portland (my love-hate hometown) strip clubs were involved (not sure if it's true but travel writers always like pointing out that the city has the highest number of tittie bars per capita) bones were fractured, heads were butted, arrests were made. And supposedly over the winning pig being from Iowa. Locavore rage! The only thing missing are vegan militants on fixed gear bikes crashing the party. Compost or die!

When I first moved here, I would often catch myself saying, "That's so New York." Twelve years later and I still don't understand why you get a straw, napkin and a bag for a soda or why people who think it's a good idea to eat fried chicken on-the-go throw the bones on the sidewalk instead of in a garbage can, but lately I find myself thinking "That is so Portland" with alarming frequency.

Image from Brownie Points

Lechonera Los Pinos

1/2 In less time than it takes to drive from Carroll Gardens to Middlesex County, New Jersey—40 minutes, give or take—we were high up in the foliage-covered mountains of Guavate, navigating the barely two-laned, sharp-cornered road known as “La Ruta de Lechon” a.k.a. the pork highway.

Dueling lechoneras

It’s hard to know when to stop. It doesn’t seem wise to pick the first lechoneras that appear on the horizon, no low hanging pork for us, so we carried on a few more miles until we hit a dense patch, parked and weighed our options. El Rancho Original was where the party was happening; their covered dance floor was booming with live salsa music and couples, many elderly, were putting on a show. We came back later for a drink and to hang out in the back picnic area with a little stream and wooden cabanas.

Lechonera los pinos exterior
Los pinos front window

I’d heard about Lechonera Reliquia, it might’ve been mentioned in the Times. Compared to bustling Lechonera Los Pinos across the street, the open air dining room was kind of desolate (this was a Saturday afternoon—Sunday is the bigger day to go). Pinos, it was.

Los pinos counter

Despite everything I’d heard, you don’t have to speak Spanish to communicate with the counter guys. I can speak basic Spanish and have a large food vocabulary—it’s practically the only thing I can talk about confidently—but as soon as they realize you’re not a local, they turn to English.

Los pinos meat chopping

We ordered a pound of pork. I knew I wanted morcilla, but just a little because I was still kind of full from breakfast (not realizing how quick the trip would be, we ate giant sandwiches at Kasalta before heading out of San Juan). They gave us a lot. Blood sausage signals that you’re serious about food. We started getting sides pushed on us like crazy, in a we’re happy to show off our food, not a running up the bill way. Even if you went wild, I doubt you could spend over $50. Trying to stay on course, we asked for pasteles and rice and beans, no more. A cold bottle of Medalla, and you’re set.

Los pinos lunch for two

This was our spread. Minus the big helping of rice (I’m not a big rice-eater), this would’ve been an acceptable lunch for a hungry twosome. We ended up taking half of our food to go. I was knocked out until 10pm when came up with an un-starchy dinner idea: ceviche.

Los pinos lechon

The moist slices of meat had just enough fat attached to remind you that you weren’t eating lean, low-flavor American pork. And the skin? It was like hard candy, brittle and shard-like on the surface with a gelatinous chew. Looking at this Styrofoam container now, I feel like I could’ve eaten the entire thing. In reality, one hunk is meal-endingly rich.

Los pinos morcilla

Puerto Rican morcilla is heavy on the rice and closer to Spanish morcilla de Burgos than the blood sausage I generally encounter in NYC. It was also spicier than I’d expected. In my experience, the only heat you get in Latin Caribbean food is from vinegary chile sauces offered on the side, not the food itself. Los Pinos offered such a hot sauce in appropriated vodka bottles.

Los pinos pasteles

In addition to cilantro, chiles, coconut and avocado, banana leaves are another Southeast Asian-Latin American similarity. Pasteles are like tamales made with a plantain dough, usually filled with pork and steamed in banana leaves. I could imagine a non-traditional pastele stuffed with fish and red curry.

Los pinos inside

The band was setting up as we were about to leave.

