Whenever I travel overseas, I inevitably experience something that I call the “evil glint” food encounter. A friendly native will offer me an opportunity to try some of their food. It’s a perfectly pleasant encounter at first, and then the native gets an evil glint in his/her eye, and realizes that it would be highly entertaining to offer the silly American some fermented fish cakes, headcheese, pig intestines stuffed with rice noodles, chilled pigs’ feet with hot sauce, grilled cow brains, and/or tripe soup (I am not making any of these up). I see how this might be really funny, as long as you’re not the silly American with an irrational cultural phobia of animal innards, hooves, and/or fermented fish.
Unfortunately, I rarely have the opportunity to return the favor in my home country. When international friends come to New York, I can’t really terrify them by offering a hamburger, BBQ pork, or apple pie. The typically American food that is most likely to frighten a foreigner might be grits… but even then, I think Southern-style grits are more likely to terrify a New Yorker than a visitor from overseas.
So it was sort of a special occasion when I was invited to dinner by Grant Robertson, a journalist from the Daily Dot, an online newspaper that’s still in a fun beta phase. We met at Kelso Restaurant, a loveable Panamanian spot in Crown Heights, largely because I thought it might be fun to see the look on the poor guy’s face when I tried to get him to eat cow foot soup with pig tails.
I’d never eaten Panamanian food before, so I thought it would be fun to order the only two items on the appetizer menu that I’d never heard of. We started with carimanola, a tasty little breaded, fried torpedo of yucca (cassava), filled with a thin layer of peppery ground beef. It was a little bit on the gummy side, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And much can be forgiven when an appetizer costs a mere $1.
Our other “appetizer” was a little bit perplexing, but absolutely delicious. Chicheme ($3) was listed under the “frituras” (fried appetizer) section of the menu, and I apparently did a really lousy job of listening to the friendly server’s explanation of the dish (that, or my Spanish is far worse than I think it is—I should have gotten the hint from “it’s sweet, and is sort of like oatmeal”). It turns out that chicheme isn’t fried at all, and it isn’t an appetizer: it’s actually an oatmeal-like sludge, made with pounded corn, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and craploads of sugar. I loved the stuff, but felt slightly silly for ordering it before dinner on a Friday night—it would work well for dessert or a snack or a sugary breakfast… but it’s a little bit surreal for a pre-dinner treat. Oops, my bad.
For his entree, my journalist companion played it safe by ordering curry chicken ($7), served with fried plantains, a small side salad, and a massive pile of rice cooked with red beans. I thought that his meal was pretty impressive: the chicken was phenomenally tender and served in a tasty, Caribbean-style yellow curry sauce. Kelso offered a monstrous pile of food for the price… but Grant barely touched anything besides the chicken.
He explained that he just wasn’t all that hungry, but I thought it might be entirely my fault: I was vaguely worried that I’d grossed the poor man out with my meal. I ordered sopa de pata (cow foot soup, $5 for a large bowl), which falls under the broad title of Panamanian sancocho—a thick stew, often served with a variety of tubers, meat, spices, and chunks of corn on the cob. The server asked me if I wanted pig tails included in my cow foot soup. Of course I did!
So here was my “evil glint” moment. Mr. Online Journalist, would you like to try some cow foot soup with pig tails? Nevermind that I’m not really a fan of cow feet—I can appreciate the extra flavor that cow feet (or innards, or other bits of fat or skin) might add to a stew, but cow feet are incredibly fatty and gelatinous, and not really my favorite thing on earth. But I was still excited to have a bowl of cow feet and pig tails. This was my big chance to torment somebody else for a change.
Grant politely took a spoonful of the soup, and nodded appreciatively. I then harangued him to spoon out a little chunk of the cow feet fat (“cow feet fat” will someday be the name of an indy rock band… just watch), and he gamely scraped a bit of gelatinous goo out of a hoof, and ate it without visibly flinching. Nicely done, Grant.
At that point, I didn’t see any reason to push him to try the pig tails, which were chopped into tiny, hard, chewy pieces. Neither gross nor appealing. Kind of a dud in an otherwise fantastic (and insanely filling and inexpensive) stew.
When I told my lovely fiancé about my excursion to Kelso Diner, she asked me only one question about the meal: “Do pig tails go boing in your mouth when you eat them?” Nope. Kind of disappointing, in a way. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the stew, which was beautifully thickened by chunks of yucca, potato, cornflour dumplings, and chunks of corn on the cob. But no boing. And no look of terror on the journalist’s face. Bummer.
(Note: our phenomenally filling $17.42 meal was sponsored by the Sandusky media empire. Thank you, Sandusky media empire!)
648 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn
Subway: Franklin Ave. (2, 3, 4, 5 trains)