When you start putting the words “gas station” near the word “taco” the mind begins to wander in a less-than-culinary direction. Let me assure you, however, that the mind is wrong. As unimpeachable evidence, I present to you: El Serranito. I stubbed my toe on this diamond in the rough while my family was in the midst of a very stressful move across the country. We sold our home, we purged most of our worldly possessions, and we flung ourselves across this pandemic-stricken land with our hands clenched into fists and our cheeks streaked with tears. When we finally slid to a stop here in Georgia, we had been through the ringer. Two or three tornado warnings in Kansas City, some biblical flooding in Little Rock, a Taco Bell… it was rough. We needed comfort. We needed familiarity. We needed El Serranito.
This was a week for making things. Without venturing down that twisty rabbit hole of “This virus is a blessing in disguise” (because that’s an easy thing to say if you’re not actively dying) I will at least admit that my creative juices are flowing in the midst of all this awfulness. I got out my wife’s sewing kit and I hacked up a bunch of my T-shirts and Monday night found me hunched under the warm glow of a single bulb sewing ‘end of the word’ masks. Its funny, I always imagined that my Mad Max face accessories would look more like this:
And less like this:
But here we are. And it didn’t stop at sewing, either. I found a job posting on LinkedIn for a TikTok content creator, (a sentence that would have meant jack shit 10 years ago) and I slapped together a couple quick videos for a portfolio, only to find that the job had ceased to exist in the interim, leaving me with a weird profile full of pseudo hip videos like that old guy who puts his hat on sideways and tries to “talk Jive” with the “young go-hards”.
But most importantly (as far as this food blog is concerned) I have been cooking like it’s the only way to cure Corona, which, if it was, we could all finally go back to licking handrails and shotgunning stranger sneezes. In the last 7 days I have made this:
But the real show-stopper this week was this vegan queso dip recipe that I stole from a Pinterest post. I know what you’re thinking. You’re like vegan queso?! That’s like non-alcoholic beer! well that exists too. But open your mind. This is a brave new world. Adapt or die.
This is a preposterously easy recipe. You’re going to take a medium potato and you’re going to cube it up and boil the ever-living out of it. When it’s nice and soft, dump it in a food processor with some almond milk, olive oil, nutritional yeast, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, garlic, and salsa (the quantities are in the recipe link.) Fire that shit up and in about 20 seconds you’ll have vegan cheese sauce to dip chips in or roll up in a burrito or smear all over your naked body (no judgement.)
As I draw this to a close, I would like to make what I think is an important point. This is a crisis. This is a fucking disaster. This is not a high stakes creativity incubator meant to weed out the go-getters from the do-nothings. I was out walking with my wife the other day and the sun was out and the lawn mowers were running and people were balls deep in their gardens, pulling weeds and planting things. My wife sighed and she said, ” Look at all these people using this time to get things done around the house,” and I waited while the sigh inducer found its way to the surface. ” I feel so lazy for not doing more right now.”
That is not your job right now.
Yeah, I’m feeling creative, but if we’re being honest that’s probably more of a coping mechanism than anything else. One of those neurotic things that everyone applauds because (purely by luck) it ends in something pseudo-productive. But in actuality, it’s really no more voluntary than making a funny face when something goes bang. So, if all you’ve got in you right now is lying in bed and waiting this out you’re fucking killing it. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Surviving.
Try to imagine that you’re driving a school bus. Can some of the other bus drivers text while they’re driving and still get to school safely? I guess. Maybe Jerry can sing songs with the kids while he’s on his route. Good for Jerry. But if all you can do is get the bus there safely and it takes all of your concentration to make that happen, then guess what? You’re employee of the goddamn month!
So take it easy on yourself. Just get through this. Maybe make some cheese dip if you’re feeling it. But just remember what your job is: to get there in one piece. And maybe make a dope shirt while you’re sewing masks…
Bored? Hungry? A little scared?
This carousel is still spinning and the calliope music is getting a bit grating and I think we’d all like to hop off and pound a beer, but, you know: death, shame, logic and whatnot.
I don’ t know what it’s like where you are, but the shelves are still looking a little barren in my neck of the woods. The canned goods are picked over and the flour aisle is looking toothless. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking and I’m finding it harder and harder to come by the basic ingredients necessary to make all the sparkly, extravagant dishes that I’m finding on Pinterest.
1 stick of butter?
A cup of all purpose flour?
I wiped my ass with my neighbor’s cat yesterday. You think I’ve got cup of flour laying around?
Anyway, so I stumbled on “recipe” for margaritas and it didn’t really have ingredients so much as flavors and ratios of them and it BLEW MY FUCKIN MIND. I made a couple of out of control adult beverages (more on that later) and I thought to myself, I wonder if this applies to cooking?
the long and short of it is: yeah, kinda.
So I banged out this recipe and I’m going to encourage you to add some twists of your own and see what happens.
- First, reach over right shoulder and give yourself a pat on the back, because you’re Gordon Goddamn Ramsey and you’re about to dominate this episode of Iron Chef. Do a preemptive victory dance, give your mailman the fingerguns.
- Okay, now dump some sauce ingredients into a bowl and stir them together. Pop them in the fridge while you’re doing the rest of this. They don’t have to be refrigerated but it will make for a more exciting sensory experience when you’re dipping hot, crispy fritter into cold, spicy sauce. I’m sweatin’, just thinking about it.
- Drain a can of chickpeas, mash them into meal in a bowl with the back end of a fork.
- Next, take a grater to some root vegetables. I used russet potatoes and carrots, but I’ve seen recipes for sweet potatoes and turnips. (beets might be too wet and would prevent everything from binding)
- Shred up some kale or parsley or cabbage. (Lettuce might be too wet also)
- Mince up some onion and garlic
- Dump all that in the bowl with your chickpeas. (Remember that your chickpeas are your main binding agent, so if you’ve got a crazy amount of veggies you may need to add more chickpeas.)
- Add some spices. Get creative with this part. I went with Curry spice, onion powder, some cumin and cayenne. Turned out delightfully Indian. I imagine that you could mix it up and mash black beans instead of chickpeas, do it up with chili powder and cumin and end up with more of a Latin fritter. Up to you.
