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We’re Bananas for Pork, Puerto Rico, and Perfect Meals

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Wepa!! That was my reaction when I visited my first Puerto Rican restaurant.  If you don’t know what that means, “wepa” is a common exclamation in the Puerto Rican community to signify happiness or a way to encourage someone.

Basically "Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream 'wepa'"

Basically “Remain calm, Puerto Rican, and scream ‘wepa'”

I didn’t need any encouraging when I walked through the doors of hidden Chicago gem, Cafe Central.

I’ve had my fair share of comida latina that has ranged from Colombian to Cuban, but I had never tried the food from what many consider the United States’ 51st state.  If you’re unaware of this connection, let me drop a bit of historical knowledge.  Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe who called it Borikén which eventually was transformed into Borinquen in Spanish when Colombus and later Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish run cities.  With the Europeans came the colonization of the island and importation of slaves from Africa.  This system continued up until the late 1890s until the USA beat Spain in the Spanish American War which led to the USA claiming Puerto Rico as a United States territory which has continued to today.IMG_6706  What that means is that all Puerto Ricans from the island are US citizens, but it has also resulted in increased Puerto Rican migration to urban centers on the US mainland like Chicago and NYC, especially.  In Chicago, the hub of all things boricua (Puerto Rican in modern Spanish) is typically Humboldt Park minus the current trend of the usual gentrification. larger However, this symbol of Chicago Puerto Rican roots is still going strong in the West Town neighborhood just west of Humboldt Park.  It was established back in 1952 a bit further south but relocated to its present location in the mid-1960s.  It still exists today as a representative of Puerto Rican culture in diner form.  The exterior doesn’t look like much, and the interior is just as simple but comfortable.IMG_6720IMG_6719  We beat the lunch crowd around 11:30, and the meal started with some fresh bread that seemed to be of the French variety with a magical sauce on the side.  Although Janice and I thought that this verdant food of the gods tasted like the Argentinian steakhouse staple chimichurri sauce, we were misteaken (pun intended!).IMG_6703  Instead, it was Puerto Rican sofrito, a mixture of recao (cilantro), sweet garlic, olive oil, and mild peppers.  It was an oily, herbal, yet garlicky and chunky spread that was wonderful with the fresh bread.  I washed it down with a cool Malta India which is a carbonated barley, hops, and water drink which is like a non-alcoholic beer combined with a root beer with a Caribbean twist.  IMG_6701It has a very distinctive taste, but I would recommend this unique Puerto Rican beverage.  It was similar to its Cuban counterpart I tried when down in Florida.  Then we started the meal for realz.  We looked over the menu, and I could see all of what makes Puerto Ricans I’ve met so proud of their culinary culture.  Pork, rice, and beans are the name of the game for the most part, but there are also sandwiches and caldos or soups to sample.  We started off with the ground pork empanada and two plates of mofongo ($3.60 each).  Empanadas are like your typical stuffed savory pastry, but the ones at Cafe Central are sin igual. IMG_6707 They have less thick pastry dough compared to other varieties I’ve tried and more like thin, crispy dough that was all killer and no filler when it came to the amount of seasoned meat you got.  IMG_6708Then there was mofongo.  I had only heard about it from my dad quoting Sandford and Son or from Puerto Ricans I’ve worked with in the past, but I can see why they loved it so much.  It is a symbol of the African influence on Puerto Rican cuisine as it comes from the West African staple fufu which is a mash of starchy vegetables.  In this case, its a ball of mashed plantains stuffed with pieces of chicarrón or garlic pork rinds. IMG_6709 It’s basically a ball of mashed sweet yet savory starch where we’d occasionally stumble upon a chewy yet crunchy nugget of glory. IMG_6711 Highly recommend this piece of the island.  IMG_6710It’ll feel like you ate a mini-cannonball though, so save room!  As if that wasn’t enough, we then had our main entrees.  Janice ended up getting the house specialty which is off the menu:  el lechón or roast pork ($10).  I can see why they keep it off the menu because they’d be serving nothing but this gigantic plate of soul warming food. IMG_6712 First, the strands of Monte Puerco were super tender and melted in your mouth but also had a hint of a salt and pepper rub to make it just that much more flavorful. IMG_6713 Not bad for an homage to the national dish of the island.  On the side, it was a Puertorriqueño parade on the plate with el arróz con gandules y habichuelas or rice with peas and beans.  Naturally, there were some tiny pork chunks in the rice which pepped up the rice a bit, but the rice itself was super rich with flavor. IMG_6714 The beans were also different than the refried beans in Mexican cuisine, and I liked them a lot better because they were stewed in a pork stock and were light.  As for me, I got the roast pork jibarito ($7.95).  This super Puerto Rican sandwich, meaning “little yokel” in Spanish, was actually introduced to Chicago straight from the Caribbean back in 1996 at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park.  I’ve always wanted to try this Puerto Rican iconic meal because it combines my love for quirky food and sandwiches.  Think of your typical bread based sandwich, but then take out the slices and replace them with flattened and fried plantains.  IMG_6715Then insert lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, American cheese (Thanks, Tio Sam), and your choice of meat.  I did like the locals and got, you guessed it, the roast pork.  When in San Juan! (or is it Chicago?)IMG_6716 It looked great, but I didn’t know where to start out of fear of this seemingly delicate work of street art would disappear in my clumsy grasp.  It was actually quite the opposite.  The fried plantains were surprisingly sturdy under pressure from one hungry hungry hippo, i.e. me, and the flavor was out of control.  Basically, take the lechón and combine it with the sweetness of the mofongo and the savory elements of the mayo and cooked onions. IMG_6718 Plus, the texture transitions from the crunch of the plantain to the soft pork, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomatoes blew my mind since they were in quintessential harmony.  If there’s one plate I’d recommend, it would be this.  Even over the lechón I just promoted.  By the end, we were in peak food coma mode.  If only we could then retreat to a cabana in Limón to nap the rest of the day away.  Unfortunately, our food adventure ended there, but we were extremely satisfied.

