New Yorkers love to whine about the Mexican food here. I sorta understand why: Chipotle and Qdoba easily sell more burritos (which, incidentally, were pretty much invented in California) than every other Mexican restaurant in Manhattan put together.
Don’t get me wrong: I like a good Chipotle burrito as much as the next guy. But I love mole and fresh tortillas and the bazillions of interesting Mexican dishes that go way beyond tacos and burritos. Hell, UNESCO declared Mexican food one of the world’s great cultural treasures a few years ago.
The UNESCO declaration focuses primarily on the traditional foods of Michoacán, which are tough to find in New York, but if you venture to the South Bronx, you can find Mexican regional treasures of a different sort: Oaxacan food, served by the wonderfully warm family that owns La Morada, a charmingly quirky restaurant with purple walls and an outstanding book collection.
Like any good Mexican restaurant in the United States, La Morada offers a familiar array of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, as well as the glorious sound of… holy crap, are they hand-making my tortillas and pounding my guacamole right now? Killer.
The tamales are pretty good, too:
And the gorditas – blissfully obese corn patties stuffed with cheese, salsa, and veggies — might look pretty familiar, but La Morada also makes the gorditas by hand for each order:
And I’m sure that you’ve seen chicken stewed in a green sauce, but this is a little bit different: it’s green mole sauce, made with green chile and (usually) pumpkin seeds, among other ingredients:
And I’ll admit that mole blanco isn’t exactly the most photogenic thing ever: it just looks like cream sauce. And mole blanco usually does contain milk, but the list of other potential ingredients is fascinating: peanuts, sunflower seeds, white pinion nuts, white corn tortillas, banana, onion, or apple, depending on the exact recipe. We ordered ours atop a chile relleno, a moderately spicy fried chile stuffed with cheese:
And then there was barbacoa — roasted lamb:
But one of my two favorite dishes was the mole oaxaqueño – a ferociously red sauce with a hearty dose of chilies, typically blended with raisins and nuts, among other ingredients. Ours was served with pork and a side dish of lousy photography:
And then there are the vegetable enchiladas. No big deal: you’ve had enchiladas before. But these are stuffed with vegetables and… hibiscus. Yes, hibiscus: the reddish flowers – also known as sorrel, jamaica, or bissap – used to make a wide variety of teas and punch-like beverages that are popular throughout south Asia, Latin America, Africa (including Guinea), and the Caribbean (including Trinidad & Tobago).
The hibiscus is a nice touch in an enchilada – a little bit citrusy, but not overpowering, and way more interesting than most California-burrito fillings. Sadly, you won’t find hibiscus burritos at Manhattan Chipotle locations just yet – but the South Bronx isn’t that far, right?
308 Willis Avenue, Bronx
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My first thought on a recent Saturday morning went something like this: oh crap, I’m accidentally an a**hole.
The night before, a wonderful gentleman from Swaziland cooked an amazing meal for me. I repaid the poor lad with an epic, two-day hangover.
Here’s the scene: my friend Mfundi – a sharp twentysomething pharmaceutical consultant who has lived in New Jersey since graduating from Wesleyan two years ago – invited me to his East Orange apartment for a home-cooked Swazi meal on a Friday evening. The first time I met him, he told me that there are “plenty” of Swazis in the tri-state area. So I figured that there’d be a small crowd for dinner, and I brought two full bottles of hard liquor and a few mixers. It was the least I could do, right?
But then it was just the two of us. I’m not great at math, but I think that works out to one man per bottle. Until I started seeing double, which meant that I saw two men and four bottles, and that’s, like, 42 bottles per man.
before jumbo cocktail #1: beef neck and pig’s feet
At around 8:30 in the evening, Mfundi started preparing two dishes: pigs feet with cabbage and a Swazi beef stew with beans and vegetables. He said that the meal would take about two hours, so I channeled my inner bartender and made two monstrous vodka cocktails, served in gigantic tumblers.