- Next, mix all that up with a fork. You should have a semi-wet pile of mashed up hash. YUM! chill, it gets better.
- Heat up a pan to medium high-ish, toss a dash of heat tolerant oil in it.
- when the pan is hot, grab a handful from your pile and plop it in there. Press it flat the bottom of a spatula and let it brown up.
- Flip it when it looks like its getting there, give another couple minutes to bind up and brown. Keep on plopping and browning until you’re out of mush and you’ve got a stack of crispy fritters.
- Plate your fritters. Drizzle them with some sauce or dip them in it. You’re your own person. These have enough nutrition in them to be the main course or just a side for whatever out of control, next-level magic you’re serving up. I served mine with a green salad tossed in a tangy dressing. but I bet you could fold these up in a pita with some lettuce and tomato or scramble some eggs into it and have a banging hash.
- Finally, do a little dance. Mush some home cooked food into your face. You are the Iron Chef. Also, don’t tell my neighbor about his cat.
A little past lunchtime in the walled city. Heat like off a lamp in a reptile enclosure and a finger of sweat running down my back. The bodies on the street around us shuffling past, so close, too close and the sound of oil at a boil while our guide stands on his tiptoes on the curb’s edge, lobs his voice out over all of it, down to us.
“ These are fried plantains and cheese.” He’s saying. Somehow it is cool the way he’s saying it because he’s cool and that’s just the way things work for cool guys. He pulls sweat through his hair with a tattooed hand, adjusts his shades on the bridge of his nose.
I could flick a lit cigarette into a puddle of gasoline and walk away from the explosion in slow motion and not look half as cool as this dude does when he’s introducing us to cheese and fried bananas.
He hands me a sheath of paper that is becoming translucent and I hot potato it back and forth while he passes out the rest.
“It’s a very traditional snack here. You just tear it, yeah, like that.”
The Brit next to me has dug into his. My wife is digging into hers.
It is a disk of smashed flat plantain, lightly salted submerged in golden oil. A single brick of cold cheese on top of it, stark white like my northwestern belly. I tear a corner off of the tostone, a chunk off of the cheese. On the face of it, it’s such a simple pairing that it almost seems ridiculous until you get it past your lips. All the low, hot and sultry of the plantain and the cold, sharp and creamy of the cheese. It’s fantastic.
The guide is paying the vendor with a folded wad of pesos. The vendor makes the deposit into his pocket with one hand, working the oil with the other. The guide waves us along, weaving through the crowds, talking over his shoulder.
“This city,” he says, “is very, very confusing. It was designed by military engineers who were just trying to make it hard to invade. Obviously, the walls” He says, waving his hand in their direction. “Some say that the walls go down 22 feet, to prevent tunneling.” He points to the end of the street. “But even if you got past them, the city itself was laid out to be confusing.” The block ends abruptly in the side of a house. “Every street looks like a dead end. Some of them curve around. The buildings are colorful now, which helps, but all of them used to be white.” He points around us in a circle and my brain cramps up trying to imagine how impossible this city would have been to get your bearings in without the wildly painted walls. Just a rat maze full of hostile defenders.
He leads us down an alley, across a street to a man with a pushcart, hacking through fruit with a wicked looking knife.
“This is what you do when you’re poor.” Our guide says, and it seems like he might know first hand.
“This fruit isn’t ripe, but people needed to eat now, so they made it edible.”
The man with the pushcart hands our guide a plastic cup full of green spears of guava. It’s been squirted with lime and dashed with salt and pepper. The guide passes them out to us and we gnash them by a busy street alive with the honking of horns.
The fruit is crunchy the way a carrot is crunchy. It isn’t what I thought it was going to be, but that doesn’t detract from what it is. Tangy, smoky from the pepper. I fumble around for a comparison, but nothing comes to me. It’s a wholly singular experience to my taste buds. Our guide waves us onward, our three-person tour snaking off behind him, weaving through the crowds. The tour company gave us instructions to meet him at a chocolate museum in the heart of the walled city and we found him there, leaning against the wall out front, looking like a young Colombian Johnny Depp. Don Juan Demarco, Johnny Depp. Dual Wielding Uzi’s, Johnny Depp. The Brit found us all right after. A single ginger British guy in a baseball cap with a slick looking pair of Raybans perched on his freckled nose. Somehow, even the ginger-Brit has a better tan than I do. I try not to think about it.
Standing in front of another cart now. Just a stove top on wheels basically, topped with what appears to be bricks of cornbread.
“These are a type of arepa, “ the guide explains as the woman with the spatula starts levering them up off the heat. There are two kinds in front of her and she gives us a half of each one on a napkin.
“One is sweet and other is salty,” which is mostly true. They’re both more savory than sweet to my American palette , but they’re also both delicious, so it doesn’t really matter. Texture like really thick, smooth mashed potatoes. The ‘salty’ one is run through with cheese and probably minced jalapenos and the ‘sweet’ one has a hint of maple syrup and that cheese that we had with the plantains, only hot and ropy.
We eat. We make noises. We walk
Boiling oil, maybe not too different from the kind they’d throw down on pirates in the 1500’s, only this oil has arepas rolling in it. The woman with the slotted spoon scoops them out for us one at a time, here on the edge of the walled city. The guide stands with his back to the traffic that divides us from Getsemani, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, pressed like a hand in a vice between the tourist draw of the walled city and the south-beachy playground of Bocagrande.
The woman with the spoon fishes our arepas out of the amber oil, gives them a shake to cool them then it’s onto another napkin. Mine has eggs and chorizo in it and it’s been fried so what else do you really need to know about it? It’s delicious, fill up all the cracks kinda food. According to the guide, this is a pretty regular breakfast for the working class people on the go.
“That is India Catalina.” Our guide says. He’s pointing at a statue of a woman in a simple dress at the mouth of the walled city, surrounded by roiling traffic. Her hands are at her sides, like before a hug.
“She was an indigenous princess who was captured by the Spanish in the 1500’s,”
He continues. “They brought her back to Spain and she taught them all about the indigenous people’s weaknesses and ways, then they brought her back and she helped them commit a genocide.”
“Fuck,” I say through a mouthful of arepa.