I can’t emphasize the greatness that is Cafe Central.  It’s a lot of delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food served in huge portions for a reasonable price.  What more could you ask for in a restaurant?  Absolutamente nada.  Buen provecho!
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Pork You Can Eat With A Fork

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Buenos dias a todos y bienvenidos a un nuevo capitulo de Mastication Monologues!  Alright, enough with the espanol for all you non-Spanish readers.  I was just welcoming everyone to today’s chapter which features some Caribbean treats in Delray Beach, Florida.  “Florida” is actually a Spanish name given to the peninsula by explorer Ponce de Leon.  It means “Flowery land”, and the culinary landscape of the state is filled with beautiful blooms reflecting the ethnic seeds that were sewn throughout the history of the territory.  From soul food eateries that are remnants of its history as a slave state to the many Cuban restaurants that are a more recent reflection of the politics in the region.  Today’s entry involves Zucra which is a Latin establishment that is a bit hard to find but worth the trek.

They have ample parking which is nice in comparison to most restaurants in downtown Delray Beach.  It’s a very cozy place with indoor and outdoor seating.IMG_2910  They seemed surprised that we wanted to sit outside but indulged us nevertheless.  The view isn’t much to boast about, but we did watch a guy drive a car with the emergency brake on the entire time.  We told him about it as he passed by, and he said, “I don’t care.  It’s only my friend’s car.”  Some friend he was.  Looking over the menu, we could see that they mainly specialized in Cuban cuisine that ranged from sandwiches to soups.IMG_2912 IMG_2911  My meal started off with a step into the unknown with a drink that my waiter couldn’t accurately describe aside from the name, Malta, and that it was good.  Great.  It came out with my parents’ waters, and it simply looked like a glass of Coca Cola.  IMG_2913However, the bottle said otherwise as I tried to decipher what this “Hatuey” ($2.50) truly was.  I could only describe the taste as a semi-flat soda that had hints of some type of cereal and caramel.  Upon looking at the bottle closer and on Wikipedia, it turns out that it is a non-alcoholic drink that is essentially non-fermented beer.IMG_2914  It originated in German as a “Malzbier” or “malt beer” but now is made throughout Latin America and even Africa.  My mom didn’t care for it too much when she tried it, and I agree that it’s an acquired taste that I came to love by the end of the glass.  As for the food, I got the lechon asado or grilled pork ($11.95); my mom got the ropa vieja ($10.95); and my dad got a bowl of the black bean soup ($4.95).  Our meals came out, and they all looked muy sabrosos (tasty). IMG_2915 My grilled pork was tender and succulent which I couldn’t say the same about a lot of other types of grilled pork meals I’ve had.  On the side, I loved the grilled plantains that seemed to be roasted to a crisp, but in reality, they were simply black, soft slices of banana flavored fiesta.  The arroz moros was the only weak point of my platter.  While there were plenty of black beans cooked into the rice, it was on the dry side that didn’t help the blandness that permeated through every grain.  It went down easier when mixed in with my roasted pork.  I tried a bit of my mom’s ropa vieja, literally “old clothes” but really shredded beef, which was amazing from the small forkful I pilfered.IMG_2916  Not only was it melt-in-your mouth good, but it had a spicy ole! that really took the dish to another level.  I didn’t try my dad’s black bean soup since I was stuffed by the end of the meal, but he seemed to be greatly satiated.IMG_2917

