Archive for the ‘Chile relleno’ Category

Delicious pork fat at El Biche Pobre

August 17, 2007

As I ate lunch on Wednesday, I thanked God that I had run 2.5 miles uphill towards Monte Alban earlier that day. My judgment may have been clouded by drink, as I started drinking my Bohemia beer and eating tortilla chips like a madwoman before my food came, but I have never tasted such delicious pork fat in my life as I did at El Biche Pobre.

I had spent nearly all morning in the kitchen at Puente, trying to make amaranth-corn tortillas from scratch. I had boiled dried corn kernels with limestone the day before and let it sit overnight, and then rinsed carefully and rubbed away at each husk, almost individually, as per these instructions (which turned out to be wrong since the corn kernels need to be cooked 15 minutes or more). Rather than take a handful of corn and amaranth to the molino, I’d lugged my molcajete to work on the bus and decided to grind away by hand. One of the staff laughed and said I was “una mujer de campesinos,” or a peasant woman. The temperature in the office is cool, even in the kitchen, but I started to get so hot as I mashed away at that corn, and when I tried to grind the amaranth, I had to deal with the sticky paste that stuck to the mortar, the pestle, me, and everything else it came in contact with.

For all that work, since I hadn’t made very much masa or dough, I got 6 measly little tortillas. (They had good flavor, but they were too inflexible to be tortillas, memelitas maybe.) I ate one of them, and other than a banana, nothing else from breakfast to 3 p.m., when I left work. I felt like a crazed, hungry animal.

I’d never heard of “El Biche Pobre” until that day, but I caught a mention of it in a TripAdvisor thread and when I Googled it, it turned out to be one of Rick Bayless’s favorites. As I am becoming increasingly maniacal in my devotion to him, that was enough to get me lurching towards Calzada de la Republica 600, at the corner of Hidalgo, just two blocks east of El Llano park.

“El Biche Pobre” calls itself a “comedor familiar,” which I assume means “down-home food.” They’re particularly famous for their botanas, or bar snacks, and instead of getting a proper meal of soup, rice, meat, and tortillas, I opted for the botana plate for one, one of all of the above. Of course, since I was eating bar snacks, I had to have a beer.

Immediately, I knew I was somewhere special. The chips that came in the plastic basket were perfect, crispy, completely dry and without grease, with so much flavor they didn’t need salt, maybe just a dab or two one or the other of their salsas, green and red, and their guacamole. I was also given a little bowl of pickled dried peppers, onions, and garlic. I sucked the garlic out of their little papery jackets, licking my fingers and not caring what I looked like. That was probably the beer. I’d had pickled garlic before, but not like this, where they had been softened by cooking and then marinated in a vinegary sauce, like an escabeche. The dried peppers were also fantastic, smoky and intense but not so hot that I couldn’t taste anything else.

When my plate came, I honestly felt the slightest bit of disappointment. I’d read that their botana plate for one was huge, and this, while ample, wasn’t actually incredible. And then they brought out the second plate.

On the first plate, clockwise from the top: a fried taquito with guacamole; a piece of cold pork with avocado, tomato and pickled jalapeno; a quesadilla with cheese and epazote; a chile relleno; some pieces of pork milanesa; a bocadillo de papas or potato croquette; and the piece-de-resistance in the middle, “carne frita” or fried meat.

On the second plate, clockwise from the tamal: a tamal of frijoles sitting on top of another piece of cold meat; a memela with lard and crumbled cheese; a tostada with potatoes; and another tostada with beans, cheese, tomato and avocado.

I will only touch upon what truly moved me.

When I put a small piece of the “carne frita” in my mouth, I almost shouted, “What is this?” When I asked the waiter, all he could say was “meat of the pork,” “meat of the pork,” so I still don’t really know what made it so delicious. I am not normally a huge pork fat eater. I love fat for the way it conveys flavors, not so much in and of itself, but this made me realize that just plain old fat could be wonderful. It wasn’t like carnitas that melt in your mouth, or the porchetta-like roast I made last winter that practically collapsed in its own fat. It held itself together, with a good chewy texture, a lovely crispy exterior, and a melting layer of fat in the middle. Such a tiny piece to pack such a punch.

The chile relleno was my second favorite. Instead of using a fresh chile, they had taken a dried pasilla chile and filled it with more pork, shredded this time. It had a slightly sweet flavor, but almost the flavor of sweet hot peppers rather than a more straightforward, insipid sweetness.

The memela was very simple, just a crunchy, almost tough, corny little oblong, brushed with nothing more than “asiento” or lard and garnished with a little crumbled cheese. Its simplicity was its charm, like eating a perfect baguette with butter from French cows.

I loved the pork milanesa, more than any other I’ve had here, because the breading was greaseless and well-salted. Is “milanesa” really mean that it’s from Milan? And is “milanesa” preparation related at all to Japanese fried pork cutlet, donkatsu? Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to say all my lefty politics goes out the window when I think about the food benefits of globalization.