“Yeah,” he says. “She was kind of like a… Bad Pocahontas.”
We cross the wild street into Getsemani. There are murals here that stop you in your tracks. Vibrant, poignant works of art erupting off of a cracked wall. Our guide points to them as we walk. “This is about the fractured identity of the people who live here.”
A man hands us popsicles through a barred window. There is no sign over the window and for all intents and purposes, this is just someone’s house. Like many treats here (especially liquid ones), the popsicles come in a plastic bag. You have to peel the plastic down off of one end of it and hold it by the other side like a thick otter pop.
There’s absolutely no way to eat it so that it doesn’t look like you’re giving a mango colored man a spirited blowjob, and honestly, it tastes so good that I don’t care what I look like eating it. People notice, though. Eyes are averted. Somewhere in Getsemani, there is a man who just doesn’t sleep anymore. A man who breaks out in a cold sweat when he sees a mango.
We are on the last leg of our tour. The sun stretches through the trees and we are speckled by the shadow of it on a narrow avenue in Getsemani. The guide is describing the subtle pressure that is crushing the wind out of the families who live in this place.
“Take the utilities, for example,” he’s saying, “the way it works, is your utilities are charged depending on what number they assign you. Like, if your house is in a lower income neighborhood, you’re a 1. If you’re in a nicer neighborhood, you might be a 3. It goes all the way up to 4.” A dog trots past us, alone. Many dogs, out and about on their own here. “The problem is, the government can just change your number whenever they want. You can be in your little house, living the way you always have and then all the sudden they build a hotel down the street and someone comes and knocks on your door and says, ‘hey, you’re a 4 now.’ And your utilities just quadruple.” We pass a spattering of graffiti. ‘Resiste’ it says.
The last stop is a little coffee shop down a winding street. It’s dark and beautiful inside just like the smells wafting out of it. “ This is Cafe Del Mural,” our guide says. The mural it’s named after lights the wall behind him on fire. “ The coffee here is very good. I hope you enjoyed the tour.” We all thank him gushingly, my wife and the Brit and I. As he folds himself back into the street, he unloads one of those cool-guy waves that dorks like me remember. Effortless and fluid, like the rest of him. I could powerslide a muscle car through a factory with Raybans on and not look half as badass as he does when he leaves a tour group at a coffee shop.
When he’s gone, we all sit together, my wife and the Brit and I, in the relative cool of the coffee shop, sipping at very good coffee. The Brit just came from Brazil. He was robbed at gunpoint there by a boy on hard drugs with wild eyes and he ran away and the boy didn’t shoot. Later he asked someone if the robbers usually don’t shoot and he was told that often times they do. The Brit is amazed by how pleasant Cartegena is. How beautiful it is, how safe it feels. I wholeheartedly agree with him. I’m a bit of basketcase abroad, what with the dangerous job and all the military aggression, and I haven’t felt unsafe here once. Police on every corner, minding their own business. People on the streets, living their private lives. The vendors all smiling as they pass me a snack like they don’t know that I’m staying in one of the hotels that’s driving their utilities up into 4’s because it’s “so authentic”. Letting me take my pictures and ask my questions like it won’t lead to more people like me. Like I’m not just another bad Pocahontas.
There are many things that Anthony Bourdain has done, that I will probably never do. Managing to sound eloquent with a camera pointed at his face, is one. Mastering an iconoclastic, Bob Dylan-esque coolness is another.
But, up a bustling street, down the way from a Caribbean seain the walled city of Cartagena, I found a commonality with the God of food and travel.
It was founded by Jorge Escandon in 2001 and it was a staple of Walled City cuisine long before Bourdain sauntered into it and dragged it out into the hungry spotlight of the rest of the world. Once it was out, though, it was out. It quickly became a must-see attraction on almost every travel post about the city and found its way to the top of the list of any food enthusiast with their sights set on Cartagena (this one included.)
The allure of it is simple and yet difficult to put my finger on. Something about the thought of that wall, all studded with seashells, looking out over the Caribbean. Something about the sea air rushing down the alleyways and finding this humble little seafood joint. Something about fresh fish that’s been tinkered with ever so lightly. The more I read about it, the more cemented it became in my to-do list and by the time we were wheels down in Colombia, I’d decided that if I lost a leg in a hang-gliding accident and I was being med-evacced out of the country, I’d force the helicopter down on the roof of that place.
Fortunately for us, no forced landing was necessary. After a sweaty walk through the steamer heat of a cloudy Colombian day, Melissa and I found ourselves at the front door of La Cevicheria. A waitress jotted our names down and told us to come back in about 20 minutes. A five-minute walk got us to the wall, some stairs took us to the top of it. Wind and sand and the desperate bleating of cars on the roadway. A dramatic looking sky oozing with clouds and a sea painted with chop. We walked back through the tourist-choked streets, past a gauntlet of street vendors slinging goods at us, “no gracias, no gracias”, restaurant employees hopelessly waving menus at us like we weren’t on our way to some of the best ceviche we would ever have.
Back at La Cevicheria, we were led inside to a little table in the center of the room. White walls, with blue accents. Pictures and knick-knacks speckling all the surfaces. A very attentive server brought us menus and two bowls. Chips and salsa, only different. The chips were paper thin slips of potato like a Pringle only classier and dusted with tangy lime. The salsa is what all of those 14th-century explorers were looking for when they came here, whether they knew it or not. Creamy, tangy, made with mango and angel tears I guess. We ate it with a fanatic fervor. When the chips ran out, I think I poured some of the salsa into my pocket ‘for later.’
The waiter came back and I ordered something called a caipirol, another twisty classic. Caipirinha fixings, (sugar and lime) but with aperol. It came out tart and bitter and red like a jilted Ed-Sheeran at the beach and I loved it.
We were minding our own business like that, chips in our teeth, cheeks full of tropical bang bang, watching life swirl around our table, when our waiter came back out and sucker punched us with arguably the best meal of the trip. Just dropped it in front of us like we weren’t going to freak out and wake up in a Colombian crazy house three days later. I don’t know how we kept it together, but we did.