So if you want a taste of Cuba without having to rumba on down to Miami or pay a brazo and a pierna at another nearby eatery Cabana, pay a visit to Zucra.

<a href=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/12/1575333/restaurant/Miami/Zucra-Cuban-Cafe-Delray-Beach”><img alt=”Zucra Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon” src=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/b/link/1575333/biglink.gif&#8221; style=”border:none;width:200px;height:146px” /></a>

Just What the Doc Ordered

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If this is your first time coming to my food blog, you are in for a treat today, and if it isn’t, then you will know I will be bringing you a fair and accurate assessment of a local eatery.  Today is part three in my Florida travel chronicle which will entail the popular, but controversial, Doc’s All American located at 10 N Swinton AveDelray Beach 33444, Florida.IMG_3942

I woke up to another lovely day as the Sunshine State was living up to its name.  The main plan was to meet up with some family friends and see Lion Country Safari.  After seeing plenty of African and Asian creatures sunning themselves in the southern heat and finally feeding a giraffe, we decided to grab lunch at Doc’s All American. IMG_3944 It’s a relatively simple establishment that is created to evoke a simpler time in America’s history when gas was reasonably priced, cars were still made out of metal, and childhood obesity was virtually unheard of.  Although the prices weren’t that low, they focused mainly on American favorites like hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and shakes.  I got a foot long hot dog,  a side of onion rings, and a salted caramel shake.  Now, if you remember from the first paragraph, I mentioned that there is a bit of controversy surrounding Doc’s.  I did some research of what other diners thought of the restaurant, and they mentioned terrible service, low quality food, and a backward’s cash only policy.  While I did find the cash-only policy to be a bit of a relic in a now credit driven society, they did have an ATM on the premises to help patrons.  As for the other aspects people have complained about, I did not experience either aside from a possibly slow delivery of my family’s beverages.  There was only outdoor seating on the wrap-around patio which made me wonder what they did during Florida’s seemingly daily rainstorms?IMG_2855  Anyway, my hotdog and onion rings came out with my salted caramel shake soon thereafter, and it all looked great.

No Viagara needed.

No Viagra needed.

The only downside was having to apply my own mustard and relish to the tube steak that seemed like it would fit in more in one of Ron Jeremy’s flicks.  After a minute or two, I gave it a proper Chicago treatment with a spritz of mustard, a coating of relish, and a couple sprigs of white onion.IMG_2858  No ketchup for me since I’m not a heathen.  From the first bite to the last, I was pleased with the charred dog that was different from the boiled links I’m used to back in Chicago.  As for the onion rings, they were expertly made complete with a light and smooth exterior that was crunchy and sans bread crumbs that other onion ring recipes utilize.  I also liked that the onions were securely fastened within their golden shelters, and only slipped out on occasion as I munched through each one.  The salted caramel shake was average as they mainly added a hint of caramel flavoring to a vanilla shake, but the salt element was certainly unique as I found they filled the bottom of the cup with peanuts.  Definitely never had a shake as nuts as this one.

I don’t know if lunchtime is the ideal time to go to Doc’s, but I would recommend it as we did not experience any of the terrible happenings that people have described on the various online review sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, etc.  While I’m sure one could find cheaper hot dogs and burgers elsewhere,  I’d still recommend trying Doc’s All American.  It is an experience to try a local institution that has been open and serving the same quality fare since 1951.IMG_2860
Doc's All American Classic Burgers & Shakes on Urbanspoon

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