As we waited for the pigs’ feet and beef neck to boil, I made a second pair of jumbo cocktails. We finished those, started to wobble, and then started working with the other ingredients.
after ginormous cocktail #2: I can’t quite tell whether the can of beans is upside down, or if we are
Mfundi chopped the cabbage, and tossed it in with the pigs feet. Meanwhile, the beef neck had thoroughly absorbed the water in its pan, and Mfundi started to add other ingredients: garlic, onions, tomatoes, spinach, diced habanero peppers, lemon pepper seasoning salt, a dribble of milk, a splash of olive oil, and some kidney beans that we pounded with a wooden spoon until they were thoroughly cremated.
To be clear: I did exactly none of the work, other than pounding some kidney beans with a wooden spoon. That, and pounding our heads with cocktails.
during extra-large cocktail #3: these beans were my totally non-photogenic contribution for the night
I was trying to be useful, so I prepared cocktail #4 while Mfundi prepared two side dishes: greens stewed in peanut sauce, and some boiled sweet potatoes. (Incidentally, the sweet potatoes were not Mfundi’s first choice of starch: he originally planned to make mealie – white cornmeal porridge, similar to Malawian nsima – but couldn’t find the right type of cornmeal at the East Orange Shop-Rite.)
A full bottle of peach vodka and a half-bottle of mango rum later, dinner was served! At 1:00 in the morning.
Neither of us were remotely upset with the delay. After all, we were invincible by then.
After mega-cocktail #4: we even had x-ray vision by the time he finished cooking. Um, this is totally what x-ray vision looks like, right?
The meal itself was slow-cooked and memorably delicious, even if your vision is blurry and you’re wobbling in your chair.
I was pretty excited about the pig’s feet as soon as we sat down to eat. “Ooh, pig’s feet. There are four on my plate. No, wait – now there are eight of them. No. There are four. Wait – eight!” Hopefully, I didn’t say any of that out loud, but I can’t really remember. I am, however, quite sure that I really enjoyed them – soft, fatty pork is perfect after a bottle and a half of hard liquor.
(Incidentally, Mfundi said that most Swazis don’t actually eat pig’s feet, but he happens to like them. “Swazis will read your post and say, ‘what the hell is this?’” he said, laughing, sometime after cocktail #2.)
The second entrée – the slow-cooked beef neck with beans, vegetables, spices, and a dash of cream and olive oil – bordered on divinity: a rich slurry of vegetables and crazy-soft beef, with a hint of citrus and pepper and garlic. I’d tell you the name of the dish, but the brain cell that registered that information was extinguished in a tragic rum accident.
at least I remember very much enjoying this
By the time we were finished eating, it was 2:00 in the morning. Mfundi was barely upright. That, or he was perfectly upright, and I just didn’t realize that I was on the floor. I poured us both fifth cocktail, anyway. And then a sixth. By the time I finally arranged for an Uber ride home, it was nearly 4:00 in the morning.
Mfundi, being a warm-hearted gentleman, called me to make sure that my Uber driver had arrived. The following (Saturday) afternoon, he texted me, asking if I knew why he had called me at 4:00 that morning – he had only a hazy memory of the phone call. On Sunday, he sent me a message saying that he was still hung over from Friday night.
Clearly, Mfundi deserved something more pleasant than a two-day hangover after making such a great meal. I felt terrible about it.
But I can’t help but wonder: if he made such a great meal while I was wrecking his brain cells and liver, what could he do if I hadn’t bartended him into oblivion? If consulting doesn’t work out for him, maybe he has a future as New York’s first Swazi restaurateur. Especially if he doesn’t hire me as his bartender.
It’s one of the great mysteries of New York City: why are there something like 50,000 Nicaraguans in the Tri-State area, but no Nicaraguan restaurants anywhere in the five boroughs? I don’t get it.
Fortunately, I hit the Nicaraguan jackpot when I emailed Lidia Hunter, creator of the Nicas en NY y NJ Unidos Facebook page and the now-dormant Nicas en New York blog. She graciously spent pretty much an entire weekend(!!) with me, introducing me to some of New York’s Nicaraguan awesomeness.