Two dollops of mashed sweet potato, plantain tostones smeared with avocado, and a pile of Andean cancha (toasted corn) in a halo around a mound of heavenly fish and shrimp. It is a pastel explosion of colors and flavors that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I grunted with the first forkful, and groaned with the last. The sweet potatoes brought the sweet and the cancha lent some salty. The avocado was creamy and the tostones were crunchy.
You shut your goddamn mouth about that Peruvian-style ceviche. Tangy and meaty and spiked with the sea and the wind and all the things you love about them both. It was everything that ceviche is supposed to be. Probably the best I’ve ever had.
What about the spicy, Kellen? You’re talking about how balanced and perfect everything was, but what about the spice?
Oh, I’ll tell you about the spice….
At my wife’s behest, the waiter brought us out a bottle of house-made hot sauce. It was electric orange in a little glass jar and the waiter carried it out to us with his arm outstretched like he was carrying a grenade that he had no intention of detonating.
“Be very careful,” he said, which sounded like a funny joke but just turned out to be really good advice.
Napalm but zesty. Sterno, but delicious. We left it in a deadly pool at the edge of our plates, dipped our food in it to make it dangerous and fantastic while the sweat beaded on our foreheads and the giggles bubbled in our throats.
On the back of the menu in that magical restaurant, there was a photo. 2×2 in the middle of the laminated page. Bourdain and the owner, smiling on the street out front.
There are many things that I will never share with Anthony Bourdain. Slithery coolness. Sweet cowboy boots. But the smile on his face on the street in front of La Cevicheria in the blushing heat of Cartagena… We’ll always have that.
I composed this article a week ago, before we lost him. Bourdain was an inspiration for me. He traveled. He ate. He told the truth, the way he understood it. More than ever, I am honored to have shared something with him. Even just a love for food and discovery. Even just a table, decades apart.
In the dream, we keep leaving but we never get anywhere. In the dream, Melissa and I load up the car and we pull out of the driveway. There’s a cutscene and we’re in the Port of Tacoma in the near dawn and she asks me to get out. There’s another cutscene and I’m running alone through the port, barefoot now. I’m sprinting for the water’s edge. Airborne, windmilling towardthat polluted water, stained a baby blue by the morning sky. I ploosh into it and I’m deep down beneath it and Melissa is calling to me from the surface and when I dig my way back to it, I’m in the living room and Melissa is telling me I need to load the car. That we need to go. In the dream, we do it all over again.
Dreams like that change the way you see the world when you really do come to the surface. Sitting in the car on the freeway bound for the airport, waiting for the cutscene that will leave you barefoot running for open water. There is no cutscene. Just you and your wife and the road and a plane and new cities and new beds. Just travel and all the ways it wears you down and polishes you up.
We’re going to Cartagena, Colombia. One of those trips that fights its way to fruition at the end of a Northwestern winter. The clouds like a Tupperware lid, sealing in the darkness, the moisture. Sealing out the sun. Just a rippled sheet of foamy grey and the maddening drizzle going tick-tick-tick in the gutter. Three months of it and you think, sunshine. I. Need. Sunshine. But then, once all the planning is done and the arrangements have been made, it’s almost spring. The flowers are blooming and the temperature is crawling towardtolerable and Colombia feels like a long way away. Trip Advisor posts about robberies. Just the word Colombia on your lips gets strangers’ eyebrows jumping. But the tickets are already bought. Confirmation emails received. It might be a hectic trip and could be a dangerous trip, but it would definitely NOT be a refundable trip, so we were definitely going.
We slog our way through cruise season security at the airport, punch a bunch of caffeine and airport food into our faces and Alaska Airlines flings us across the country to Fort Lauderdale.
There is food that night, found hastily, walked to confusedly and shoveled exhaustedly. There is a brief trip along the canal in the perfect night air with the boat lights shimmering on the placid water and the smell of seawater on the merciful breeze. And yet, even when it’s pleasant, even with a mouthful of salty pork, or beer bubbles tickling my nose, even in twinkling lights with a sea breeze at my back, there is that feeling of disconnection. That vague sense of unrealness. Of running barefoot on a loop. That night we drift off to a fitful sleep in the semi-darkness. Late into the night, the sounds of Saturday night mayhem and youth in all its indecipherable wildness.
The next morning finds me wandering the streets in search of coffee. It’s too early again, and again I didn’t sleep well. I live a life of cutscenes. Up and down the street, trying doors, shuffling down the way. Starbucks in my hand. Starbucks in my mouth. We call an Uber to get us to the airport for the second leg of our flight. A man named Jeff whips a red Lexus around the corner and for all the moments between him opening his mouth to greet us and him screaming out his window at the airport, he is an East Coast Angel with a solid cheese halo.
He asks us all about our evening, points out some of the local attractions as they slip past the windows, New Jersey thick in his voice. My boilerplate question about best places to eat in his city elicits an extremely non-boilerplate answer.
“My buddy Brent owns the best Italian place in the city,” he says. He’s reaching for something in the center console. “Mention my name at the register and receive an appetizer valued at $18.99 free of charge.”
And I start to laugh, as he hands me a business card for the Italian place with his name in Sharpie on the back.
He sounds like Joe Pesci when he says it and even though he’s hustling at me, shamelessly, it’s not off-putting. We talk about Colombia with him. Tell him it’s not as dangerous as it used to be. That there’s peace, more or less, there now. He nods his head, but he’s not assuaged. Tells me to keep an eye on my valuables.
Say, “I’m going to keep my phone in my front pocket. I figure if someone manages to sneak something out of my front pocket without me noticing, then they earned it.”
He likes that. At the airport, we thank him and tip him. We’re walking to the security line and his voice goes booming through the terminal, Joe Peschi on a bullhorn. “YOUR PHONE‘S IN YOUR BACK POCKET!” He’s screaming through his passenger window. “WATCHOUT!”
Another airport, more caffeine and calories on the end of a tamp. We board a small, old plane with creaky seats and scuffed overhead bins. There are TVs on the backs of the seats that might as well have glass tubes in them. They flicker in and out in turbulence. I am squished into yet another center seat beside yet another gargantuan man. Like many of the discomforts of adult life, it’s no one’s fault and there’s nothing to be done about it. After a brief and sobering delay involving a stewardess with a family emergency that was most likely far more pressing than middle seats or spotty television, the pilot guides us to the runway and flings us across an ocean to Colombia.
