Thursday, February 14, 2008

It BE'S That Way Sometimes, Cupcakes...

Puerto Rican Tamal Wrapped, and Unwrapped

Cuchifritos-just the word alone conjures up long ago memories of sweet smelling Puerto Rican coffee shops and 'Comidas Chinas y Criollas' storefronts in the various NYC neighborhoods I haunted and that haunt me. La Caridad on the Upper West Side comes to mind, only because I remember the name-when I worked nights for Manhattan Cable, my dinner hour would usually be spent here, sometimes followed by a short 'nap' at the 71st St SRO I shared with my pet and my paraphernalia. It was my home for wonton soup, ropa vieja, and beans and rice. It took a couple of visits before I understood that the 'chino' was asking me if I wanted red or black beans, white or yellow rice. Up to that point I always responded, “Si.” Now I could get the red and the yellow I wanted.
I think 'El Deportivo' on the West Side was my first introduction to Mofongo, mashed plantains with garlic and shrimp (or pork bits, etc.). Maybe my first guanabana, too. And the Puerto Rican girls, their brown eyes could tear you down, their open faces daring you to meet the challenge or move along, pendejo.
When I lived on Rivington St., at the nearest intersection, three of the four corners were Spanish joints-one even had several different kinds of flan every day. My favorite was strawberry cheesecake flan. With a large cafe con, at four in the afternoon, it was the perfect junkie's wake-up. If you asked for no sugar in your coffee, that meant you got only two soup spoons worth, and a roll of the eyes. If you didn't stop her, the counter lady would rapidly shovel in 6, 7, sometimes eight spoons worth. Years later, the sign still there, I walked into Alias, pronounced in Spanish, ah-lee-ahs, and surprised a couple of well-fed yuppie types folding white napkins in preparation for the dinner rush. Gone were the coffee machines and the sheets of flan, the place smelled of nothing at all. “Is this still ah-lee-ahs?” I asked, and got a rather pitying look from the two, as they exchanged glances, as though confronting a crazy, or perhaps, retarded boy. “No,” the girl replied, “it's AYLEEYUS. Like the sign says, AYLEEYUS.” I guess, at that moment, I should have been an object of pity, maybe even derision, because my neighborhood-where you had to throw down the keys from the third floor window to let in your friends; and where a half-pint of cheap DeVille 'VSOP' Brandy was always tucked into the back pocket of your jeans for fortification against those acts which you were about to commit-had disappeared, and I was the last to know.
Now fast forward a decade or two to Miami. I don't know whose 'papa' Papa Rudy is, but he's my daddy now. In Puerto Rican neighborhoods, while the neon sign in the window blinking 'Cuchifritos' means PR Soul Food, it can also mean a specific dish; one a grandmother might make to remind her family of their Borinquen heritage. Here, the order of cuchifritos, which in this case is a light stew of pig parts (I'm pretty sure I inhaled some semi-crunchy strips of ears, maws, and stomach, and maybe some tongue, too), surrounded by two baked green bananas (con guineo), was perfect for a hot late summer day. I like to sit outside on a stool at Papa Rudy's, and sweat profusely, thus replicating the tropical weather of Old San Juan, or Summer on 115th St, for that matter, and, multitasking Miami-style, I work on my tan. I also order a pastel, which is not a sweet, but is like a Mexican tamal, although I believe the pastel is made with mashed plantains and maybe malanga, or another root vegetable, instead of corn meal. There are pieces of pork and chicken inside, and some red peppers. The pastel is starchy and substantial, yet also moist and not overly filling. After the first few forkfuls I ping-ed on some hot sauce and squeezed out a lime wedge.
I felt that the cuchifritos was cooked to perfection. Why add anything? The ingredients list for this dish might seem forbidding, and the impression one might get is of a heavy wintry bowl of 'mystery meats', but, honestly, it reminded me of the most delicate French haute preparations of tripe or other 'variety cuts' I have ever eaten, and I have eaten a lot of innards, my friend, a lot of innards. It's a homey, country-style dish, but urbane and welcoming, not heavy at all, a little wistful, even. And then as I asked for the check, sipping from my Styrofoam container, the five spoons of sugar the waitress had jackhammered into my large cafe con leche woke me out of my reverie.

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photos by Danny Brody