TO MERCADO, TO MERCADO In Santa Clara, Quito

Avocado and lime seller lady outside Santa Clara mercado in QuitoCutting the meat off the pig photo by amyblogschow.comJugos sellersJenna and tree tomato jugoSausages at the Santa Clara mercado in QuitoSanta Clara Mercado vender selling ox stomachTHE DAY AFTER I ARRIVED IN ECUADOR, Jenna and the Jet Set Zero guys suggested lunch at Santa Clara Mercado, an open-air food market located around the corner from where the cast lives on a bustling commercial street.

Inside the mercado, juice sellers stand behind plastic vats of jugos while hot food sellers do a brisk lunch trade. Toward the back of the cavernous building, produce sellers watch over towering stacks of fruit and vegetable-filled boxes. Upstairs, seafood sellers, poultry purveyors, and butchers share the floor.

My group and I weaved through the market, passing whole roasted pigs on display to lure hungry passersby away from neighbors selling similar plates. Piece by piece, crispy-skinned porkers are diminished with each $3 lunch order. We finally stopped at one of these counters for a meal and chatted with the owner who told us his family has owned and operated that spot in the market for 55 years.

I’ve since made several more trips to Santa Maria mercado and each time still leaves me marveling at the Ecuadorians’ economy. How does the old lady sitting on the box by the entrance make a living by selling avocados for 25 cents a piece?

A few feet away from her, a small indigenous woman touts slippery cut-up pieces of ox stomach from a bucket. With so much to see, Santa Clara market is a feast for the eyes, so long as you don’t mind the sight of gloveless hands, ox organs, pigs feet. amy june 25, 2010

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June 25, 2010. Tags: , , , . markets, South America. 1 comment.

Looks Like Chicken, TASTES LIKE GUINEA PIG

Jenna Eating Guinea Pig at La MirageLa Mirage floral screenI’VE BECOME SOMEWHAT OBSESSED WITH FINDING GUINEA PIG aka cuy (sounds like coo-ee) since I arrived in Quito last week to see Jenna Meister and collaborate with Jet Set Zero. I soon learned, however, that cuy is a regional Ecuadorian food that, contrary to popular belief, is not native to Quito. To find traditional cuy sold by street vendors, I’ll need to venture two hours north of Quito to a town called Ibarra. There, I’m told skewered guinea pigs are roasted over fire pits (with head, teeth, claws, feet…) in the street.

Knowing that, Jenna and I were surprised to find cuy on the menu at the restaurant of luxury Relais & Chateaux hotel La Mirage when we stopped in on Monday. The hotel owner recommended the dish, reassuring us that the delicacy is specially prepared to suit “their type of clientele”, which basically means that all rodent-like features are removed toCrispy Cuy at La Mirage photo by Amy Cao accommodate squeamish eaters.

We ordered one guinea pig to share and gaped as the plate of fried thighs and rib arrived topped with paper wrappers, like frilly hats, to protect fingers from greasy ends where guinea pig feet used to be. The owner compared the taste of guinea pig to chicken, but I think a better comparison would be really lean duck with salty fried skin and sinewy, dark meat.

For $20 – roughly equivalent to twelve set lunches at an average Quito cafe – I sampled an upmarket version of a downscale dish. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my first, overly salty guinea pig eating experience though. Some might consider the cuy mission accomplished, but when the catch is handed over on a plate with the scary bits removed, it just doesn’t feel like a goal achieved.

Thus, one overpriced guinea pig-in-disguise down; one whole roasted beast yet to go. amy june 24, 2010

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June 24, 2010. Tags: , , , , , . South America, Travel. 2 comments.

DEVOURING QUITO With Jet Set Zero

Lunch in La Floresta, QuitoCeviche de Camaron in La Floresta, QuitoAlmuerzo in La Floresta, QuitoJet Set Zero in Quito having lunchKid playing in the restaurant while JSZ lunches in La FlorestaI LAST SAW JENNA MEISTER TWO YEARS AGO when we convened in South America for a two-week trek from Buenos Aires to Rio.

In Argentina, we spent our pesos on extra large steaks – roughly equivalent to a small loaf of bread – and washed away our twentysomething woes with Malbec. In Brasilia, we breakfasted, lunched, and dinner-ed on pão de queijo and sliced meats at the buffet-style churrascarias. In this way, we made new memories over food while reminiscing about those blissful college years when we were roommates who spent the bulk of our days in the dining hall. Minus the collegiate setting, not too much has changed.

Last week, Jenna emailed me from Quito where she’s been living with the cast of Jet Set Zero since early May. Jet Set Zero is a travel web video series that follows four wanderlusters in their mission to see the world. That’s Jenna on the left with her co-cast members Ryan in purple and smiling Freddie in gray. It’s like The Real World with less glamour, more hustling; fewer five-star hotels and more five-dollar-per-night hostel stays.

I wanted to visit Jenna in South America, but didn’t plan to leave til July. In a surprise turn of events – and because petty thievery abounds here – Jet Set Zero‘s camera got stolen and the team learned the hard way that Ecuadorian customs and security checks makes the mailing of electronics near impossible. Would I be their camera mule?