We skate over a sheet of clouds that mostly covers Cuba and Jamaica, start to spiral down to Cartagena, through the fluff to the country below. Holding onto our armrests listening to the old plane groan and rattle, the giant to which I am stuck turns to us and says, “First time in Colombia?” He says it in Spanish and Melissa gathers it up carefully and tells him it is.
“It‘s very nice,” he says. “Be smart. Take off your watch. Don’t walk around on your phone. Don’t keep your wallet on you. Keep bills loose in your pocket.” He mimes pulling a wallet stuffed with cash out of his pocket, pretends to sort through imaginary money, wags his finger at us.
“Don’t do that,” he says. He takes a pull from the plastic cup of whiskey that he filled from a bottle that he took out of a duty-free bag, says, “Don’t buy anything. It’s all fake.”
We nod like disciples and the plane makes a sound like OOF coming down on the ground in a whole new world. “Have a good time,” he says.
Stepping off the plane is like stepping into soup. There are clouds overhead, but neither of us is upset about it because they protect us from this foreign sun that made the earth so hot. The sounds of car horns and alien birds. The vague pangs of apprehension.
I am awake.
Customs gives us a cursory jostling and then releases us into the world. At the curb in front of the airport we hail a cab, agree to pay him 3 or 4 dollars for the 15 minute ride from the airport and then he lurches off the curb with us, tearing through the streets of Cartagena. The traffic is a tornado that has passed over a junkyard and we are in the grip of it. Our driver flicks at the gear shift, spins the wheel. He honks the horn for everything and for nothing. It is a greeting and a warning. Here, you hear horns that are so worn out they hardly make a noise anymore. A hoarse hooting beneath a battered hood. People step out into the streets on 8 lane roads, froggering past busses, between bumpers. On two separate occasions, I see people texting while driving a motorcycle helmetless. Our driver drifts between lanes, honking all the while. He veers around a man pushing a cart full of mangos in the street, forces a motorcycle between two busses. The cycle honks. The busses honk. The mango cart pusher whistles like a train horn, drowns them all out. We slip past squat houses with wrought iron gates. We hurtle by concrete tenement buildings with laundry drying on the balconies. Massive palms, dogs and cats all in a blur beyond those smudged cab windows. We pull up at the hotel, sweating from the heat and from the ride. He takes our money and lurches off into the fray, again.
The concierge at the hotel buzzes us through a gate into the lobby and we drop all of our needy luggage in the sparkling oasis of air conditioning and silence that is our room. The sheets are white and the tiles on the floor are sandy blocks with seashells pressed into them. There’s a TV on the wall and a pool on the roof and we’ve had a long day.
“So,” Melissa says, “What do you want to do?”
Outside, there is a man screaming sweet nothings about the mangos on his cart. A flock of alien birds rip past the window.
“Let’s go out there.”
May 13th, 2018. You fire “Restaurants” into the search bar of Yelp, “Cartagena, Colombia” into the location and the mighty Goliath of half-assed evaluations from underqualified users heaves a sigh and falls silent. No suggestions, No reviews. Google offers some help and TripAdvisor has some advice, but ‘comprehensive’ is not a word that I would use to describe them. Footpaths in a vast forest. Aerial imagery over deep woods. We do our best. The hotel burps us through its gates and we point ourselves in what we hope is the right direction and walk.
Wide-eyed through bustling streets with narrow sidewalks choked with people. Houses like a pastel crayon box with flags spread out between them. A man wants to sell us a hat. A lone dog barking at an iguana, who doesn’t seem very concerned about it. Out of our neighborhood beyond a park and a tangled mass of traffic We find the entrance to the walled city. It was built in the 1500’s by the Spanish to keep pirates out. 20 feet thick in some places, bristling with old cannons that point out to the ocean. Within those walls, streets like spaghetti on a plate, designed by military engineers to disorient any invaders who actually managed to make it ashore. Your sightlines are limited to the end of whatever block you’re on. Streets meander north and then wander their way back around to the east.
There are no spaces between the buildings, no vantage point to get your bearings. Fortunately for us, pirates have become far less of a bother, and so the security is a bit more relaxed. The government ordered that all the buildings be painted a variety of colors (which helps with the feeling of claustrophobia) and now there are landmarks abound. We zig and zag our way past businesses and restaurants full of colorful goods and memorable features. 10-foot tall doors with lion’s head knockers and courtyards bursting with tropical fauna. A bar named KGB with a Russian flight suit in the window and a massive pastel cathedral. All little pins on a winding map and by the end of the day, I can look at a spot on an aerial photo of the city and navigate us there without consulting it again. We arrive at a place on the north end of the walled city called Quero Arepo, grab up seats by the door.
The waitress brings us laminated menus and Melissa orders eloquently in Spanish that she has worked for years to perfect. The waitress nods at her, turns to me and I sputter,
“I… Need… This…. One…” in a collection of broken syllables like a man who should have a bandage around his head. An amused smile splashes across her face and then a burst of language from which I pluck the word for “drink”.
“I…Need… This … One.” I point at a beer on the menu and if she wanted to, she could insist I was already drunk and ask me to leave and anyone who heard our little back and forth would have a really hard time persuading her that I wasn’t. Instead, she takes our menus and heads into the back.
“Quesiera.” my wife says through the palm over her face.
“‘Quesiera’ is a more polite way of asking for things in Spanish.” She says.
Dually Noted. The waitress brings the beer that I ‘needed’ and I gulp at it because it is cold and nothing else is. A breeze oozes in through the door. A horsedrawn carriage clomps up the street with a man giving a tour from behind the reigns of it. A few minutes later, our food comes out. It’s spectacular. Fried dough wrapped around a mound of chicken, beef, cheese, and avocado.
I moosh it into my face with the same grace I used to order it. The salt and the fat and the tang of it. The crunch and the chew and the soft of it. I am present for every bite. For every step along the streets. For every word past my lips. For the wind on my skin at the top of that ancient wall. For the sunset over the Caribbean. I am awake. No cutscenes. No loops. Just a notebook in my back pocket and a whole new city to fill it with.
