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.

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