Sunday, May 20, 2012

Restaurant Quality

Two summers ago, I pondered my return home to California after spending three months in South Africa. I definitely looked forward to the reunion with my family and friends, but I found myself anticipating the return to Bay Area cuisine just as much. This time around I’ve been out of the country for almost a year—the longest stretch ever for me—and once again, I find myself missing taste of home as much as I miss the people.

Next month I will get to spend a week in Oakland before relocating to Colombia for a year. As I count down the days I have left here in Cape Verde, I’ve started to form a plan of attack, that will hopefully allow me to stuff my face with all my favorite foods that I have not had, and will not have access to once I leave again. Fortunately, I can work from the list of my Favorite Bay Area Eat-Spots in the Bay Area that I created during my last days in South Africa. 

So, that leaves me free to stay present while I still have time left here. To put it diplomatically, the food here is not what I like most about Cape Verde. That being said, there is quality once you know where to look. In that spirit, I thought now would be a good time to tip my hat to the places that have kept me well-fed during my time in São Vicente. So, here goes...

Drew’s Favorite Eat-Spots... The São Vicente Edition

This low-profile restaurant has an extensive menu: cachupa with an egg or cachupa with a fried fish. Fortunately, they are damn good at their specialty. There’s been more than one week when I’ve eaten lunch there five days in a row, no sweat.

LE FLOSTEL - Best Pizza & Chawarma!
Unfortunately, this place always seems to be closed when you need it most. But, if you get the schedule down you will be pleased with the quality and selection of over twenty different pizzas. Just remember that in kriolu, “salsicha” does not mean “tasty sausage,” it means “hot dog in a can” (for more information, please read “Commitment and Canned Meat,” 12/17/12)

It wouldn’t be fair to have a “Best Chinese Food” category, because there’s only one spot here on São Vicente. I will say that our Chinese restaurant exposes the two in Praia as the sorry excuses for restaurants that they actually are. I’m sorry, that’s just the truth. With superb dumplings at 10 escudos-a-pop,* Restaurante China offers the best value in town (not counting cachupa plates). While there’s no live music at this place, the “interesting” chinese-to-kriolu-to-english translations found in the menu provide hours of entertainment for the whole family.

SANTO ANDRE BAR & BISTRO - Best Place to Eat When Money's Not An Issue
The problem with a lot of Cape Verdean restaurants is that there is often little-to-no correlation between the price and the quality. Fortunately, Santo Andre sets the bar high, then exceeds it. I’ve only eaten there once, but it will be a long time before I forget the taste of the leitão and caipirinhas.

LA BODEGUITA DE MINDELO - Best Quality, Ambiance & Mojitos
Bodeguita is a great place for so many reasons. The mojitos tend be the reason you go, but once you’re there be prepared to sample some top-notch cuisine from around the world. Spanish Tortillas... Yassa au Poulet... Bruschetta... Espetada... Crêpes... this place truly lives up to Mindelo’s reputation as an international city, with an owner from Martinique and a chef from Togo. Sometimes it’s a little dissonant: like when they hang pictures of Che Guevara and Gandhi next to each other on the wall. But for the most part the results are an awesome cultural blend. Bodeguita gets major bonus points for ambiance, with a low ceiling that actually makes the place feel cozier, and sharpie-graffiti covered walls... not to mention the random instruments laying around that may be—and sometimes are—played by the clientele.

Before I go further, I want to clarify the title of the post. “Restaurant Quality” is one of my favorite sayings, and if you've spent some time with me, you’ve probably heard me throw it out there at least once. The term was originally used to refer to a home-cooked meal that was good enough to be served at a restaurant. Not surprisingly, the most memorable dining experiences I have in São Vicente have not been at restaurants. Therefore, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on some of the truly restaurant quality meals we’ve shared in our own kitchens.

Christening the Kitchen

After nine weeks without cooking for ourselves during training, we went a little nuts in the kitchen of our new apartment...

Thanksgiving Dinner(s)

Festival of M.E.A.T. - Fried Chicken smothered with Beef Gravy served on a bed of Non-Vegetarian Chili 
The Festival of M.E.A.T. (Mean Eating Animals Together) is the culminating event at the end of Brovember. At this feast, each dish must contain at least two types of meat, utensils are banned, shirts are optional (discouraged), and flatulence is celebrated. Brovember should not be confused with Ramen-Dan, when Peace Corps volunteers may only eat packaged dehydrated noodles for an entire month. Ramen-Dan can and does occur during any month of the year when you blow your living allowance on good or bad things other than groceries.

Jesse’s Falafel

Gracie’s Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Cinco de Mayo

Sushi & Gyoza Night
Despite my addiction to it, I had never taken on the challenge making sushi myself. Fortunately, I get by with a little help from my friends. Adriana came up HUGE with an overseas care-package with nori, wasabi, and a sushi-rolling mat. Jesse, who spent several years living in Japan, assumed the role as my sensei, and we were ready to roll. Despite lacking some of the so-called "essential" ingredients (short-grain rice, mirin, rice vinegar, etc). the results left us feeling pretty good about ourselves. Plus, we were stuffed, which I find hard to do in a sushi restaurant without breaking the bank. In typical family-dinner potluck style, our friends kicked in some homemade gyoza and a carrot-ginger salad.