Find me in the simulated darkness of the bar with the rain pressure-washing the windows and the brake lights on 6th through the drops on the window like Christmas lights.
“Get you something?” the bartender asks.
“Can I just get a sarsaparilla?” tumbles out of me sounding a lot less reasonable than when it popped into my head. Just a dude alone at the bar, sipping on a sarsaparilla like he’s not a serial killer. Tough sell. In my defense, though, I’m about to consume a lot of bourbon and it doesn’t do much for your credibility if you show up to a liquor tasting and they aren’t legally allowed to serve you. I sip my sarsaparilla. It’s fantastic.
I swear to god I’m not a serial killer.
A PR firm emailed me to invite me to a private dinner at Seattle restaurant 2120. A special menu had been made to pair with Maker’s Mark 46, a new blend the American whiskey mainstay was rolling out. There would be tastings of several different Maker’s Mark products, as well as a series of signature cocktails designed to be accentuated by the individual entrees served on the 6 course menu. This is an awesome way to showcase the full range and adaptability of your product. It is also an awesome way to make a lightweight such as myself wake up in the street with no pants on. So I bellied up to the bar in the rain, in the dark. Sipped my sarsaparilla.
“John Laugherty called a meeting of all the employees at Maker’s Mark. He flew me in from London, and I knew it had to be a pretty big deal.” The woman speaking is a maturation specialist. The emblem on her dress says Maker’s Mark and the Kentucky in her accent is syrupy and drawling and she knows her way around some whiskey. She tells us the story behind some of the new products. About the straying from usual business. About legacies and whatnot. We sip on our welcome cocktails and watch her speak beneath the twinkling lights as 2120 bangs and whirs around her and she stands in the middle of it all like a street performer on a subway platform. The welcome cocktail is fruity and effervescent, laced with strawberries and the sultry draw of bourbon.
While she speaks and we sip, servers hit the dining room with pre-poured glasses in hand. They are arranged in front of us with a clink, carefully placed atop cards with descriptions. Bourbon in the raw, amber in color, varying in flavor. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is absolutely raspy. 112 proof, hit you in the tonsils kind of bang bang. Jet fuel, but enjoyable. Then the Maker’s 45. The original. Slow on the draw, smooth on the finish. It’s followed immediately by the new one, Maker’s 46, which could be described as a melding of the first and second. Sultry and smooth but with a bite at the edge of it. Someone at the table says that they’d use the first one as a mixer and the second as a sipper. Everyone nods. Now the Private Select. Easily one of the best sips of bourbon I’ve ever had. Vanilla at the front of the pallet, crackling at the back of the tongue. Goes down the way a firework goes up, bright lights down the middle, bang at the end.
The dark is gathering outside the windows and we are left to our little glasses of liquid heat, our little flickering candles. The women from the PR firm are piled into the booth beside me, fighting a valiant battle against jet lag and alcohol. The rest of the people at our horseshoe table are locals, who are fighting only with the alcohol but faring no better. We are fading fast in the semi-darkness, a tropical storm of perfumed booze settling in our basements, sending fumes up into our attics. Salvation came, as it usually does, in the form of excellent food.
Six courses, served back to back, carried from the kitchen by a 6 man breaching team of cooks and waitstaff. The door bangs open and they rush in with their arms full, dropping payloads on place mats and disappearing into the back as suddenly as they came. Foie-gras, rich and decadent atop a bed of charred pumpernickel. Little meaty figs rounding out the flavors, splash of pineapple for good measure. A cocktail of Maker’s 46, charred fig and orange bitters accompanies it and the symmetry is fairly self explanatory. Boozy richness, splash of fruit and smoke.
Next course is a geoduck tartare, served in a coconut with a brick of dry ice puffing vapor out from underneath it. Chunk of shrimp swimming in a squeeze of lime, crawfish head peeking straight up out of the whole deal like a masthead. I attack this one like we aren’t in a candlelit place eating out-of-town-company food. Grunting and smashing. Fists and fingernails. Literally suck the brains out of the crawfish, much to the chagrin of the PR people, who, I’d like to reiterate, are from a rough city and are by no means squeamish. But when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And in this department, I most certainly have it. The cocktail is a sharp little thing in a martini glass. Foam of egg whites with toasted sesame seeds floating in it. Puckering and nutty.
The quail comes out on a jet black plate, propped up in a snowdrift of soubise, a white onion sauce, and I gnash it all off the bone and rinse my mouth with the snazzy little beverage that it came with. The food is excellent. The beverage is stiff and mature like something James Bond would throw back. Daniel Craig Bond. The salty one. At this point, I’m pacing myself with the whiskey. If you’re keeping track, I’m roughly 5 shots of dark liquor deep in a pretty compressed period of time, and given my usual drinking habits (a beer a night) and my stature (troll doll-esque), this could really be one of those evenings where you wake up in the street without pants. Bond would do no such thing, and so I don’t intend to either.
I sip my beverage responsibly, poke and prod at my PR compatriots. They’re unflinchingly New York in that impressive way that makes you tired for them. My brother-in-law is a hedge fund manager in New York. He works 80 hours a week, minimum, cooks souffles in his off time and jets off for the weekends to go heli-skiing. Did you fucking hear that? Heli-skiing. Not hella-skiing, as in a bunch of skiing, which would still be pretty impressive after an 80 hour work week. Heli-skiing. As in, jumping out of a fucking helicopter with skis on. These PR women have the same thing going on, to a slightly less glaring degree. Jet-lagged, slamming whiskey on zero hours of sleep, chatting about whether they’re going to go clubbing or hit the gym when this is over. “You could sleep,” I say. “I’m going to go home and go to sleep.”
“Nah, its early.”
I nod, like, ‘totally’ but I’ve got a hot date with a pair of footie pajamas after this.