So here I am, four days into Quito. Internet is spotty here, but the living, eating, and traveling is cheap. One US dollar buys a cab ride to La Mariscal, the “tourist ghetto”, where Jenna works in an Irish-run Vietnamese restaurant; two dollars is a one-way bus ticket to Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest – home of orchids, lush canopies, and a gazillion types of birds, like roosters who crow without stop between four and seven in the morning – two hours away; and fifty cents equals two homemade cheese empanadas sold by ebullient bus-hopping food vendors en route to Mindo.

The Jet Set Zero clan went rock climbing yesterday while I maintained my stubborn fear of heights and took photos from the ground. Afterward, we stopped by a small cafe for almuerzos aka daily set lunches comprised of potato soup, a rice dish with chicken or beef, and a glass of juice. At around $1.50 for three courses, almuerzos are a steal, but I chose to splurge and spent four dollars on a tangy shrimp ceviche instead. “This is how the locals do it” Freddie said, topping his own bowl of ceviche with popcorn.

While waiting for our meal, I spotted the cafe owner’s young son peeking at us from under a table across the room. Behind him, Mexico just beat France on the cafe’s staticky 20-inch TV. I was struck by the distance between us and the World Cup in South Africa just then and, for a second, I thought of other far away places, like New York City. amy june 18, 2010

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June 18, 2010. Tags: , , , , . Seafood, South America, Travel. 5 comments.

DANTE FRIED CHICKEN • Slow Cooking A Superstar

Dante of Ride or FryDante's soon-to-be baked black sesame cherry pieDante lining pie pan with crustDante kneading pie crust doughDante's black sesame cherry pieSoho RooftopsIT WAS A HOT MEMORIAL DAY. After sweating my way to Brooklyn for an outdoor food event, I dripped all the way back to Manhattan where I hauled ass up six flights of stairs in a Broome Street building to meet the wizard behind Dante Fried Chicken, Dante Gonzales. I arrived on the top floor with perspiration weaving river-like down my neck, turning the collar of my dress into an unsexy wet bib.

Dante was prepping dinner for a rooftop picnic and borrowed his friend’s Soho loft for the occasion. Before then he’d been kitchen-hopping Downtown during the two-week period of his semi-covert fried chicken delivery operation called Ride or Fry. News of Ride or Fry spread mostly by word of mouth, but still the number of orders overwhelmed his expectations. Why wouldn’t they? We’re talking about homemade fried chicken delivered at your whim.

The LA-born chef grew up in Englewood and Compton before traversing through several cities and returning to Manhattan, the place he considers home and where his mom grew up. He’s a chef, but his creations resist straight up classification in culinary terms. His specialties, for example, would be typified as “soul food” if ZAGAT had a say, but he describes his peppery, rosemary-crusted fried chicken, addictive tofu nuggets, and homemade pies – like sticky Yam Party Pie – as TransAtlantic African Food. “You can tell he’s from LA”, my friend Meryl pointed out the next day as she and I hovered over seven to-go boxes from Ride or Fry. The cucumber, corn, and string bean ginger “side” salad was strewn with chunks of avocado. Also, Dante seemed equally, if not more, versed in vegetarian as he was in meat. Each covered tray was slapped with a Dante Fried Chicken sticker and differentiated in black Sharpie; they were $10 each.

Ride or Fry encompassed everything that “underground” often suggests: clandestine, exclusive if only inadvertently, and probably under the legal radar. But the two-week stint hopefully paved the way for an entirely licensed four-month food truck in LA starting in July.

Back in New York, I studied Dante as best I could between photographing him and his black sesame cherry pie. There will be a food truck, yes, which will coincide with a radio show, which I figured must resonate more with the driving city of Los Angeles, than it does in NYC. But the goal is to transform eating and cooking habits via mainstream media, like a television show, said Dante who’s led parties for the likes of M.I.A. and Santigold with his famous fried chicken. He admits he’s known among those in the clubbing and music community, but less so by foodies.

I’d recently seen the first episode of The Next Food Network Star and I wouldn’t wish any of the contestants’ forced charisma on this down-to-earth guy who, at that moment, was chatting with me about the grandma who’d inspired him to cook as a little dreadlock-ed kid. “I want kids to be so excited about food that it makes their parents want to eat better”, he effused. His earnestness reminded me of Jamie Oliver, but I like Dante much better.

•  •  •  •

There’s something about watching a chef prepare a meal that makes me think of alchemy. His friend, Lily, whose kitchen we were in, didn’t have a rolling pin. Dante improvised, searching the cabinets until a bottle of Yellow Tail caught his attention. He wiped the wine bottle with a paper towel and went to town on a ball of black sesame pie dough, which appeared from nowhere beside the cherry bowl.

I didn’t stay for pie or fried chicken that night, which I regret a little. The sweat factory that was my forehead became relentless and the cry of work was too. Luckily, I scored that seven-box Ride or Fry delivery the following night, so all was not lost. Besides, I feel like I’ll see Dante again. And if not in real life then maybe on TV. amy june 9, 2010

June 9, 2010. Tags: , , , . people. 3 comments.