100% local pork

Oh, while just looking up the exact address—they use kilometer markers—I discovered that Los Pinos is where Tony Bourdain went on No Reservations. I’m not surprised; it felt like the most enticing lechonera on that stretch of Carretera 184.

Lechonera Los Pinos * Barrio Guavate, Carr. 184, Km. 27.7, Cayey, Puerto Rico

Kasalta & Panadería España Repostería

Panadería España Repostería and Kasalta are similar operations. Both have long counters divided into sections: deli meats and cheeses with whole jamon serano hanging as an enticement, baked goods and confections and cooked foods and sandwiches. You order, pay, wait for your food, then find a table. Café con leche is popular in the morning, red wine an option for later in the day (though many drink soda).

Kasalta counter

Kasalata ham & cheese mallorca

The second I learned about a ham and cheese sandwich served in a pan de mallorca, a popular sweet eggy roll, I knew I had to find one. La Bombonera is famous for theirs but we wanted to avoid the Old San Juan parking situation and instead headed to Kasalta, slightly out of the tourist zone (where the tight parking lot ended up being stressful anyway—the whistle-blowing attendant actually made things worse, not better).

Kasalta mallorca interior

A mallorca sandwich is a close kin of the monte cristo, possibly my favorite sandwich ever even though I never order one in NYC because they bungle them. I certainly can’t think of another sandwich that comes doused in a snowfall of powdered sugar. Simple deli ham and swiss cheese add the savory to the flattened roll. I love sugary-meaty combos, though if I were to change one thing it would be the addition of mustard, like in a traditional monte cristo. It could use a little zing to offset all the fluffy sweetness.

Kasalta chorizo & cheese sandwich

I shared half-and-half and also split this pressed sandwich with crumbly slices of chorizo and cheese. Rich, oily and hefty. My kind of sandwich.

Panadería españa repostería exterior

Panadería españa repostería caldo gallego

At Panadería España Repostería, another day, and at night instead of morning, we cobbled together a dinner from random things on display. Everyone seemed to be eating caldo gallego, so we did too. The soup is porky, flavored with both ham hock and little bit of cured chorizo. White beans, kale and potato chunks add more bulk.

Panadería españa repostería octopus salad

Big fat rounds of octopus tentacles dressed in olive oil are also very Caribbean-Spanish. This salad is like the one at Margon, just declared number two of the Top 10 Best Things to Eat in Times Square by The Village Voice.

Panadería españa repostería cheese balls

I thought I was getting an alcapurria from the glass case. These turned out to be balls of cheese, not gooey but warm and firm, very sharp and aged. Maybe a little too aged, it was hard to finish one.

Panadería españa repostería alcapurria

This was the alcapurria, fried potato (and possibly yucca) molded around ground beef picadillo. There’s almost something British about this fritter. Maybe if you added some peas and HP Sauce on the side.

Kasalta * 1966 Calle McLeary, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Panadería España Repostería * Centro Comercial Villamar, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Chain Links: Chili’s Discovers Banh Mi

Nando's chicken

Do you know Nando’s, the South African chicken chain? I only do because I recently tried one in Penang (could’ve sworn I blogged about it but never did—my lunch, above). Even though they’ve been in England since 1992, The Guardian is positing that “The brand is now inextricably linked with a certain type of youthful, racially mixed, urban British pop star and, so, with modern, inner-city, multicultural Britain.” Er, if you say so. It’s a hefty article for such a subject. [The Guardian]

I often like The Wall Street Journal’s food coverage because they will take a subject like Asian flavors influencing barbecue and mention the obvious like Fatty ‘Cue and toss in a little David Chang while also getting some mainstream intel from Chili’s and posting a recipe from RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen (a Cheesecake Factory brand with only one location in LA). While not ground-breaking for a more cosmopolitan restaurant, Chili’s is aiming to be “first to market” with Vietnamese sandwiches and Korean quesadillas. Give ‘em a couple more years, and they’ll develop a fleet of food trucks. [Wall St. Journal]

A Knuckle Sandwich


My T Magazine blog rss feeds serve little purpose beyond adding to my future likelihood of getting carpal tunnel syndrome. I scroll and scroll, finger on the click wheel, waiting for a headline and one-line description to pounce on.