My Nicaraguan weekend sprawled across three days. On Saturday night, Lidia invited me to a fundraiser in Crown Heights hosted by Las Primas, a Nicaraguan softball team. On Sunday, Lidia took me Discoteca La Boom in Woodside, site of a massive Nicaraguan party hosted by ExpoNica NYC. On Monday, I even had Nicaraguan coffee at Nica-owned Café Integral in Soho, accompanied by a charismatic Nicaraguan student I had met at a (non-Nicaraguan) event two days earlier.
So yeah: a whole weekend of Nicaraguan-ness! Honestly, the sheer quantity of amazing people and wonderful dishes made my head spin, in the best possible way.
That, or the Toña and Flor de Caña made my head spin. Or both.
I can’t possibly fit everything I learned about Nicaragua and Nicaraguan cuisine into a single blog post, but here are a few highlights of the weekend:
At the Las Primas event on Saturday night, the first plate of food I tried was delicious, and it had an absolutely glorious name: vigorón. My Spanish is rusty, but I think the rough translation is “big and vigorous,” which is pretty apt when you top boiled yuca with fried pork, a fresh cabbage salad, and a homemade Nicaraguan hot pepper sauce:
and a cold Toña gives you even more vigor
Several Toñas later, the lovely ladies of Las Primas brought me some fritos. No, not those Fritos. These are much better than the packaged American type: the Nica variety features long, flat slices of crispy fried green plantains, topped with stewed pork, cabbage salad, and – if you’re into that sort of thing – more hot sauce. Nicaraguan fritos are pretty much everything you could possibly want from nachos, except with more pork and tastier “chips.” Epic.
Palo de Mayo (Maypole)
So there’s this tradition that I’d somehow never heard of: pole dancing.
No, not that kind of pole. This is a maypole, better known as palo de mayo in Nicaragua: basically, a tree covered in ribbons that becomes the center of dance floors in the springtime.
I’m sure that there’s a long, fascinating story behind it, but rumor has it that the Nicaraguan palo de mayo somehow evolved from the European tradition of ribbon dances. On Saturday, my Nicaraguan companions explained that the tradition took on a local flavor as it spread first to English colonies in the Caribbean, then to parts of Central America. Roxy, one of my new friends from the Caribbean coast, theorized that the ribbon dance became intertwined with existing Caribbean and Central American fertility rituals, leading to a decidedly sensual, non-British style of dance.
Guillermo and a maypole; sensual, non-British style of dance not pictured
There is incredible regional variety in Nicaraguan cuisine, and when one of Las Primas passed me a plate of Nicaraguan beef patties, my new friend Hopee – from the northern Nicaraguan state of Matagalpa – looked confused and asked, “What’s that?”
What, this? It’s really good rum, served with a side of patties…
Apparently, Nicaraguan patties aren’t terribly common outside of the Caribbean region. The version I tried – which most likely evolved from Jamaican patties – was stuffed with some beautifully seasoned ground beef. The result is fantastic, and reminds me of the wonderful baked empanadas I ate in Chile, except that the meat is more finely minced, and has more spice to it. Great stuff.
On Sunday at Discoteca La Boom, the team at ExpoNica NYC kicked off my evening of Nica food with enchiladas. No, not Mexican enchiladas. The Nicaraguan type resembles a lightly fried empanada, stuffed with beautifully peppery ground beef. On this particular day, the enchiladas were served with a fried ripe plantain and some addictive, salty, fried Nicaraguan cheese, which reminded me of a fried version of the haloumi at my favorite Greek Cypriot restaurant.
fried Nicaraguan awesomeness
Sunday’s band: La Nueva Compañia
I love these guys – they’re a band from Managua, currently on tour in the United States. My friend Hopee explained that most of the songs they played on Sunday were high-energy homages to some aspect of Nicaraguan culture or history. Such fun music, even if I didn’t always understand 100% of the lyrics.
Plus, those straw hats are pretty epic.
You’re surely familiar with Mexican tamales, but these beasts make the Mexican sort look downright scrawny. Nacatamales are meal-sized, and closer in spirit to the epic Belizean tamales you can get in Linden Park, except that the ingredients are a little bit different: the corn masa is silkier, and it’s studded with pork, onions, garlic, tomato, peppers, green olives, and raisins, among other treats – and wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf.
