Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Eat Latin Food and Live!

There's something that bothers me about the phrase 'Latin Food'. So many cuisines get thrown into the mix, that the distinct and often unique dishes from quite different countries get bundled together simply because of geography, or a common language. Take Peruvian food, for example. Most people know that acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa got much of his inspiration from Peruvian cuisine, which is reflected in many of his ground-breaking dishes, particularly the octopus tiradito and seafood ceviche. Matsuhisa points out in his cookbook that when he first opened Nobu in New York, in 1994, “...hardly anyone knew what ceviche was.” The problem has become that with the mainstreaming of ceviche, as with supermarket sushi, so much of it is so bad, that it makes you wonder what the big deal was in the first place. Too much lime, fish that isn't pristine, lame Nobu knockoffs (hot oil/jalapenos on everything), etc. But the classic Peruvian dishes, when presented properly, still have the ability to surprise; and to belie the popular, yet woefully limiting conception, of a homogeneous 'Latin Cuisine'.

My introduction to Peruvian food did not come from ceviche, though, it came straight from the heart-literally. The 'anticucho', the grilled heart, that is. Heart may seem unusual in the US, but it is a fairly common dish throughout the rest of the world, where 'nose to tail' eating is more prevalent. At El Rocoto, a small storefront in an abandoned-looking strip mall (actually the owners of the shopping center went bankrupt, and almost all the stores are in fact boarded-up), the dish is served simply grilled, with an accompaniment of fat corn kernels and a small hunk of potato. There is plenty of meat on the plate, and heart is very lean and rich, so a small dish is all you really need. Usually marinated overnight to tenderize and add flavor, the heart must be first cut in strips before cooking, to minimize chewiness. At El Rocoto, it is prepared flawlessly, and each bite reveals another component of the marinade. The accompanying small dish of fiery Huancaina sauce is as welcome as a bernaise to a steak. The sauce, which is based on white cheese, garlic, and hot aji amarillo peppers, goes well with the rich strips of heart, and, in fact, it goes well with everything.

The ceviche that followed was a chilled dish of cooked mussels served on the half-shell-a complete 180 from the heart. Where the anticuchos were warm and rich, the mussels were cool and subtle, although they retained their flavor well, even under a mountain of what appeared to be an entire diced red onion, those over sized corn kernels again, diced tomatoes, and spicy jalapenos. Of course you can't eat mussels raw, but they are so slightly cooked, that they don't get rubbery or tasteless-a common problem in general when ordering mussels, where the broth in which they are cooked retains all the flavor, not the meat itself, which is often overdone. There are nine plump mussels on the plate, and after I ate most of the heart, I had a hard time finishing everything.

I washed it all down with a cold Cristal, the beer not the Champagne, and took in the scene-not much to look at, the music kind of crappy, only three other people in the place. In fact, after entering the shopping center, I had turned around and left after noticing not one person inside and no cars at all in the enormous parking lot. I was deciding where else to go, when a family drove up and entered the place, so I followed. You have to really want to eat here-even the credit card machine was broken that day, resulting in a not very pleasant post-meal jaunt to the 7-11 for some cash. But the service was cheery, and the food exactly right. After I returned with my cash for the sweet and very apologetic ladies who were running the place, I peered in the kitchen and waved to another smiling face-the chef, who obviously knew her magic had worked on me.
(Special thanks to Anne (via weinoo) of eGullet for the tip!)
El Rocoto
3990 SW 40th Ave
Pembroke Park 33023
954-961-9752
Anticucho-$7
Mussels-$9
Cristal-$3.50

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