Where in the world is Chef Boy Ari? 

Chef Boy Ari here, reporting from the road. For the next few weeks I will be your foreign food correspondent, e-mailing culinary morsels from strange and exotic locations. The ultimate destination of my gastronomic odyssey is Cuba. But before I can arrive on the fabled shores of America’s favorite enemy, I must traverse an adventurous gauntlet through another strange and exotic land: South Florida. I’m here for a few days to visit my dear Aunt Ida before I rendevous with my crew and head to Cuba. This is a land of wide streets, golf courses, jewelry stores and plastic surgeons. The natives live in planned communities, which stretch to the horizon like so many amber waves of Midwestern grain. Outside their whitewashed walls, ripe citrus fruit falls from the trees, unpicked. The natives evidently prefer to buy their oranges and grapefruits four for a dollar at the supermarket.

While at first glance South Florida’s stifling veneer of leisure purgatory might be enough to cure even the worst case of insomnia, I have been able to detect a spicy lining. For me, South Florida is a stop along the way, but for many this is a destination unto itself. I’m not talking about the pale Northerners who come here to escape the cold. I’m talking about the darker breeds from farther south whose influx has earned Miami the title of “Capital of Latin America.” These immigrants have brought their hometown flavors with them.

I was perusing a nearby flea market (located in a mall, like everything else in South Florida), looking for a double-pimp shirt to wear when we meet with President Castro, when I felt that familiar longing in my belly. My belly, also known as El Jefe, was waking up, and he wanted attention.

I know better than to ignore El Jefe, so I wandered outside of the flea market to see what this mall had to offer. Hmm, let’s see. Arby’s, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, a juice bar inside the tanning salon. Wait a minute…why is there a tanning salon in South Florida? El Jefe began to grumble, unconcerned with such esoteric speculations. What’s it going to be? Roadside Grill? TCBY? Chinese buffet?

Then I looked across the street into another mall. I could barely make out the sign above the small store: “Punto Criollo.” El Jefe and I crossed the street, full of hope.

It was a Venezuelan restaurant with many mysterious items on the menu, such as hallepas, tamale-esque stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed in corn leaves. The waitress winked at me when she passed my table. I made a note-to-self that she deserved a big tip, and then I ordered an empanada, which is a flour shell filled with stuff (in this case, black beans, plantain, beef and cheese) and then deep-fried. The ambiance inside the restaurant was lively, and by the end of my empanada I had met many of the customers and staff. They invited me to return the next day, which was New Year’s Day, and have a bowl of a special Venezuelan soup whose name translates as “hangover soup.” On my way back to Auntie Ida’s condo village, I passed another mall. This one contained a small store with a sign that said “Caribbean Market.” I decided to pop in and get a mango juice. A man greeted me and found me a mango juice. It seemed like a pretty cool place, so I decided to poke around a bit, at which point I noticed a bottle that said Magnum Irish Moss. “What’s Irish Moss?” I asked him.

Another shopper, a big woman with a teenage daughter in tow, walked up to me and pointed to my private parts. “Irish Moss,” she said. “Hit will give ya power down der. Hit will make ya strong heverwhere, butta specially down der.” I said, “Thanks for your concern. I think I’m OK down der.”

“Have ya hever sampled a Jamaican lady?” she asked. “Ya need lots of power for dat, mon.”

“Ya mon,” said the man.

“OK mon,” I said. “Me gwon take da Irish Moss and see wha happm.” And that’s the story of how Chef Boy Ari found the hidden flavor of South Florida. Tune in next week for the results of the Irish Moss, as well as the first of a three-part series on the food and agriculture of Cuba.

On a more local note…one announcement before I go: Anybody who has dined at the Steelhead Grill, Marianne’s at the Wilma, or Finn and Porter has been fed by Chef Charles Davidson (who, unlike Chef Boy Ari, is a real chef). Charles opened all three of those restaurants, working as executive chef at Finn and Porter until a recent and unexpected emergency heart surgery. He is recovering nicely, but the bill is huge. Donations are gratefully accepted, and there will be a benefit at the Ritz on Jan. 25, with local bands playing. Hasta Mojitos.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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