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- Puerto Rico Is Sowing A New Generation Of Small Farmers : The Salt : NPR May 6, 2015
- A Letter from Papaya Thief May 4, 2015
- Lost in Portugal, Part 1 September 29, 2014
- Sometimes the Best Things Come From a Can September 16, 2014
- Working on My Portugal Story, Interrupted September 15, 2014
After nine years in Puerto Rico, hundreds of recipes developed, thousands of plates served, millions of gallons of booze sold, I’ve decided to move on. As sad as I am to leave my friends and business behind, I’m excited for the future.
In 2006, I flew into San Juan Christmas morning, and Shawn the Pilot was the first person I met as he flew me across the island to Mayaguez. Lauren picked me up with ice cold Medallas in the back seat. I’d never been east of Denver, never been to an island or any tropical place. I was about to meet her entire family (we hadn’t been dating long). We were going to open a small bar with a small menu within two days at a 9-room inn. We agreed to four months, then we would move back to the Northwest and I would finish applying to grad school.
Turns out we were good at it and people liked us. Looking back it was nothing special, only five things on the menu to start with, but back then there weren’t many options. Your choices were burgers or pinchos or pizza. We wanted to eat good things. Salads, maybe a steak that wasn’t fried or over-cooked, drinks that weren’t made with fake corn syrup mixers. And since we just came from Olympia we were still naïve enough to think we could change the world. Recycling was nearly nonexistent, businesses served everything in plastic cups and styrofoam plates. We invested in sugar cane based to-go boxes and cups. Iceberg lettuce was still considered healthy, but we craved baby greens and fresh vegetables that didn’t come from the frozen aisle. Over time I taught myself new tricks based on what we craved. We wanted a good BLT, so we made our own bacon. We missed hummus and pita, so we started cooking our own chickpeas and baking bread every morning, and roasted local eggplants for baba ganoush. I was lucky enough to travel a few summers to work with amazing chefs in Portland and New York, and returned refreshed and inspired for the winter seasons. Lauren and I had split up early on, but we still worked well together and shared a similar vision. As restaurant workers all our lives, we wanted to treat our employees with respect and dignity, because if we took pride in our work, maybe they would too.
I’d always had that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I needed to continue to do the things I’d set my mind on when I was a kid. At the same time I was devoted to learning the art and the technique of cooking. I’m forever grateful to this community for letting me use them as guinea pigs. There were a few mess-ups and we learned from our mistakes, but for the most part we’ve always strived to build something different and beautiful and inviting. After six years at Casa Isleña, I applied to graduate school and was accepted, but the school didn’t offer any funding. Luckily, around the same time, Lauren and her sister and brother-in-law were able to negotiate a lease with the owner of The Black Eagle, an historic spot with beautiful sunsets and a legacy of serving only steaks cut by a band-saw in the back, and lobsters caught on the reef in front. Of course I said yes. I promised three years, and now my time has come.
I want to thank everyone who has supported us, all of our farmers and fishermen and customers, all you lovers of good drinks and good food. I leave the Eagle in the best shape it’s been in years, and Lauren and our crew, all of whom are steadfast, loyal, and passionate. I have no doubt that La Copa Llena will only get better. Our new chef, Brian, who some of you know well, is well-trained, talented, and dedicated. Luis Rivera, our head prep cook and my right hand, is also dedicated to the high standards we’ve set for ourselves. While they still have all the old recipes, I have no doubt that they will create their own excellent plates with fresh eyes and clean palettes.
I wish you all the best of luck. The future is exciting.
The first meal in Portugal is whatever’s closest to the hostel. Flying into Porto from Madrid was no problem, but figuring out the metro system, finding the hostel, dehydration, sleep-deprivation––all help create a healthy appetite. The streets in Porto smell like grilled meats. At a local churrasqueira, you can watch a couple of guys sweat over a large charcoal grill full of sizzling butterflied chickens, crispy sausages, giant skewers of pork and beef. I know nothing of the Portuguese language, nothing on the menu looks vaguely familiar. I don’t know whether to order at the bar or a table. I only know I am thirsty and hungry. A man at the bar, a waiter enjoying his dinner, recognizes this international language of hunger. He sends us upstairs, walks us through the menu, and immediately brings us vinho verde, a young white wine with a tiny bit of effervescence (we will be drinking this like water for the next week or so). He drops off a basket overflowing with two kinds of bread. One is more dense, has a bit of a cornbread texture, the other is a dinner roll. The meal is nourishment, nothing special. Fried codfish and fries; grilled pork with onion and pepper seasoned with a splash of soy sauce; everything garnished with shredded carrot and raw onion; sustenance. Within a couple of days I find out I can pretty much spend a day drinking a amazing ports without spending much, and maybe because of their sweet caloric content I didn’t get very hungry.