The breaching crew comes banging out of the kitchen with slabs of smoky duck beside a crimson mound of lentils that I initially mistake for tartare. Sprinkle of watercress, drizzle of black currant. The flavors are sweet and deep and complicated and when I come up for air I realize I’ve missed the description of the cocktail that accompanies it. Something in a tumbler with a lemon peel sticking out of it. The menu says, “Maker’s 46, cherry heering, yellow Chartreuse, lemon.” and I’d be lying through my teeth if I told you that I knew what all of those things were, but I sip it carefully and find it pleasant. A perfect corner piece of freshness to the complex flavor puzzle that was the dish.
Full dark out the windows now. No cloying rub of twilight blue to the west. No moonlight between the buildings. Just swinging overhead lights and the sparkle of tail lights on 6th. There is a medallion of elk in front of me, just like the menu promised there would be, a lean-to of matchsticked apples, a confetti pile of cabbage, a dollop of mashed potatoes. Its pairing beverage is in a Martini glass with a slab of apple gastrique sticking out of it. All of it is excellent. A fitting, well balanced, end to (the savory portion of) our well balanced meal.
While the crew brings out dessert, the maturation specialist from earlier slips back out into the spotlight to thank us for coming and it is the sincere, warm, thank you of a person who is passionate about what she’s doing. Dessert hits the tables, a veritable smörgåsbord of different treats in a loose formation on an all white plate. Cakes and mousses, smears of compote and dustings of sugar. Like everything that has come before it, it’s delicious. A final cocktail for the evening – Maker’s 46, amaretto and elderflower.
I sit in the dark cocoon of this whirring restaurant sipping my cocktail, going over the fantastic meal I’ve just experienced, prepared with love and attention by serious people who believe in what they’re doing. It is a truly magical moment. A moment that couldn’t be ruined by jetlag or waking up pantless in the street. In fact, I think to myself that if I found out that everything we’d just eaten was people, it might cost 2120 a Yelp star, but it wouldn’t ruin my night.
I’m really not a serial killer.
“Get the fuck out of the way!”
“Yeah, fuck that dude.”
Wheels banging on the cobblestones, rocking like a ship breaking up on reentry and all the while, I’m in the navigator seat, pointing at turns, tapping through maps, cursing at strangers. Strasbourg out the windows of our van like a half timbered Mario Kart level, vehicles screaming out of alleyways, pedestrians lunging out from behind cars. When we finally emerged from the fog of battle, the freeway was sliding beneath us and the sun was out and we were breathless.
“How far is it to Basel?” Dad asked.
“About 2 hours.”
“Ugh shit,” he said, and a silent nod passed through the car. A nod of sweaty heads and worried brows. Were we really ready to try and navigate another city right now? Did we want to try to have to park this rattletrap in a new country with new pedestrians and new street signs?
The gas tank on the dash blinked empty and we collectively decided that our resilience
had bottomed out as well. We pulled into Comar, puzzling our situation over while the car guzzled gasoline and when we pulled away from the pump we felt no closer to an answer. All along the hillsides, skylining against the crystal blue, castles stood bristly and exotic to our American eyes.
“I wonder what’s over in that area,” Dad said, mostly just to fill the silence.
“Let’s go see,” Mom said. A considerate silence followed and then there was tapping and scrolling and yelping and suddenly we were off the beaten path and off the path to feeling beaten.
Eguisheim is a swirly snail shell of a town. Half timbered houses from the 10th century huddled around a steeple at the base of a hill topped with castles. Vineyards stretch out away from it, down the olive green hillside, beneath a pale blue sky. We parked on the outside of the town, left our jarringly modern van with its backup cameras and satellite radio sitting beside a curb that had been there for centuries. Prehistoric birds circled on six foot wingspans, bony dinosaur legs tucked up underneath them, javeline beaks swiveling back and forth, scanning. We followed the winding streets and an alluring smell to the center of town. Restaurant Kas’Fratz drew us to her and we were seated at a table outside in the sunlight. My eyes snatched up a menu item that checked all of my boxes. Fried potatoes: Check. Cheese: check. That’s pretty much all my boxes if I’m being honest. In the interim between ordering food and eating it, when there is nothing to do but sit and wait, we did just that.
The ancient birds clicked their gutteral clicks in their massive nests on all the building tops and the village streets were filled with the subdued tinkering sounds of a small town doing small town things. Scraping at a gutter, water running in a sink. The occasional shutter of a camera, clink of a glass. No cursing, no honking, no white knuckles on a steering wheel. If we were starting to feel like we’d made a good decision coming here, the arrival of lunch drove that nail home with a flourish.
What I’d initially mistaken on the menu for fried, cheesy potatoes with ground beef mixed into them turned out to be a perfectly prepared cheeseburger with fried potato patties for buns.
Where have you been all my life? The potatoes were perfectly seasoned and the crisp on them added a texture that many burgers are missing. The cheese held what could have been a real mess together and the meat was earthy and rich.
I got up into that meal. Fingers were licked, and beer was glugged and happiness was abound.
Those birds in their bushy nests stopped regurgitating into each other’s mouths, looking down on me, thinking, that guy is a disgusting eater.
We spent the next couple hours there, winding through the streets looking at knick-knacks in shops and inscriptions above doorways. We basked in the sunlight and smelled the flowers and when the time finally came to fire up the rattletrap, we were ready. We were rested, we were energized, and most importantly, we were well fed.
Check out Restaurant Kas’Fratz facebook here.
The sun rose on that second morning and found Dad and I wandering the streets of Paris in the eerie silence of an early Sunday in search of bread. Alleys that had been clogged with busy looking people the evening before sat hollow and cavernous in the pastel light and we combed them with our heads pointed up at the rooftops, noses working busily, on the prowl for baking smells. Sunday morning is a notoriously quiet time in the 13th and we found more closed signs than open ones. Nevertheless, we found our way back to the apartment with a bag full of baguettes and pastries.
“What did you guys get?” Mom, cradling coffee on the couch.
“I don’t know.”
“Well what’s in the bag?”
“I don’t know.”
Things were in the bag. Things from a bakery, which means bread-like things. The specifics though, eluded us. We’d wandered up to the counter of that lonely open bakery and the woman behind the counter, looming over her creations with the air of a lioness amidst her pride, had started asking questions in machine gun French. Words rattling out of her. We pointed at things, at anything. She bagged them. We threw Euros at her as we scurried out.
