26 August, 2013

Venezuelan Home Cookin'

Due to a distinct lack of any desire to cook on Sunday in the heat, The Dulcinea and I headed over to Madison's newest (and first?) Venezuelan restaurant, La Taguara which opened earlier this month on the 3500 block of East Washington in what was formerly Dimitri's Gyros. Other than Hugo Chávez and that Caracas is the country's capital, I have to admit to a lot of ignorance when it comes to Venezuela. So why not learn a bit about their cuisine?

The space is steeped in the blue, red, and gold – the colors of the Venezuelan flag. One poster proudly proclaims that the country is home to the tallest waterfall while another notes that, while Venezuela may be equatorial, it features a variety of climates from desert to alpine.

Other than that there would be a lot of corn involved, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Would it lean towards Mexican food or perhaps be similar to the Peruvian food I'd eaten here? The gentleman behind the counter proved to be a wonderful guide to the two perplexed customers who stood before him. To say he was friendly is like saying that Lady Gaga is a bit of a show-off. He was welcoming, explained the menu, and even gave us free samples of the passion fruit juice, tamarind juice, and the sugar cane with lime juice. (All three were very tasty.) He may have been a complete bastard before coming to Madison but he has sure got that Midwestern nice thing down pat.

Here's the tamarind juice:

We were told that many people are turned off by the color. Doofuses. This stuff is grand with its mellow plum-like flavor.

I ordered a Fresskolita.

I ordered it simply because it was the first item listed under Venezuelan sodas. Apparently it's the most popular soda in Venezuela. I was told that, if I ask someone about Venezuela and he or she doesn't mention this stuff, then I can rest assured that they are not from Venezuela. It tastes like cream soda with a dash of bubble gum. Curiously tasty.

As an appetizer I ordered tostones which are smashed green plantains fried to a crisp.

They were nice'n'starchy and who doesn't like fried starches? They came with guasacaca which is a cousin to guacamole. While avocado-based, it's much less viscous and has a wonderful smack of tartness from vinegar. This stuff belongs on every table. The tostones also came with a side of picadillo salad which is pica de gallo ohne the chilis. Plenty of lime juice and cilantro here which was fine by me.

The D ordered Cachapa con Queso y Cochino Frito.

What we have here is a corn pancake folded over Venezuelan cheese along with pork served with more of that fantastic guasacaca and sour cream (nata). The pork was crispy which meant it was a little on the dry side but this is apparently the intent of the dish. The pancake made up for it and it was spongy with the cheese adding moisture. There wasn't an overabundance of the gooey cheese but that was perfectly fine. Hack off a piece, dip it in the nata and/or guasacaca and you've got a perfect fatty mess on your palate.

Not only did I order the most popular soft drink in all of Venezuela, but I also got the country's national dish, pabellon.

Shredded beef is accompanied by black beans, rice, fried plantains, and an arepa which is a corn cake. The rice and beans weren't heavily seasoned but good. While the beef had what looked like minced red pepper, the seasoning took a back seat to the flavor of the meat. My fried sweet plantains found themselves dipped in the guasacaca leftover from the tostones and were great. Silghtly crispy on the outside and warm and sweet on the inside. The arepa was served plain and it too found its way in guasacaca or had some picadillo salad placed atop it.

I was a bit surprised at how simple the food was although perhaps I shouldn't have been. And I don't use “simple” here in a derogatory manner. The seasoning was just not complicated. A little salt & pepper, some peppers, garlic, and onions. Everything seemed to be peasant food, so to speak, made with the staples of the Venezuelan kitchen. Rice and beans – how much more basic can you get? The brighter, more sprightly flavors came from the guasacaca and picadillo salad which added citrus, tartness, and fresh greens to the mix. I felt that I was eating Venezuelan comfort food and loved every bite.

The D grabbed an order of quesillo on her way out the door. Think flan. Oh, it was rich,creamy, and just delectable.

Back in June I pondered why children's menus are generally the culinary equivalent of the Yugo. Earlier this month my question was answered up at Slate. I bring this up because La Taguara gets good marks from me on their kid's menu. Yeah, it's heavy on hot dogs, which are also on the adult menu, but it also has mini empanadas and a smaller portion of pabellon. And there's nary a chicken nugget/tender to be found. Good on them.

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