Monday, February 13, 2012

New Orleans Trip #2: Weeping Over My Poultry

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I routed my flight via Miami specifically to eat at La Carreta in Terminal D. It's part of a local chain of Cuban coffee shops, and I spent an awful lot of time at the Coral Gables branch during the year I lived in Miami.

That was decades ago, and I haven't had great Cuban since. I've eaten decent Cuban in Union City, NJ, and indecent Cuban in Corona, Queens. But never the serious real thing. It's been eating at me...and I'll do the eating around here, thank you very much. Hence my 70 minute Miami layover. 

Is the La Carreta location in the airport as good as the ones in town? No.  Are the La Carretas in town the very best places for Cuban? No. But while I'd ordered modest, generic-seeming stuff - a quarter baked chicken with moros (black beans mixed into rice) and yuca with mojo, or garlic sauce, with tres leches cake for dessert -  I writhed in my seat and beat my breast. I nearly burst into tears at several points. Those around me must have figured I was listening to Wagnerian opera over my iPod.

You see, Cuban food has a soul, and it has nothing to do with Puerto Rican or Dominican soul. It is its own thing, immediately recognizable to those who know it. Even after  years. And, like all soul realms, if you do without for too long, it can be an emotional thing to fall back under its sway. And this sublime yet unexceptional lunch just totally nailed it.

How can food this simple and generic so specifically evoke a certain culture? It's not something that can be analyzed. If it were, jambalaya would be killer up in Vermont, and Albuquerque would be rife with great chowder. Olive Garden's fare would evoke Rome, and Chipotle Grill would take you straight to Mexico. The recipes are known. Culinary secrets don't respect state boundaries. But if the ju-ju were knowable and definable, billion dollar entities would be on top of it like gandules  on rice. 

Years ago, food lovers accounted for this by pointing out that it was impossible to find the right ingredients. Well, that situation has certainly changed. Yet you still will have a devilishly hard time finding a strong sense of Place in your food whenever you're very far from that place. Why is that? Who knows. It's like Von and his cookies: even those who succeed can't account for it. It can't be bottled, and it can't be faked. It's magic. 

Well, that and vinegar. I'd forgotten how much vinegar Cubans put in everything. 

Read the next installment (#3)


Anonymous said...

| and Chipotle Grill would take you straight to Mexico...

I was sitting in Dim Sum Go Go and at the next table was the founder-guy from Chipotle, I recognized him because he was on that reality TV show (circa "America's next restaurant") as a panel judge.

I pointed to him and said "hey, you're the guy" and he smiled and said, "yes! great dim sum, hey" and I said "yes" and he said "and you eat at Chipotle?" and I said "no" and he looked all shocked and sad and said "why?" and I said "because I'm in Manhattan, I can find actual Mexican restaurants" and he was really miffed, and my friend looked at me like I was crazy and I was all like "how come he gets to go to chinatown, and I'm supposed to go to Chipotle?"

Good Lord, "eat your own dog food" is an expression, it's supposed to be illustrative, not words to live by.

Steve said...

I have been going to La Careta for years, mostly the one on Bird Rd. The place is a goldmine, a huge location constantly packed with families. I went back in April. The flavors were correct but everything was served room temperature and the boliche had dried out a bit.

La Careta in Dadeland is completely South Americanized and does not resemble Cuban food.

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