How to heart New Orleans, a new P.G. eye catcher and quality Cuban.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
The reason I fell so in love might’ve been the “bounce dancing,” when women – and, amazingly, some men – move like there’s a grease fire on their asses and Louisiana hot sauce in their veins. But it might’ve been the big frosty schooner of Abita and perfectly crispy shrimp po’ boy, both Superdome-sized, that I pounced on within my first 10 minutes in town. Or the Magazine Street shave with seven rounds of hot towels chased by an Irish whiskey on the rocks. Or the swampy honks of horns that found our growing crew on seemingly every side of the city. Or the to-go cocktail cups.
Only it was none of these. The reason I fell for New Orleans: the people.
Their easy smiles and natural openness are why it feels natural to love something that smells vaguely of horse dung and sharply of corruption. Why it feels just right to sip turtle soup in a funky bar adjacent to the most murderous neighborhood in the country. Why you always feel surrounded by friends.
“Here value does not come from the size of your home,” new mayor Mitch Landrieu told 60 Minutes the night I got back home. “Value comes from people.”
It’s that spirit that makes rare resilience possible, albeit ongoing, as Weekly food contributor Ari LeVaux describes on the preceding page. “We know we have something special,” Cal Jones the cabbie told me, “so we really enjoy life.”
Death, he added, is always a celebration. Recovery is implicit. The next hurricane will be here in 40 years.
That cab driver, that bartender, that law student at the Spotted Cat jazz bar all laugh and spill tourist advice by instinct. New allegiances come so naturally there, it doesn’t feel like a surprise that the lively lady across the table at Emeril’s has a local culinary connection: Her dad owns and cooks at Cafe Stravaganza in Carmel’s Crossroads.
Though it starts and ends with the people, the journey through the Big Easy is littered on all sides with fly food and drink. At Emeril’s, the Warehouse District hub of andouille-crusted drum and savory smoked-salmon cheesecake, it was a bowl of nicely nuanced soft-shell crab steamed with Maine clams, white wine and garlic. With a hurricane, natch.
Just a few blocks away at Cochon, the much-buzzed joint from Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski (the latest NOLA name to pull down a James Beard Award, along with Emeril Legasse), it wasn’t the catfish courtbouillon and fried alligator, but the pork plates – “cochon,” after all, means “oink.” The Louisiana cochon with cabbage and cracklins might’ve been the most atmospheric oinker this pig lover’s touched since my first bite of bacon.
Then there was the seafood muffuletta po’ boy chomped along the Mississippi, after surviving overflow crowds at Johnny’s, and the rye whiskey-orange bitters “Ward” cocktail at not-to-be-missed up-and-comer Lilette, where every bite of braised veal cheek and white truffle-marrow toast threatened to blow my trembling tastebuds away.
Just the recollection has me sighing like a teenager in heat. I may not be the first or the last to fall desperately in love with the supremely seductive voodoo known as New Orleans, but that doesn’t make my love any less legitimate.
~•~ ~•~ ~•~
This is nothing like you’ve seen around here, he says. And he might be right. Only he’s not talking about the “eggplant tart” in front of me, though it totally qualifies, thanks to a mousse-like texture and lusciously earthy flavor.
No, longtime local and new restaurant owner Carl Alasko is talking about his restaurant-to-be at 110 Central Ave. in Pacific Grove, to which his gifted designer daughter has been giving the seven-days-a-week treatment. An elegant, photo-driven blog documents what we have to look forward to, thanks to her relentless chiseling, sanding and cementing together quilt-like tabletops crafted from the reused flooring of a 100-year-old brownstone in Brooklyn. (Find a link on the Food Blog, www.mcweekly.com/edible.) The effect is impressive, as is the eye she used to select other antiques on her cross-country U-Haul trip from New York for this five-month project.
Other pieces are already in place. Former tenants Homelighter left behind a truly massive fireplace. Though Carl has lived and worked here as an author and psychotherapist, he’ll play owner-manager, drawing from a decade in Rome, where he maintained an Indian restaurant with his wife, Anna (who’s Indian), and raised his daughter Saroja. In turn, Saroja – who grew up in the industry – tapped her pals at landmark Roman restaurant Maccheroni for kitchen clairvoyance, and owner/friend Luciano Flamini came through big with the tutorial services of Chef Lorenzo Panepinto.
“I’m not exactly a believer in universalist karma,” Carl says. “At the same time, I can’t avoid the reality that one thing after another came into place.”