“What happened?” My wife, Melissa, from the bathroom, picking up the waver in my voice over the sound of a running sink.
“We panicked,” my dad said.
Panic would become a theme for the early part of that day. The sun sharp and sparkly over Paris as we walked the ever-filling streets to the Marais, dipping into exciting looking businesses with ancient sounding titles like cheesemonger and chocolatier, ogling exotic looking delicacies and withering under the experienced eyes of their purveyors, scampering out empty handed. Noon came upon us all dejected in a coffee shop off Rue de Turenne, sipping whatever we’d pointed at on our menus.
Even Melissa, who’d spent the weeks leading up to the trip, dutifully sponging up French from podcasts and movies and phrasebooks, found many nuances to the ordering process intimidating. Fortunately though, our salvation stood outside in a pink cotton trenchcoat.
“Now, when you order a croissant,” Lizzie said, her British accent standing starkly against the muddled consonants of French all around us. “ You probably want to stay away from one’s that are curled in at the corners.” She held up a counter-example. A flaky, bronzed croissant, shaped like an american football. “If the ends are curled in, it means it was probably made with margarine.” Our gaggle nodded, carefully in unison. “And that’s no good.” She concluded.
Lizzie, a half Chinese transplant from the UK, had come to Paris to learn the culinary arts. She was a chef at the very core of her. If she said it was no good, it was no good.
She slipped off to the counter of the busy boulangerie and left us to mill about amidst the delicacies. I found Allen, another member of our tour group, stashed away near the baguettes. He had white hair and a white mustache. There were thin rimmed glasses perched on his nose and he was a veteran husband. You could hardly tell he was hiding from his wife. In fact, if you didn’t know that they’d been traveling together for the last 4 weeks, or seen her scowl at him every time he opened his mouth, you might honestly believe that he was over there in the corner studying rolls. He was that good.
“What do you do in Toronto?” I asked him.
His voice was hushed, but casually so. “I’m retired. I was a high school vice principal.”
“What brings you to Paris?”
“Oh the wife and I are just traveling around, enjoying the sights.”
“A spy?!” I said it like he just confessed, and he blew his cover with a belly laugh.
“Allen!” His wife barked.
Fromagerie Jouannualt, and Lizzie was pointing at bricks of moldy wonder behind glass, saying,
“Is there anything any of you have been wanting to try?”
She was carrying a bag of treats from the last place. People flowed around her where she stood in the center of the bustle like a stone in a stream. Undaunted by their hurry. A fixture of the street.
“I’ve always wanted to try that really runny cheese,” my dad offers. A few members of the group who weren’t as accustomed to his flights of culinary fancy gave him a once over, but they can fuck right off, because this was an adventure and if you’re going to eat weird cheese in Paris, it might as well be good weird cheese. And if you’re going to get good weird cheese, Fromagerie Jouannualt is the place to do it. The displays behind the glass looked like the set of Fragel Rock, bulbous and grand and storied. Lizzie threw my dad a nod of approval and waded through the crowd to the counter, her pink coat cutting through them like a flare in the night. She was back moments later with a fuller bag of goodies, saying, “A good fromager is a friend to the community.” She motioned at the man she’d just spoken to, nodding carefully now at the couple in front of him, calculating. Lizzie continued, “You don’t just walk into his shop and tell him what cheeses you want. You tell him what you’re doing, how many people you’re doing it with and what you like, and he’ll help you figure out what you need.” The fromager pointed to rounds of sepia cheese that looked like the pages of an old tome, and the couple in front of him nodded.
“For example, you might come to the fromager and say, ‘I am going to the park with three or four friends and we’re going to have a picnic with charcuterie and a bottle of red wine. I like sharp cheeses’ and the fromager would bring out 4 or 5 different things for you to-”
Allen’s wife raised her hand. An angry looking hunk of cheese in the shape of a mortar shell had her absolutely transfixed. “That,” Lizzie said, “Is called the devil’s suppository.”
I am gripped with a sophomoric barb of laughter, imagining satan himself duckwalking into this place, and the cheese monger wagging a finger at him, saying, “I’ve got just what you need.”
Lizzie herded us all into Bibovino as a light rain began to fall on the Marche Des Enfantes Rouge. The sky had taken on a charcoal swirl and umbrellas snapped open in the market place, bodies wall to wall moving. At tables in the back of the boutique wine shop, we gathered as Lizzie unpacked the delicacies that she’d collected along our walk. Breads from the boulangerie, cheeses from the Jouannualt, charcuterie and other treats from different stops. She paired them all with wine from Bibovino, which, she explained, stored most of their wine in boxes in the spirit of sustainability. We ate and drank and laughed as the city of Paris shuffled by a window spattered with rain, Lizzie guiding us along. “Do you taste the nuttiness of this cheese?” “Do you notice anything about the texture of this baguette?”
We staggered from the wine bar tamped full of cheese and bread and wine and something more substantial than those things.
The next morning the sun came up and found me wandering the hauntingly empty streets below our apartment. Those same streets that had driven Dad and I back to our quiet kitchen with our arms full of whatever and our tails between our legs on a normal Sunday. Today was May Day and apprehension hung low and heavy like a fog on the city. Convoys of armored vehicles en route to the protests near the Louvre. Gendarme in full battle rattle, FAMAS assault rifles at the low ready. Shuttered shop windows. People only in transit.
It was enough to leave any tourist feeling out of place.
But I was no longer any tourist.
A boulangerie on a wonky side street caught my eye as I passed it, because a local had just left it at a trot with baguettes sticking out of his paper bag. Lizzie had said to look for that. I marched through the door and the baker sized me up, but I was busy. I pointed at croissants behind the glass, “Du Buerre?” I said.
“Oui.” she fired back.
I ordered 4 croissants, (made with butter, not those curvy margarine fakers), 2 chocolate croissants, and a baguette. She said pleasant sounding things to me in rapid french that I didn’t understand and I paid her with my head held high and slipped back onto those quiet streets on that tense morning, positively oozing with that final thing that Lizzie had given us…
Next week: May Day in Paris…
Paris By Mouth Food Tours:
I would HIGHLY suggest using this tour group. The tours were intimate and incredibly informative. Big props to our guide Lizzie.