Adam & Jen’s Visit
Hands down, the best meal I’ve had in the last year was spearheaded by our most recent house guests, Adam and Jen.** Legend of Adam’s skills in the kitchen had already spread across the islands and beyond, but after finally getting a taste first hand, all I can say is... the boy can burn.*** Adam and Jen were visiting from the island of Santiago, which gave us excuse to convene another family dinner. The menu: fish tacos and roasted bell peppers stuffed with black beans. The results: food porn.

Until the next meal...

Pura Vida,
*10 escudos equals about 12 cents. I typically go in for a plate of twenty dumplings for about $2.50 US... at least three times a week.

**After a brief count, I’ve established that during our eight months in São Vicente, Rory and I have had twenty-one overnight house guests, visiting from other islands or countries. Pretty much all of them have been restaurant quality. Thank you to all of you for the visits and for the good times.

***That is a good thing. Rough translation: he gets down in the kitchen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I Got 5 On It

This week the magic number is five. Unfortunately, there is no way I will be able to visit all ten islands of Cape Verde before I leave, which was part of my original master plan. I’m more than a little jealous because my friend, Rob, just came north from Praia and took a day trip to the uninhabited island of Santa Luzia to complete the cycle. My only consolation is that it took him almost four years to pull it off, while I’ve only been here for nine months and change.The good news is that after a great vacation last week, I can say that I’ve visited half of them. Islands number four and five for me were Fogo and Brava, and like each island in this country, they both brought their own flavor and fun to the party.

After a three-day conference in Praia, I headed to the airport early Thursday morning for the start of a loooooong weekend with a few friends who would eventually be renamed “Drew’s Angels.” They were great company the whole way through, but some of them aren’t exactly morning people.* (see picture below)

In typical Peace Corps fashion, we approached our vacation with the same flexibility that has kept us narrowly sane over the past few months. The last minute planning got off to a great start when my phone rang just before take-off. It was my friend, Ronise, calling to tell me that she was actually going to be on my flight to Fogo. I was little confused because, like I said, I was already buckled in with my tray-table stowed. But she was for real, and I few minutes later, I saw her climb on board, bags in hand, to settle into the last remaining seat. Only in Cape Verde... if I remember correctly, the flight attendants were actually standing up and walking around during take off on the way here from Boston.

Our fluid plans stayed fluid, even after we landed. Taking it one step at a time, we asked the taxi driver to take us to a place with cachupa for a start. I was set on heading straight to Brava that night, after finding out that a family friend has a pensão on the northwest coast of the island.** I did some lightweight lobbying of the other folks to come along with me, and after a few short hours at the travel agency, we had four roundtrip ferry tickets in hand.***

It’s tempting to try to share every step of my vacation, but that would probably be more interesting to write than it would be to read. By now I hope you appreciate that I try not to let this blog devolve into a list of “and then I did this, and then I did that.” So, as a compromise, I will to share one highlight from each day of the trip. Here goes:

Thursday, May 24 - Praia / Fogo / Brava
The best part about our first day of vacation was killing time in São Filipe until our boat left for Brava later that night. This involved a long breakfast, lugging our bags down to the black-sand beach to bake and chill, then settling in at a nearby restaurant for a few more hours of serra, drinks, and zouk lessons (thank you, Ronise).

Friday, May 25 - Faja d’Agua & Nova Sintra, Brava
After spending our first night at Pensão Sol na Baia, we woke up refreshed and ready to explore Faja d'Agua. No contest, the highlight of Friday was our visit to the piscina, or natural pools that are formed by the tides on the coast of Faja. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here goes a thousand pictures...

Saturday, May 26th - Nova Sintra, Brava, São Filipe & Cha das Caldeiras, Fogo
On Saturday morning we braved the waters back to Fogo, then piled in a hiace to head for the center of the island. Cha das Caldeiras is known for two things: the volcano, and the wine that is made from the vineyards at the volcano's base. We decided the tackle the latter challenge on the first day, which brings us to our highlight of Saturday: manecon and music at Casa Ramiro’s. When we left at 10pm, after hours of dancing and “wine-tasting,” it felt more like 1am. Luckily, it wasn’t, because tomorrow would not be easy.

Sunday, May 27th - Chas das Caldeiras & São Filipe, Fogo
Bright and early, we headed for the volcano to find out what we were made of. I had been told that the summit is the quietest place on earth, and I was not disappointed. I took the animal-style approach on the way up, then took advantage of the spare time to take a nap on top of the world. The way up was the kind of fun that hurts... the way down was just plain fun.

Monday, May 28th - São Filipe, Fogo
Our visit to Fogo coincided with the annual “Festa São Filipe” music festival. The music was cool, but it ranked a distant second place to the good old fashioned company that we shared with friends on our last night in town. Four other volunteers from other parts of the island joined us, along with folks from Fogo and the Philippines. Thank you, Emma, for putting us up, and for putting up with us for one more night! Good times...

Pura Vida,


* Fortunately, I was prepared for Averie’s morning side-eye. During our nine-week training, we lived in the same village and had language classes everyday at 8am. So you could say that I knew not to trifle with her before her first cup of coffee. For more on the side-eye, click here.

** Sol Na Baia is owned by Jose Andrade, a Cape Verdean painter. The entire place was decked out with his completed works, as well as a few in progress.

*** It took longer to buy the tickets than it did to actually travel from Fogo to Brava.