I wanted to get away from the restaurants in the old town. I’m not eating three meals a day (because of the port) so I want the one restaurant to count. If a menu looks nearly identical to the restaurant next door and is translated into four different languages, I move on. I read about a spot in Gaia across the river that serves only grilled fish and wine right there in the street, but when I ask someone how to get there he looks at his watch and shakes his head. “It’s too late. You need to catch ferry across river.” We hop on a bus anyway, get off a few kilometers west along the edge of the river and walk into the first spot we could find: Tasquinha D’ouro. Inside: a middle-aged woman in a dirty apron, a stove with a few simmering pots, a bar, and four wobbly tables. Outside: a man, perhaps the woman’s husband, is waiting on two tables on the patio, and an old man is leaning against the building, chain-smoking. At one table a couple sips beer as the sun goes down. At the other table a fat guy hovers over a bowl of something stewed, a tall beer, and an overflowing ashtray. Again, we don’t know what to eat. The waiter tries his best to describe the menu in Spanish but I can hardly understand. We end up with pataniscas: a sort of codfish pancake with diced onion and herbs, served with fries. It’s pretty tasty, but I feel like he offered us the easiest thing to eat, something a tourist can’t deny. Something with fries on it. Then I lean over and ask if I could have what the fat guy is eating. “Moelos,” says the server. Then in broken English, “Insides chicken!”
I finally found what I was looking for.
Something hearty, local, delicious. Chicken parts braised in red wine with bay leaves, salt, pepper, pimenton, served with more of that local corn bread. So good, none of the rusty iron flavor normally associated with chicken parts. I want to stay, finish eating and in turn translating the chalkboard menu. But we must leave (and I’m full), and we’ve been convinced by a man in a port house in Gaia and another lady at a port tasting shop that it’s necessary to go to Douro Valley and taste the wines where they’re made.
After a long day of getting lost, we glide around switchbacks into the valley. The hills are sewn up, it seems, ol’ zipperneck. Vineyards, vineyards criss-crossing the hills. Vineyards, vineyards, broken in parts by olive groves, ancient stone walls and tiny roads. This is what the Romans brought so many years ago and what the Moors preserved for hundreds of years after, then when the Moors were pushed out, and for hundreds of years more.
We find our little Quinta da Azenha in Folgosa, a tiny village right off the lake (the Douro River is dammed up here). The property is beautiful. A few acres of vines on the hill behind the quinta, fig trees, persimmon, apples, pears, olives trees, lavender, nasturtium, sage, rosemary, roses, and plenty more I’ve never seen before. The church bell rings, then, two minutes later, the church bell rings from the village across the lake. In our room the hosts had left a bottle of their homemade vinho verde that is tart and delicious. For breakfast they feed us cured meats and sheep cheese (salipicão, chorizo, ovelha churra) from towns like Pinhão and Sabrosa. Fresh tomatoes from the garden doused in olive oil, salt, pepper. Dark coffee with hot milk, fresh bread from the panadería. Chocolate cake the first morning, carrot cake the second morning. Homemade tomato jam. The steep hills surrounding the Quinta are dry and rocky, all terraced for the grapes. This is the best soil for Port grapes, they say. The roots grow deep to find water. There is not much rain here, which allows the grapes to become more concentrated: more sugars mean better quick-fermentation.
When I think of a place that I could one day call my own, a life self-sustained, it is in a scenic valley near the water saturated by all the most glorious smells in the known universe. It is a day started early, rising to the sounds of shears snipping bunches from the vine. The crunch of fig seeds in your mouth. A thousands birds gossiping in a hazelnut tree. Only one rooster off in the distance, not hundreds, and always at an appropriate time.
Skip ahead to Lisbon. It’s 3am in a smoky hookah bar. I’m sipping on ginjinha––cherry liqueur––listening to an old drunk man explain to a couple teenagers that we are all vegetables. “We are all cabbage,” he says. “I do not discriminate, a cabbage cut in half is a living being cut in half. It doesn’t matter if you are cabbage or rabbit, I have respect for all living things in the universe. You can be carrot, but as long as you are prepared correctly you will enjoy this life.” He laughs loud, proudly. “You see? We are all cabbages! Here, now, is the most important thing. Family, memory, history is the sea on which you sail. I sail on this!” He drinks from a wine glass.