Also pictured: a nice, cold cup of Nicaraguan cacao — a rice-based drink that vaguely resembles horchata, but with a much richer flavor from the cinnamon and fresh Nicaraguan cocoa beans.
Stuff I didn’t eat: pupusas and rondon and lobster soup and…
Of course, the Nicaraguans I met eagerly described other amazing Nicaraguan dishes that we didn’t happen to have in front of us. A sampling:
- Rondon: a dish from the Caribbean coast, vaguely similar to Grenadian oildown – vegetables, meat, and/or fish, stewed forever in coconut milk and spices. (Whimper.)
- Nica pupusas: I’ve had countless Salvadoran pupusas, but my friend Eduardo – from the northern city of Estelí – explained that the northern Nicaraguan version is made by mixing tomatoes and peppers into the corn masa, giving the pupusas a reddish hue and more flavor. Sign me up!
- Lobster soup: apparently, the Corn Islands – off the Caribbean coast – have a time of year called “lobster soup.” Basically, everybody makes – well, lobster soup. You can wander around from bar to bar – or house to house – drinking Toña or rum and eating lobster soup, often offered by complete strangers. Sounds amazing.
I could go on and on. Every time I ate something wonderful, somebody told me about something else I needed to try, often available in only one corner of the country. My friend Hopee, from Matagalpa in the north, explained that she sometimes won’t even recognize food from other regions of Nicaragua; in terms of cuisine, Managua or the Caribbean coast might as well be a whole other country.
All of this culinary diversity from a nation that’s smaller than New York state. Pretty awesome.
And the very best thing that I experienced over the weekend was… drum roll please…
Yeah, I ate great food all weekend, since – well, you know, eating is my only real skill. But sometimes the food takes a distant, distant backseat to the fantastic characters I meet.
I fell in love again and again over the weekend with all sorts of friendly people: the charismatic DJ who spent half an hour talking about Nicaraguan music and dance traditions, the fleet of chefs who patiently walked me through their cuisine, and the complete stranger who offered me a ride home – from Crown Heights to Astoria, far out of his way! – when he saw me leave the party and head toward the subway on Saturday night. Everybody I met had a nearly magical way of making me feel like an honored guest and a long-lost cousin, all at the same time.
So of course I loved the big, hearty plates of Nicaraguan food. But at the risk of sounding totally cheesy, I was even more enthralled by the big-hearted people I met. You rock, New York Nicas.
Huge thanks to all of the incredible people I met during the weekend, including Hopee, Eduardo, Gema, Gladys, Shanell, Roxy, Jaykel, Evelyn, Guillermo, Marlene & Rolando from ExpoNica, ExpoNica chefs Martha Saballos and Maria Mercedes Caceres… and especially Lidia Hunter, who made all of this possible. Lidia, you’re a saint!!!
Saint Lidia, with Gema from Las Primas
I really wanted to believe that it was magic. Suddenly, I was in Bryant Park, with a monstrous steak in front of me. Actually, it was better than that: I had a big ol’ box of Costa Rican casado, an epic combo platter consisting of fried plantains, rice, black beans, a fried egg, some fried pork, and a gently charred steak, roughly the size of a fat skateboard.
yup, looks like Bryant Park
I looked around. Yup, this was New York City. And I had four pounds of Costa Rican food in front of me. I ate it all. And then it dawned on me: is it possible that I (gasp!)… cheated?!
OK, fine: yeah, I cheated. But just a little bit. I went to a restaurant called Olga’s Place in Elizabeth, New Jersey, solely for the purpose of trafficking a massive load of Costa Rican food back to Manhattan. It was kind of lukewarm by the time I reached Bryant Park, but it was still awesome. Really, how can you possibly go wrong with fried plantains, a fried egg, fried pig, black beans, and a skateboard-sized steak?
And while I’m asking rhetorical questions: why aren’t there any Tico-owned Costa Rican restaurants in NYC? You can get tasty Costa Rican food made by a wonderful Honduran in Queens. But there aren’t any Ticos who sell Tico food.