Everything else was very good, except the bocadillo de papa which was just boring.

I staggered out of the restaurant almost dazed. I had to get home as quickly as possible so I could lie down, but having woken up at 6:30 in the morning to go running with my neighbor and her friend, my legs hurt. But I still stopped for a cantaloupe paleta at Popeyes.


My last Patty post

June 28, 2007

On Sunday, I’m moving to my new apartment. I’m looking forward to living alone again and excited about how my understanding of Mexican food might deepen in my own kitchen, but I’m going to miss my Mexican family. Obviously, the immersion was great for my Spanish, but it’s been meaningful in ways I never anticipated. Every week, I would come home and find not only the five people who live in my house, but also a sister, brother-in-law, aunt, uncle, nieces, all of them speaking Spanish at the same time. None of them were ever flummoxed by the sight of a tall Asian woman in their house, who spoke Spanish haltingly, and would simply include me in whatever was going on. On one Sunday, while I sipped banana liqueur, the aunt sitting next to me repeatedly patted my arm and said, “¡Mira!” (“Look” or “You see”), as she told me and the rest of the family about the terrible car accident her daughter had been in. They reminded me a lot of my large Korean family. They made me miss my own family.

Not surprisingly, the cultural immersion I appreciated the most was the chance to eat homemade Mexican food. I got to see what I love most about food, how it can center family and friends and nourish more than our bodies. Given the enthusiasm with which most Oaxacans I’ve met talk about food, I can tell food is a valued part of their history and tradition, but Patty, I think, is uniquely spectacular. She and her family would give me tips on where to find good street food, the kind that’s “muy limpia” or “very clean,” or tell me which is the most authoritative cookbook on Oaxacan cooking. In the 29 days I spent with them, I ate 28 different dishes. We joked that she should write a cookbook herself, except it wasn’t really a joke, she really should. Eating with her, I not only learned words like “ajonjolí” (sesame) and “canela” (cinnamon), but also “tresoro” (treasure) and “herencia” (inheritance).

In addition to the tamales that I loved so much upon my arrival, my favorite torta, and the coloradito mole that made my toes tingle, there have been a couple of other real standouts.

Isn’t it magnificent? They’re fried taquitos filled with chicken and beans, and then drowned in Patty’s awesome salsa verde, finished off with a drizzle of crema, queso, and lettuce. She had also made some guacamole that day, thinner and more sharply acidic than the American dip, and I happily put some of that on as well. I wanted to stop at three, but I just couldn’t and I ate all them.

This is what I ate for lunch a week later, chicken estofada with rice and a bit of black bean puree, and tortillas, of course. I started with a soup that I would be thrilled to make for myself and serve to guests, so simple but so bright in its flavors. I didn’t even have to ask for the recipe, it just declared itself: chicken broth with rice, hierba santa, and then finely chopped white onion, parsley, jalapeno peppers, and limes to squeeze right before eating.

And then I ate the estofada, which according to Patty requires you to toast sesame seeds and almonds, and then grind them up with tomatoes and “muchas muchas spices.” Like a fine wine, it had such incredible depth of flavor. And like moles, it was obviously fatty because a sauce doesn’t get that smooth without fat, but it didn’t taste greasy at all. It’s not a spicy sauce, for once, and I have a strong suspicion that it must have some Moroccan origin, via Spain, because sesame seeds and almonds just don’t seem very Mesoamerican. This is my favorite kind of globalization.

And more recently, I dined on this fine chile relleno. I’ve never been a big fan of chiles rellenos, probably because I don’t really like green peppers. I just don’t see the point—you have your delicious sweet red and yellow peppers, and you have your fantastic range of hot peppers, so why would you ever eat a pepper that just tastes like crunchy grass?

I have to admit, I didn’t adore the Oaxacan chile relleno I had with Patty, but I think I would have loved it if the pepper had been hotter, maybe a chile de agua, which is lighter in color but stronger in power. It had a much more interesting filling than the chile rellenos I’ve had in the U.S., shredded chicken made saucy with tomatoes, raisins, and almonds, all wrapped in the smooth and crunchy exterior of the fried pepper.

Finally, the crème de la crème, Patty’s mole negro. Look how shiny it is in its darkness. I love how “the” dish of Oaxaca can vary so much from restaurant to restaurant, home to home. Hers is a little sweeter than mole I’ve had elsewhere, maybe a little smokier. It’s such a fine balancing act, the bitterness and the sweetness. Jane, the student who’s been staying in the apartment out back, requested the dish for lunch the Friday her husband came to town. He and I got into a discussion on immigration reform that nearly boiled over, but Oaxaca must have changed me, because I managed to keep my temper and enjoy every bite of my mole negro.