“The Curious Case of Samuel’s Button: Samuel Gassmann set out to make a documentary on men’s clothing, and ended up launching a collection of cufflinks.”


“Fiddling: Fiddleheads are good vegetables with real appeal, but they’re not as flexible as some produce.”

I almost want to read this because Jurassic-looking fiddleheads creep the hell out of me. Maybe Peter Meehan will change my mind? But ultimately, no, not clicking.

“Latin Flair: In São Paulo, a young class of chefs is mixing cuisines and techniques and taking Brazilian cooking to a higher level.”

Ok, I’d like to hear more about chefs in Latin America. Do we know any except Francis Mallmann and Gastón Acurio? São Paulo’s cuisine already got The New York Times treatment last year, but I’ll admit that none of the chefs’ names stuck with me. I reluctantly click.

But what stands out in the T Magazine paragraph is only peripherally related to cooking. What to make of Bolivan chef, Checho Gonzáles? “Each of his knuckles is inked with the image of a popular local bar snack.” I don’t know what Brazilian bar snacks might be, but that’s one of the awesomest tattoos I can think of even if it sounds like something only an Asian girl could pull off. And with no photographic evidence, I only had my imagination.

Thankfully, I got my answer on Eater when they provided a photo (above) in a tangential post. Pizza and sushi! I hope one of those is a pão de queijo.

Vegging Out At Western Beef

Sometimes I think I should just start a Western Beef blog (or would that be more appropriate for a Tumblr?). Or maybe just publish a blog and call it Western Beef—I’ll always be a West-Coaster at my core and I’m more beefy than non. Western Beef is me. 

Western beef macedonian products

This weekend I noticed that there was a Macedonian section in the left-hand row of European (heavy on the Eastern part of the continent) products. There are two lengths of international shelves with the Latin American products on the right taking up the most space. Malta, my most loathed beverage, has a huge dedicated section nearby.

Vava brand condiments

The jars of Vava brand pickles and condiments are what caught my attention. Avjar? I’d never heard of it (though that didn’t stop me just “liking” it on Facebook). The roasted red pepper spread seems vaguely similar to muhammara, minus the walnuts or pomegranate molasses. There is also an avjar with cheese. Malidjano is the "Balkan Babaganush." I’m going to pick these up next time. There’s always a next time at Western Beef.


Instead, I got sucked in by the promise of sour cherry flavors. Honey Cakes with sour cherry jam sounded so wholesome, and at 79-cents for a bag, who could resist these heart-shaped cookies?

Sour cherry In reality, they were soft, graham crackery with a dull chocolate coating that shows fingerprints but barely melts at the warmth of a hand. Waxy, like a Little Debbie cake and no cherry flavor to speak of. The insides of the cookie were practically hollow, only containing a hint of sweet goo.

The Marco Polo sour cherry jam was more what I was hoping for: just cherries, sugar, and pectin (oh, and citric acid—I’d been wondering about this ingredient, too). There is no indication of origin on the glass jar’s label, but I think this brand is Hungarian.

One of the predictable things at Western Beef is that there will invariably be items they just don’t carry. Take your fancy Greek yogurt, smoked trout, matzo meal shopping list (three real examples from this excursion) elsewhere. Tasting Table clearly doesn’t get out to Ridgewood—I balked at this line in their newsletter, Wednesday, “Thick, creamy Greek-style yogurt is hardly an exotic item these days; you can now pick up a tub at any corner bodega.” Not at Western Beef, bub. 


This parking lot photo taken in the  in the middle of summer, sums up Western Beef.

