Saturday, November 10, 2007
Fried Yucca with Cheez Whiz in Florida
Having lived in South America as a teenager and heard my share of hype about Miami, it was with some anticipation and trepidation that I made my first trip to that much-glamorized part of South Florida. The food reflected the diverse Latin American groups living there and the verdict from a small sampling is that while I appreciated learning about different food cultures, I was not blown away. I will highlight select items that were very good.
The weather was a refreshing departure from Los Angeles -- humid, toasty and unusually windy due to a slight encounter with Tropical Storm Noel that thankfully ended at that for Florida. The atmosphere was pure Latin America -- palm trees lining residential areas, everyone in the streets or restaurants conversing in Spanish and at the risk of offending some, women tended to wear more makeup, have bigger hair and sport tighter clothes.
One amusing trend was the proliferation of restaurants serving "sushi-Thai," or "sushi-Thai-Chinese," presumably because there isn't enough demand for any one of these cuisines by themselves. To be fair, some Floridians may wince at restaurants in L.A. serving "Carribean" or "Latin American." I didn't see much of that out there. It was either Peruvian, Venezuelan or Haitian, among others. A more disturbing trend was that everything was overpriced unless you had a local take you to a local eatery on the outskirts of Miami. That's what we did thanks to our friends living in Ft. Lauderdale.
Our first foray was Borinqueya Restaurant, a Puerto Rican joint in Davie that used to be owned by a Puerto Rican-Dominican guy (hence the name, which means Puerto Rican and Dominican). I tried one of the country's staple dishes, Mofongo (left), fried and mashed green plantain seasoned with garlic and other seasonings. It was good but a tad dry and dense. The Carne guisado con yuca al mojo y arroz con gandules (first photo, top) was a heartwarming bowl of braised beef accompanied by garlicky yucca seasoned with herbs that had been boiled and a tower of rice with pigeon peas.
I was craving something hearty and got the Pernil de cerdo al horno, roasted pork leg with fried plantains and a small bowl of very good black beans. I loved the plantains (hard to mess up) and beans, but was disappointed at the pork's unpleasant too-porky smell and not-too-tenderness. I was hoping the meat would be melt at first bite, but alas, not only was the texture off, the dish was served lukewarm to cold. Call me harsh or high maintenance, but this is one of my biggest pet peeves in restaurants. Even if other dishes from the table aren't ready, we should get the dishes as they become ready. The wait staff was very friendly, though.
Next stop: Cabo Blanco, a Peruvian place tucked away in a Ft. Lauderdale mini mall. The highlight was Yuca a la Huancaina, fried yucca with a cheesy sauce resembling a much more complex and sophisticated sibling of Cheez Whiz. The sauce is made out of lowfat cheese and yellow pepper, and was the best thing on the menu. This being a Peruvian establishment, we had to try the Ceviche mixto, an eclectic mix of raw seafood including sea bass, squid, octopus and shrimp cooked slightly with lemon juice and other spices. It was refreshing and the thinly sliced red onions added a nice crunch. The national dish (or most popular/well-known dish), Lomo saltado, chunks of beef stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, served on a bed of french fries with rice on the side, was not great. The beef was tough and the french fries unremarkable. We're still looking for a good rendition of this dish in LA. We've been to Mario's Peruvian and Los Balcones del Peru, to no avail.
What I considered the most exotic was Nirvana, the Trinidad and Tobagoan restaurant that got rave reviews from the local L.A. Weekly equivalent, New Times. The chef is a fourth-generation Indian-Trinidad and Tobagoan, and infuses Indian influences into the native cuisine of the Carribean country northeast of Venezuela. Thanks to a brief power outage that nearly left us hungry and irritable, we had the best item on the menu (we were initially told this was the only thing they could serve us after the outage since the cooks had cleaned out the kitchen to go home) -- the curried squash soup.
The deep, sweet squash flavor permeated throughout the hearty soup, but the star was the topping that included sauteed shallots, garlic and zucchini, with chopped tomatoes that tasted like they had been pickled to add a tangy flavor that complemented the curried squash broth very nicely. Other fusion attempts sounded better on paper, including plantain-crusted crab cake served with avocado, goat cheese and organic greens with honey bell mango cream aioli; and flounder stuffed with crab meat and goat cheese served over lentil bean rice with vegetables, topped with an orange guava aioli, to name a few.
I later asked the chef what was up with all the goat cheese and he said it was a twist on the islanders' love of goat meat, whether mixed into curries or stews. Fair enough. I am rather neutral on goat cheese and perhaps not surprisingly did not love the crab cake or the flounder. There was simply too much going on with both the strong-flavored goat cheese competing with the crab meat in the flounder, aggravated by the soggy, flavorless rice that accompanied it. The sweet aioli didn't do much to enhance the flavor of the flounder or the rice. Maybe I'm more of a savory person than sweet, but the flavors and textures simply didn't jive for me. The house salad that came with entrees was a pleasant surprise -- a mix of greens topped with pickled apples, carrots, red bell peppers and cucumbers.
I'm glad I tried it but not sure if I would return. Entrees were in the low-to-mid-20s range.
You may ask why I didn't have Cuban food. It didn't seem as different (maybe too obvious of a choice) and mostly circumstantial. I would like to have tried Venezuelan in Weston and Haitian in Little Haiti as well but not being a professional food critic who has the time or budget to have ten meals plus a day, I present you the best of what I did try. The first two restaurants don't have Web sites.
The Shops at Stirling Place
6875 Stirling Road
Davie, FL 33314
Cabo Blanco (Multiple locations)
948 NE 62nd Street
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33334
1701 North Congress Avenue
Boynton Beach, FL 33426