And it wasn’t only the main dishes that were so impressive. I had multiple kinds of rice, all cooked to be fluffy and flavorful. I ate every spoonful of every soup, whether it was chicken broth with precisely chopped vegetables or a soup tinged with tomato and filled with pasta. There were days that I ate more than I wanted to, but my desire not to explode was clearly overcome by greater desires.

I’m happy to know that Patty and her family will always remember me as the Korean girl who ate everything.

Two stomachs can always eat more than one

June 21, 2007

Oaxaca is an easy place to eat alone. Obviously, there’s fabulous street food that you can always eat on a park bench, and it’s almost better to be alone when you find your face smeared with salsa and your fingers tangled in the long, stretchy strings of Oaxacan quesillo. The only people watching you are the native Oaxaquenos to whom you’re already completely foreign anyway.

So until my lovely lunch with a fellow foodie at Casa Oaxaca today, I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable it can be to sit down and share a meal, compare notes, and revel together in a new, gustatory experience. It’s like seeing a funny movie or looking out at a gorgeous vista: you want someone to hear you say, “Wow, that is really good.” It’s even better, of course, when that person agrees with you, and this was such a meal.

The restaurant is beautiful but casual, with clean white walls, wooden beams, and a courtyard that opens to the sky. It felt very still and very calm, though that might also have been because we were practically the only ones there.

Soon after we sat down, the waiter brought with a flourish a large platter of the fish available that day: mahi-mahi, grouper, dorado, tuna, and some amazing prawns. Jonathan, who claims not to like shellfish, was instantly hypnotized by the prawns. I was so flustered, I forgot to take a picture, but being with someone who takes notes at most of his meals, I felt no shame in asking the waiter, “¿Por favor, podriamos ver el plato de pescados una otra vez?”, and then whipping out my camera.

The bread basket was surprising. It was filled with fried blue corn tortillas and this very curious, nutty and delicious bread with a smear of creamy cheese and red pepper running through the loaf. It tasted like the best pimiento cheese I’d ever had—could Oaxaca and the American South share a culinary ancestor? The bread was served with a blob of decent guacamole, the springy queso fresco, and the stretchy quesillo, as well as two kinds of salsa, one that was sweet like a peppery jelly and one that was more straightforward.

The poor waiters had so little to do, they came towards our table 3-4 times before we were finally able to make our decisions.

We began with two appetizers. “Bursting with flavor” always makes me think of chewing gum commercials, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. The “chile relleno” stuffed with ceviche and served with a sauce of passionfruit and pomegranate seeds was literally bursting with flavor. I was shocked when I took my first bite and found the chile was actually spicy, a “chile de agua.” Stuffed peppers are some of the most boring things to eat ever—they bring back memories of Yale’s dining hall—but this “chile relleno” may have fully blotted out all other memories. As nouveau as it seemed, it was so representative of what I love most about Mexican food, the riot of flavors and textures that somehow all comes together.

The bean and tortilla soup, garnished with queso fresco and avocado, was good, but not the party in your mouth of the chile relleno. Smooth, just not revelatory.

But I’d be hard pressed to say what was better, the chile relleno or the entrée of prawns served “guajillo” with a little cake of mashed plantain and chayote, capers, oyster mushrooms, and stuffed squash blossoms. The mushrooms were so fragrant, the colors so vivid, and the guajillo chile oil! The guajillo chile has become one of my favorite chiles in the past two weeks. I was already so full, but I had to eat every single one of my allotted prawns, sopping up the chile oil with every bite.

Our second entrée, the mahi-mahi with a mango-chipotle sauce, Jonathan liked better than I did. For me, it was just a little too sweet without enough kick. But it clearly had been cooked with grace and care.

Our third entrée, because how could we not order any mole, was the coloradito with turkey. Sadly, it appeared we had been served turkey breast as it was a tad too dry, but at that point, I had eaten so much, it didn’t matter. All I could do was valiantly dab a blue corn tortilla in the very deep coloradito. It was a bit less sweet than Patty’s coloradito, maybe a bit smokier, and very very fascinating. I’m shocked to be saying this, but there are days when I wonder if I like coloradito maybe, just maybe, more than mole negro.

Finally, and there was an end to all this food, we shared a guava tart served with a scoop of rose-petal nieve (sorbet) on a little fried tortilla. As Jonathan put it, it wouldn’t be Mexican without a little corn. The nieve was the first rose-petal dessert I’d had that didn’t taste like lotion, just fresh and pretty and the perfect complement to the tartness of the guava.

Like all memorable meals, it wasn’t just that the food was fantastic. The whole event felt fortuitous, the kind of thing that can only happen when you’re traveling, to eat and exclaim over a culinary delight with a relative stranger but a fellow chowhound in another country. Is this what it feels like to be a Freemason?