A week ago, a dinner was organized by Kim of local food bloggers who might want to learn more about Latin American food. I was all over this idea given that I have family who lives in Panama, and am always interested in meeting like-minded food lovers 🙂
In addition to Kim – Mijune, Anita, Degan, Jessica & Mark also gathered at this little restaurant that is located in a very residential area near the Burnaby General Hospital (bewarned – metered parking in effect 24-hours, so bring coin!) I was the first one there, but soon saw the other cars pull up. The mass of us took over the table by the front window.
The restaurant is brightly painted with a few small tables for dine-in service, but there’s obviously a good take-out clientele what with the sandwich menu and cold case (hence the “deli”). It got quite busy at a point during the evening – not bad for a neighbourhood restaurant.
We were given menus, which, we realized had pages presented in different order from each other – this made things a little confusing. The front cover lists Victor Arnao, who I believe was our host that night. He was a lively man with a great big personality. He was very patient with our picture-taking and chatted up Kim in Spanish so fast I barely could catch a single word between the two. He recommended a few dishes, most of which we selected, but left the ordering to Kim.
The first two things to hit the table were the hot sauce (above) and fried cassava sticks. The sauce was indeed hot with a lot of front-of-the-mouth tingle and a little green chile flavour. The cassava fries (Yuquitas) were served hot and slightly crispy, and tasted not unlike potatoes, but denser and a little sweeter.
The first real appetizer came – two tamals:
Wrapped and boiled (or steamed?) in a banana leaf, the cornmeal dough was quite fine in texture and tasted good, but the filling (which was supposed to include chicken, egg and olives) was almost completely absent. There may have been one tiny piece of chicken, but none of the other ingredients. Note the red onion garnish – this was tasty, as it was marinated in some kind of vinegar, but like “Where’s Waldo” see how many more times it appears…
Next up: Anticuchos! This drew our attention because this meat is beef heart that has been sliced and barbecued then topped with a spicy sauce. This was very good – the meat was rich and chewy, but in a good way. The fact that it is cooked well-done obviously contributed to the chewiness, but also the source of the meat. I didn’t care for the boiled potatoes and the corn – they weren’t seasoned and were served lukewarm.
The next dish was Ceviche Mixto – a marinated mixed seafood (shrimp, squid, muscles, and some fish) “cooked” in lemon juice, served with that reoccurring red onion relish, more corn and a big piece of boiled sweet potato – all served cold. I have never really had ceviche before, and I was pleasantly surprised by the texture of the seafood (“cooked” but still tender) and the pallet-opening effect of the sour vinaigrette. I actually liked this cold potato – it was alright cold as the rest of the dish was cold too.
What do you see? More red onion relish! On this particular dish, Jalea mixta, the relish worked well – adding a sour/fresh contrast to the deep fried fish, shrimp, squid and cassava pieces. I also found that the tomato helped cut through the fried textures. This also was a good item in my books, and where I personally would spend my “fatty points” if trying to restrict oneself.
At around this point, Victor decided to turn on the TV, which faced the dining area, to a crazy Brazillian variety show. Scantily-dressed women and men were showing off dance moves, and being VERY loud. This was a strange choice, and definitely disruptive. It was hard to look away – and things just got weirder on the show (later turning into a skit comedy series with appearances by leprechauns, the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” masked guy, and witches – I kid you not) – perhaps this was foreshadowing for what was coming next?
Next up, Picada criolla. This was the heaviest dish of the night with two large sausages (one more traditional pork one, and another without casing and significantly made up of grains of some sort (ground rice?) – someone mentioned this one might be a blood sausage, but I don’t think so… Anyhow, this sausage was fried (probably deep fried) as its had that crazy frazzled crispy texture. There were pieces of pork in there (you can see 1 small rib in the picture above), and some pork rind/belly which were deep fried very thoroughly (killing the succulent texture you normally get in braised or BBQ’d versions). There were also small pieces of potato and more fried cassava, and also some chunks of fried plantain. The veggies were all on the bottom, and ended up absorbing a lot of the oil from the meats. The pale half-moon item in the dish was an Arepa – a corn bread – which also soaked up oil. This whole dish was really heavy. I know that pork is an important, if not primary meat in Latin America, but I didn’t feel this dish served to showcase all the delicious preparations.
This scary deep-fried fish, “Mojarra” was probably a tilapia. Unlike my dining companions, I didn’t find this fish too “fishy”, but perhaps I was lucky to get the better-quality front part of a filet. The fish was served on pancakes made of green plantains (also deep fried) which I passed on as they were clearly absorbing more of the fish’ fry oil. A simple salad of lettuce, tomato and avocado (with minimal dressing) was served on the side, and, something I liked a lot: coconut rice. The rice was very different than Thai coconut rice – with grains being more distinct and the coconut taking on a nice buttery flavour. The rice was definitely the star of the dish to me, the fish was, in my opinion, not treated with much respect in this particular preparation 😦
Included as a “bonus” we were given Mazamorra Morada. This is a jam-like dessert that is made of many fruits and veggies (though no asparagus – the owner was clearly pulling our collective legs). It was okay flavour-wise, but honestly, I felt that the serving was not in line with the group we had (both in quantity of the desert and given how much we ordered otherwise): if you’re going to do dessert, a tiny ramekin with 7 plastic spoons isn’t how to serve a group of food bloggers…
Thank goodness, a backup plan was provided unbeknownst to us! Sherman dropped by for a quick hello, and surreptitiously dropped off, not one, but TWO boxes of Top Pot donuts fresh from Seattle.
Having only had Top Pot at Starbucks (and clearly they are shipped from some giant bakery and brought back from some cryogenic state outside of the fryer-free Starbucks) this was a real treat. The assortment of donuts put me in a giddy state: each one of these donuts was huge – at least 50% bigger than Tim Hortons donuts, and slightly denser than their yeast donuts. The girls crowded around the box and picked apart half the box sampling pieces and trying as many things as possible. I got to take home an old-fashioned sugar donut which was very good (and a nice change as it was a yeast-based donut and not cake-based like Timmys). The maple dip one that I also tried was very icing-rich, so I do prefer Tim’s to Top Pots here.
So – closing thoughts? I did enjoy the dinner – probably more because I got to try new things and meet new people… I found the food, especially the later dishes, very heavy, but quite enjoyed our lighter “appetizers”. Victor was very nice and meant well, but I felt like things really started slipping at the end of the meal (food wise, service wise, crazy-TV wise), but I’d give them another shot – probably for a lunch-time sandwich (and if that TV is on – definitely “to go”!)