The unpredictable thing is what produce item will give the cashier trouble—and one always will—because it’s never the food you think it will be. I’m ok with people who don’t eat a cornucopia of vegetables (I don’t really like fruit much other than cherries), but you would think that working in a grocery store would expose one to a variety of vegetables through customers’ purchases.

We had a bunch of greens in our cart: kale, turnip tops, collards. I thought these would be the problem produce. It was ok, though, because they had codes on them. What caused the teen at the register to give me the confused face was asparagus. She didn’t even know the word for it (yes, she was ESL but spoke fine conversational English). I was, “Oh, it’s asparagus, with an A” so she could find it on the spinning cylinder with products codes on it. She still seemed baffled and had to ask the guy cashiering at the next station over. He knew what asparagus was and repeated it again to her. Then she said asparagus back to me with a hard A like in attic, as if now she got it and initially misunderstood because of my pronunciation.

Watercress also spazzed her out, but I had anticipated that.

Oh, Western Beef. The things I put up with for love.

Western Beef * 4705 Metropolitan Ave., Ridgewood, NY

Chain Links: Fast Food Loves New York

American fast food chains abroad just can’t stop celebrating the mother country. McDonald’s UK is running its “Great Tastes of America” promotion with five geographically themed burgers: New York Special, Chicago Supreme, Miami Melt, New Orleans Deluxe and Texas Grande. Gone are the Arizona Grande and California Classic of the past.

This is not the first year or first country to offer these specials. Here’s a 2008 Swedish ad for the Miami Melt that channels the ‘80s. [Burger Business]

Why McDonald’s has been a positive force for change. [The Independent]

Also, Texas Roadhouse wants to take over the Middle East, or at least open 35 restaurants in eight countries by 2020. No pork or alcohol, naturally. Let’s hope they do keep the country line-dancing staff. [Business First]


So, I’ve now tried $38 “mofongo,” which looked an awful lot like $7 mofongo, just smaller. Ok, it was tastier too—smoked chunks of bacon have a way of transforming anything, and the shrimp, peas and saffron broth created a lighter paella effect. Frankly, the serving size was perfect. If you’ve ever eaten mofongo (and the funny thing is that most eateries in San Juan assume you haven’t—I’m guessing New Yorkers are at least aware of its existence) you know that the mound of fried plantains mashed with garlic and chicharrones, is a gut bomb. A pinnacle of mofongory can be found at Chinese-Dominican Sabrosura in the Bronx where I once ordered a yuca version that whose leftovers stuck with me for days.


Pikayo, chef Wilo Bennet’s high-end restaurant, happened to be in our hotel, The Conrad. Sure, I’ll try upscale takes on local cuisine, especially when so many of the showcase restaurants in other hotels were beefy American chains like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, BLT Steak or Strip House. (I took James to the original Strip House location for his birthday in March and never wrote about it because I’ve been trying to wean myself from the photograph/blog everything affliction. It was great, but not what you need to be doing while on a tropical island, even an American-ish one.)

My original intent was no photos, as the fancier a restaurant, the less appropriate it feels. But I brought my camera along just in case (it’s not like I couldn’t have ran up the two-flights of stairs to our room to retrieve it). It was fine; Pikayo, and much of San Juan, felt more Miami than NYC (I could just be responding to the ubiquity of stilettos and child-sized skirts). You might be spending a lot of money, but you’ll be doing so informally. The wine cellar is a focal point of the room, though if you want to sip a caipirinha like I did (followed by a glass of Albariño) that’s fine, too.

Not knowing if San Juan was on American or Latin dinnertime, we made reservations at 8pm to be safe. The room was filled with English chatter. By 9pm the entire restaurant was echoing Spanish and had transformed into a polished, 40-somethings-plus tablehopping scene. Everyone seemed to know everyone. High society.


First, we started with a few very snacky “pikaydera” selections from the menu. The mini pork belly burgers were a little dry and I wanted to taste more of the gouda. Lobster empanadillas served with what I think was yellow pepper-infused clarified butter, were just decadent enough in their two-bite form.