So here’s another question: if you’re from Costa Rica, would you really want to move to NYC? In Costa Rica, there are beautiful beaches, a largely unspoiled cloud forest, warm weather, warm people, fried plantains, and no military. In NYC, there are cramped apartments, crowded beaches, chilly winters, humid trash-scented summers, outrageous rents, and too many spoiled little yappy-type dogs.
way better than a yappy-type dog
We also have food from at least 143 nations, but if that doesn’t blow your hair back… wait, why wouldn’t that blow your hair back, and why wouldn’t you want to live here? I don’t get it.
Anyway, the meal was pretty freaking great, even if it wasn’t exactly at its peak freshness after traveling underneath a river. The enormous steak had a perfect char to it, and it was adorned with my favorite condiment: more fried stuff, plus a thousand calories of rice and beans. Life is good, even if I just earned yet another asterisk.
237 Lt. Glenn Zamorski Drive
So when we say the word “country”, what the hell do we actually mean?
Most of us would agree that Taiwan is a country; China and the (other) United Nations definitely disagree. Puerto Rico is technically a territory, but it has its own national soccer team, and it definitely has its own cuisine. And what about Western Sahara or Palestine or Tibet? None are full UN members, but they could arguably be called countries, depending on your politics.
My stomach has its own politics: when in doubt about a certain locale, my stomach calls it a country. More food that way.
So… yeah. Tibet. If you haven’t noticed, there are quite a few Tibetan restaurants in New York, mostly in Jackson Heights – but some are remarkably difficult to notice:
people selling cell phones are apparently louder than momos
Sadly, Lhasa Fast Foods has been temporarily closed for pretty much the entire spring, presumably to excavate itself from the mountain of phone advertisements. But a friendly Nepalese shopkeeper pointed me to Phayul, located a block away, in another easy-to-miss spot above a barbershop.
It wasn’t long before my tongue was completely numb. No, really. We ordered a bowl of tsak sha la kor hot, a stew made from beef, red chilies, thinly sliced daikon, and “mountain herbs.” I asked our server if the “mountain herbs” had a name in English; she called out to one of the chefs, who smiled warmly, waved an open container of a dried fennel-like substance in our direction, and shrugged.
warm, spicy, and pleasantly paralyzing
I’m not making this up: as I slurped the soup, my tongue kept going numb. It wasn’t unpleasant. The culprit seemed to be the peppercorns, not the mountain herbs or red chilies. But I could be wrong.
Our other four dishes didn’t do quite as much to paralyze bits of our faces, but they were equally tasty. We enjoyed a spicy version of stir-fried chicken in a peanut sauce, seasoned with more red chilies:
warm, spicy, and pleasant, but not paralyzing
And then there were some spicy pan-fried potatoes (shogo katsa), with plenty of scallions:
Ewww, vegetables! Wait… what?
Before I continue, here’s a cautionary tale for any parents out there. On this particular evening, I dined with a fascinating woman who works in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has roots in France, Martinique, and Cuba. Her mother fed her blended vegetables until she was 12. Yes, blended – like baby food. Until she was 12.
She hates most vegetables to this day. “You actually eat green onions?” she asked somewhat incredulously, as she plucked them out of her potatoes.
So yeah: vegetable-wrecking is bad.
Anyway, no vegetables were harmed in the making of the momos, the excellent dumplings that are probably Tibet’s best-known dish. Phayul’s are wonderfully juicy on the inside, stuffed with a soupy mix of ginger, cilantro, and in our case, beef. Your chin has been warned.
drippy chin not pictured
And then there was the hearty stew that just didn’t sound quite right: tsak sha dro thuk, translated as beef soup with oatmeal. Oatmeal? Huh?
The stew itself was probably our favorite dish of the evening. It was hearty and beefy and pleasantly salty, with chunks of bone cooked with the oatmeal so that the marrow flavor could seep in. The stew also featured a hint of red chilies, but – for better or worse – it didn’t quite have the firepower to paralyze my tongue again.
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