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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>

Meat and Greet

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Hello everyone once again to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be talking about a few different types of food that I tried over the weekend.  The first was samgyeopsal which is part of the litany of things that Koreans love to barbecue.  They’re basically large strips of bacon minus the seasonings, but they taste so delicious no matter what.  While the bacon was sizzling on the grill, we had plenty of different types of banchan or side dishes to try.  I passed on the macaroni salad, but  I did enjoy the fresh tofu jjigae or tofu soup.  We also threw a couple cloves of garlic on the grill to give the bacon a bit more of a savory flavor.  After about ten minutes, we had our pieces of bacon cut up with the scissors they give you when you sit down.  You can take each piece and put some of the onion vinegar sauce on it or perhaps some of the red chili sauce depending on if you want it spicy or not.  Then you put it in a pepper leaf or a lettuce leaf and enjoy your delicious wrap.  They also gave us pieces of what we assumed were mushrooms to also grill since they had an almost meaty aftertaste mixed with earthy overtones when consumed.IMG_1290

Going from one type of meat to another, the following night I met up with friends in Gangnam to try Chinese lamb skewers at Gayang located at 강남구 역삼 1동 817-21 .IMG_1294  It was a very anonymous place that really didn’t have a line out the door like some of the other bbq places, but this grilling dinner was a bit different.  Instead of just doing the usual Fred Flintstone method of grilling with slapping big pieces of meat on  hot metal, we were doing more of a marshmallow method of grilling.  We got four total portions of skewers since we were quite hungry, but it’s not the cheapest meal out there at 10,000 won per serving.  However, you get roughly ten skewers, and the experience was worth it.  The lamb grilled up nicely with very little fat, and it came with a dry chili based rub that had clear cumin elements with a little garlic. The banchan was pretty typical, but I did enjoy the boiled peanuts and the sweet onions.  If you’re looking for something a bit different from Korean bbq, check out the Chinese lamb place in Gangnam.

The final part of this food trilogy entry deals with a spur of the moment food encounter.  After going to a couple bars in Gangnam, my friend Steph and I decided to try some street food at one of the stalls in the alley.  They were doing good business, so we just picked a mix of different fried foods.IMG_1304 (800x600)  We ended up having deep fried kimbap (rice rolls), deep fried plantains, and fried meat dumplings.  The kimbap were ok with small glass noodles, but the meat dumplings were decent since the meat had a great seasoning blend that made it taste like shepherd’s pie a little bit.  However, the flat pancake plantains were the best since they tasted like sweet potatoes but were almost too sweet.  We still aren’t sure what they were, but we were happy to experience an authentic part of Korean culture.

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