Key lime

While these were nibbles, the dessert was surprisingly hefty. We ordered the key lime pie to share (they really push the chocolate or cheese and guava soufflé that you need to order at the same time as your main dishes) and I expected a dainty deconstructed thing. Instead, we were presented with a substantial citrus custard surrounded by graham cracker walls and finished with a browned meringue tuft. The photo is a little deceiving; this tart was larger than a standard slice would be.

Just across the walkway from Pikayo was the hotel casino (I didn’t realize this was a San Juan feature). James won a whopping $17.50 on a $5 slot machine gamble. Hardly a windfall, but it almost covered two drinks at the hotel lounge that had been commandeered by a sunburnt wedding party.

Pikayo * 999 Ashford Dr., San Juan, Puerto Rico

Thistle Hill Tavern

3/4  Remind me again not to visit brand new restaurants, particularly in Park Slope.  It only causes knee-jerk Yelpy reactions and that’s unfair. The food, which should be the focus, always becomes secondary and I end up not wanting to ever come back under more normal circumstances when all the kinks have been worked out. Sidecar, Alchemy and Ghenet are three not terribly recent examples that come to mind. First visits became my last.

(In my day life, I work with data so I think about numbers a lot even though I’m better with words. I've blogged about 29 restaurants in Park Slope since 2001, not that many. I've only experienced new restaurant blues at four, which would be approximately 14% of all of my Park Slope restaurant posts. The unusual discovery is that these four restaurants fall within my last six posts about Park Slope dating back to 2007. I wouldn't say that restaurants have gotten worse in the past three years. I think this is about food blogging becoming prominent and my feeling the need to visit new restaurants sooner than I used to. I am going to curb that behavior. )

Being quoted a 30-minute wait, to be seated at a typical squished two-seater in a crowded row an hour later when the couple who waltzed in 40 minutes afterward gets a primo table for four at the same time, is bad service and planning. It causes resentment and impressions of the food become tainted. Babies squalling at 11pm also guarantees a bad first impression (trying not to be anti-family, on the same day as the Fornino hubbub, no less. I have no problem with early evening dining for tots in this genre of restaurant–not so much Cafe Boulud–but I’m old and of an era when bedtimes for children meant something).

It seems that Thistle Hill Tavern is clearly serving a void in South Slope. The Wednesday night crowds prove it. It’s not a destination, otherwise, though. The gastropub menu hits all the right foodie points: pork belly, pickled ramps, grass-fed beef. On paper it works.

Thistle hill tavern beet salad

I shared the beet salad, not typically cubed or dominant but layered in thin circles and topped with peppery watercress. It could’ve been dull, but the breaded, fried blue cheese croutons kept things interesting and the scattering of pistachios didn’t hurt.

Thistle hill tavern duck confit

I tried the duck confit atop spinach with blue cheese and marcona almonds, echoing the salad I’d started with. A fine entrée.

Thistle hill tavern rib-eye

The rib-eye, the most expensive thing on the menu at $24. I did not try this.

Admittedly, this is only an early glimpse. Places like this will either prove popular as is or find their groove. Check it out for yourself. I might not be their target audience.

Thistle Hill Tavern * 441 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Chain Links: Israeli-style Hamburgers

Burger ranch chart Israel has 52 Burger Kings and 55 Burger Ranches. This summer that will change to zero and 107. According to a press release, “recent research indicated that the Israeli style of hamburgers was far more popular.” But they don’t explain what an Israeli-style hamburger is! I need to know. [Jerusalem Post]

I would’ve imagined that South Korea already had a fast food bibimbap restaurant, yet Bibigo, selling the mixed rice dish, just launched in Seoul Monday. The company has its sights set on Beijing, Singapore and Los Angeles for 2010. Maybe their wish to become the “McDonald’s or Starbucks of Korean food” will be realized. I would've worked in a Pinkberry reference. [JoongAng Daily]

Chart that needs no Hebrew skills to interpret is from Burger Ranch's Facebook page.