The menu is honest-to-goodness affordable, something rare for P.G., though it means they aren’t necessarily sourcing as exactingly as they might. Some of Panepinto’s pasta dishes served at a private sneak preview Sunday at The Kitchen in Sand City – like the gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce; the flagship al vecchio vibrant with fresh tomato, black olive, chiles, garlic and parsley – are around $10-$11. The chicken cacciatore, grilled top-round steak and salmon are $12, $16 and $15, respectively. Doors are set to open Labor Day weekend.
~•~ ~•~ ~•~
It’s not often that I drive to San Jose for lunch. OK, never. Until last Friday.
I went because Gladys Parada and her Babaloo Cuban Food Truck (262-4150) are getting a much-deserved star turn on the Cooking Channel’s Eat Street. And because our food-truck scene could use a little gas.
While San Jose sun beat down on a Lexus sales lot like it was Castro’s Cuba, we grazed on Ricky Ricardos ($7) with pulled pork, Virginia ham and swiss, all juicy and melty between crusty Cuban bread; and Lucy Lucys with citrus salsa, Muenster, avocado and organic chicken – and described the deliciousness for the crew as eloquently as possible with half a sandwich wedged in the ol’ cheek. While we stuck to her trademark sandwiches and virgin strawberry mojitos, there were also plenty of Fred and Ethel fish sliders ($6) going down. She’s also slinging attractive new pressed sandwiches: a black-bean hummus, grilled veggies and avocado ($7); and a Key West sloppy joe with braised beef, onions, bell peppers and garlic sauteed in sherry ($7).
A couple of questions from the Eat Streeters: “Is Babaloo the first and only food truck in Monterey?” and “What happens next?”
My respective answers, in short: “Not if you count taco trucks, and since I can’t count cupcake trucks, it is the only foodie truck.” And, as Parada herself says, “The future is uncertain.” She could center more of her savory services around S.J. and Oakland’s larger crowds.
The future’s more certain for her cousin in mobile munchies, Pig Wizard. And it ain’t pretty. The powerhouse purveyor of handcrafted pork sausage recently acquired a food truck of his own and braved freezing road conditions to drive it from the Northwest, with duct tape covering some of the holes. Owner Jonathan Roberts was thinking it would complement his popular event and farmers market appearances.
Only now he tells me, “Pig Wizard is essentially belly up.” He was already struggling to make his business go, and it appears his food truck trials – including surviving some obnoxiously interfering rules from the county – mark the death-blow for his meat-tube magic carpet ride.
“The lunch truck I bought was a total disaster, the farmers market did little more than break even, and I couldn’t hold on any longer,” Roberts writes in an email. “So now I’m a hired knife to get out of the hole that I dug for myself. I thought that in the course of a couple of years I would find a way to get the investment I need to make a living at this, but it has not worked out that way.”
It may be a bummer not having his orange poppy chicken or spicy Italian around, but the good news is, the odyssey is not over yet. He’s heading to Portugal and Spain in pursuit of higher pork prophecies and the makings of a cookbook before it’s all said and done.
“Obviously, lots of pork traditions are there for me to continue to learn about my passion,” he says. “But I’m also going to begin working on a book of comparative butchery styles.”
Back to Babaloo. The show airs some time in September. I’ll keep you posted.
~•~ ~•~ ~•~
Speaking of things with uncertain futures, let’s talk oceans. The deadline to get in on an inspired seafood idea is this Friday, Aug. 5. Local Catch Monterey is gathering potential participants for a community supported fishery – think CSA of the sea, in which people pay for shares of a catch-to-come and collect each week or so. “It makes sense,” says pointman Oren Frey. “People get a good price, and fishermen get a predictable demand, week to week.” Sign up at www.localcatchmonterey.com… Roberto Maceira of Carmel Plaza’s Tommy Bahama (620-0302) says they’ve got more than iconic “tropical lifestyle” fashion going on right about now. They are looking for a “rumologist.” Find ’em on Facebook to submit a video – the winner nabs $50,000… Team Morgan and Chef Todd Fisher battle for the title of Best Ribs noon-3pm Sunday, Aug. 7, at Taste Morgan in the Crossroads Carmel: $10 ($5 for wine clubbers) includes a tasting flight of five wines, ribs and other nibbles… “The way to cook a coon,” Jones the NOLA cabbie quipped, “is to smother it, and add lots of sweet potatoes to get out the gamey flavor.”