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Street Food

Cubano sandwich and tostones

[From Paladar Cubano website, courtesy of Nancy Leson, Seattle Times]

I had intended to write about a post by Joshua Hersh that appeared on the New Yorker blog two weeks ago, the day before I headed to the east coast. It was so much more interesting than anything I ever write about food. In it, Hersh wrote about his experiences eating fahsa during his recent travels in Yemen. Fahsa, Hersh explains,

is principally a lamb stew, braised with spices in a giant vat and then finished in a super-heated stone pot. The secret ingredient is fenugreek, a stalky herb that has become a popular supplement among nursing mothers, due to claims that it has breast-milk-enhancing properties. Fahsa is finished with an airy green sauce, a frothy leek-cilantro mixture—an ancient precursor to the “culinary foams” whipped up by the likes of Ferran Adria.

I ate the fahsa with a couple of Yemeni friends, sitting at a table outdoors. We dipped pieces of flatbread into shared stone pots, pausing only to pour in extra broth brought by a waiter. Soon the table was a mess of breadcrumbs, splashes of broth, and bits of lamb. It tasted phenomenal, a rich salty-sweetness that one expects only in dishes that contain sausage.

It was perhaps the most delicious thing I ate in Yemen, despite having all the visual appeal of canned cat food.

Hersh’s description of the Yemeni dining experience is also interesting: “Inside the fahsa joint, men crowded around low, communal tables in a large room that doubled as the kitchen. A frenzy of waiters ran across counters as if they were catwalks, throwing around scalding stone pots. The chefs peered into vats and fry pans, over massive gas burners. Most food I ate in Yemen was prepared in restaurants that specialize in a single dish, cooked rapidly over a fire so powerful that the roar of the gas made it impossible to hear anything else.”

Last week, Joel and I had our own street food experience, prompted by the cover story eight days ago in the Seattle Times’ Sunday supplement, Pacific Northwest magazine. In the article, former Seattle Times reporter Hugo Kugiya recounts his restaurant discoveries since returning to Seattle after spending a few years in New York. In his search, he was looking “for traditional food, borrowed from other places and transplanted here. The food did not have to be elaborate, but it had to somehow make me see this place fresh, as a stranger might.”

Kugiya is disappointed by the Cuban sandwiches at a restaurant called Paseo, but then finds Paladar Cubano.

Seattle, a forward-looking city in a New World country, serves plenty of well-prepared, creative food, but not very much traditional food. Here, most traditions have to be imported, then somehow nurtured without the benefit of large numbers, sometimes in a Chevy panel truck parked on a gravel lot.

That is where, 50 blocks north of Paseo, Pedro Vargas, a drummer raised in Bahia Honda, Cuba, serves the real Cuban sandwich. He came to Seattle years ago to perform at Jazz Alley, staying because he fell in love with a local woman. His truck, Paladar Cubano, parked at North 90th Street and Aurora Avenue North, offers just two entrees, roast pork and ropa vieja (shredded beef), both served with Moros y Cristianos (rice and black beans). The menu lists two other side dishes, tostones (fried mashed plantains) and fried yuca.

A little more research led me to an enthusiastic review of Paladar Cubano last August by Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson. The menu at Paladar Cubano’s website is much more extensive than the two entrees Kugiya mentioned, but Leson also highlighted the cubano sandwich, so that’s what Joel and I headed up there for last Wednesday afternoon.

The cubano is ham, cheese, roast pork, pickles, mustard on cuban bread. We each ordered one, supplemented by two side orders, the tostones (fried green plantains) and the maduros (fried sweet plantains). Plus, Joel ordered a can of Ironbeer. There were just a few people ahead of us, but they had at least a ten-minute wait, after which we waited another 7 or 8 minutes. And the threesome and twosome who came after us didn’t order until we got our food. It’s clearly a slow process, each sandwich cooked to order, and our order plus the orders just before us fully occupied the man and woman in the truck for nearly 20 minutes.

I’m pleased to say that the wait was worth it. The sandwiches were excellent, thanks in large part to the first-rate meat and bread. I would happily eat there regularly if they were in our neighborhood. The tostones were excellent too, but the maduros might have been a bit too much. They are so sweet that they function more as a dessert than a side dish, and we were way too full to require dessert when the time came.

We’ll be back. With Gail next time.

Categories: Food, Restaurants
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