“What is it?”
“Gin and tonic.”
Portugal is a wonderful place and I regret not spending more time there. There is a lot more than Porto, the Douro River, Lisbon. So many secret spots to find, menus to
translate. As far as the food was concerned, I was able to find some wonderful dishes but had to seek it out. In Porto grilled sea bass and bacalao was everywhere. Every corner in Lisbon smelled like grilled sardines, and more bacalao. And the roasted kid with potatoes from the wine country still permeates my clothing.
_moelos_ is pronounced mo-ÉL-osh
_ginjinha_ is pronounced jin-JIN-ña
More pictures and stories coming soon.
One of the first things I ate in Madrid were the albondigas from a little tapas bar down the street from our hostel. At first I thought it may have been some sort chicken mixed with pork. It tasted a bit like chicken parts too, hearts or liver, a distinct iron organ flavor. The sauce a chicken-like base, light and not too fatty, yellow, thickened with a bit of calabaza and potato. When I finally asked, they said it was ternera––veal. Delicious little baby cow meatballs with a sauce to soak up with stale bread. My first meal in Spain after a long sleepless flight was delicious, but it was only by accident.
When I’ve asked people about Madrid they don’t usually mention the food first, not like when you mention San Sebastían. I was in a touriste area in Madrid, but even as I sought out the local tapas bars I didn’t find anything incredible other than cheap wine (which was always delicious) and lots of nuts and olives. A cool bar in the Lavapies district called Virícola Mentridana was beautiful and rustic even though it was yet another bar serving tapas with more stale bread. The roasted pepper and goat cheese toast with caramelized onions was good and classic. At Casa de las Tostas, loosely translated as ‘house of toast’, a tosta of smoked salmon, roe and queso de burgos sounded amazing, yet proved utterly depressing. Same with the pistou manchego, fried egg and Iberico ham tosta––sounds mouthwatering, but the bread was stale, the egg mysteriously allowed to be both overcooked and cold. The ham was the only edible part.
Maybe I set my expectations a little too high. All said, everything consumed in Madrid, even if it was shit, was still pretty good. I’m looking for stuff I’ve never had before. Something I can honesty ask, “How the hell did they make that?”
The stress caused by travel––the sleepless zombie-like tours of museums, the heavy consumption of wine, and the culture shock of being in a big city in a new country––finally cured by finding a good spot with no name. A small bar in Tirso Molina: cheap wine, chicharrones, olives, a cazuela of provolone with sautéed onion and fresh tomato (kind of a fondue) with more bread, and a tosta of salty sardines, tomato, and lots of olive oil (anchoa en salazón).
Madrid was nice. This history and culture is what I was most fascinated by, plus the fact that you can buy a decent bottle of Rioja for 2,50 euro. After visiting the Museo del Prado I wanted to write a research paper. Humans are beautiful, talented, full of the potential to create amazing things. But they are also war-mongering, greedy, spiteful little parasites that destroy everything they touch. I recommend going to Prada, especially now during the El Greco exhibit. I don’t have the time, energy, or expertise to really get into it, but when you walk through and see masterpieces by the Spanish painters like Goya, Valázquez, El Greco, or Renaissance work by Caravaggio, Rafael, those guys, you can’t help but think how bizarre it is that they made this work for a bunch of lunatics. The 15th to late 19th century work on display is amazing. The amount of detail, love and care is unrivaled. The subject matter, however, is religious to a fanatical degree, and later idolizes the inbred monarchies. I’d like to go back and study more of this stuff. Especially Goya, and El Greco. This stuff is fascinating.
Now that I’m in Portugal and over the jetlag I’ve been able to find some good eats. I’ll write more about that after the next 48 hours in Lisbon. It’s only been a week but I feel like I’ve seen and done so much. Yesterday was the first day I’ve been able to really sit down and write. Three more weeks to go. More soon on Portugal, roasted kid, and my attempts to correctly pronounce obrigado.
I’ll be traveling for the next four weeks through Spain, Portugal, and a slice of France, devouring as much delicious food, history, and wine as I can. From some old lady’s cottage in Setúbal, to a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Sebastían, or La Boqueria in Barcelona, I will be writing, photographing, and posting about my travels on Papayathief.com. I’ve been neglecting this blog because I’ve either been too busy or uninspired. Now I don’t have an excuse. Keep in touch, tell your friends, subscribe for updates. Maybe when La Copa Llena reopens in November you can come over and try something new we picked up along the way.