capybara / chigüiro

Capybara at the Austin Zoo, Austin TX

The capybara can be found in most South American countries, with a particularly large population in the Amazon. Its name comes from the Brazilian Tupi language meaning “one who eats slender leaves”, since their herbivorous diet is comprised mainly of grasses (although they augment that with vegetables, grains, and their own presumably delicious feces).

Danny Blackner is an actor who is relegated to cinematic obscurity, although one role is particularly memorable – as one of the R.O.U.S. (Rodents Of Unusual Size) that Dread Pirate Roberts battles in the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride. While the capybara falls a few feet short of matching the size of one of Florin’s formidable creatures, they are truly rodents of unusual size. These dog-sized, semi-aquatic cousins of Mickey Mouse run between three and a half to four and a half feet long from nose to stubby little tail, and stand on deer-like legs at a height of around two feet to the shoulders. An adult can weigh anywhere from 70 to 150 pounds.

They’re relatively docile animals, and although they’re essentially giant rats, they’re relatively cute, which makes them desirable as pets. The United States is still wary about making the capybara man’s best friend, but currently they’re legal to keep in Pennsylvania and Texas; being semi-aquatic, they require an environment with a lot of water. In 2011, reports of an odd looking creature was reported near a water treatment plant in Los Robles, California; authorities finally caught up with what was an escaped capybara, but never determined from which joint he busted out.

Grilling capybara meat at Restaurante Brasas Llaneras in Cajicá, Colombia

In South America, the capybara (known in some countries, including Colombia as chigüiro) is hunted for its meat and for its skin (which is used to produce carpincho leather), as well as its fat for pharmaceutical products. Capybara have become livestock in many areas where they’re farm-raised specifically for food. The meat has always been a staple of the indigenous peoples, but over the past decade or so chigüiro has found its way onto the menus of even a few upscale restaurants.

Many South American countries have large Catholic populations, and thanks to a dispensation by the Church, capybara meat is permissible to eat during Lent since it’s strangely considered seafood. In Bogotá, Colombia and its surrounding communities, chigüiro has become a popular item at asaderos (roasters). At restaurants such as Leños y Palos, the meat is draped over conical wire racks suspended above an open wood fire and then cut into steak-sized pieces. Because of its similarity in size and texture to pork tenderloin, it generally goes unrecognized as rodent flesh by unsuspecting diners who are unfamiliar with the name.

My first experience with chigüiro was interesting; I ordered it after having a sample from a butcher block on the street in front of the restaurant, but not knowing what it was. As I knife-and-forked my way through a sweet slab of the meat, I asked the server, “¿Qué tipo de animal es un chigüiro?”, to which he responded in kind to the butcher at the front of the asadero, “Es como un cerdo pero no es un cerdo”. He proceeded to give me the “un momento” index finger while he initiated a Google image search for it on his iPhone. When he handed me the phone with the search results, my dining companions were wondering why I was sporting an ear-to-ear grin as tears of joy tumbled down my cheeks – I simply looked at them and said, “Capybara”.

Chigüiro (front right) on a mixta plate at Leños y Palos in Bogotá, Colombia

Visually-minded people may find the consumption of some rodents a tad off-putting; the joy of ordering cuy off the menu for the first time at a Peruvian restaurant can be dulled by the screams of horror as an intact roasted Guinea pig is brought to the table splayed out across a bed of potatoes. The same is not true for capybara since the animal’s size requires that the meat be butchered to manageable segments. Don’t let the capybara’s disreputable rat cousins dissuade you from sampling this South American delicacy; if you find yourself in a restaurant with chigüiro on the menu, and your dining companions suggest an order or two, close your menu and respond with a smile and say, “As you wish”.

Leños y Palos
Cra. 7 #20-86
Bogotá, Colombia
Twitter: @LenosyPalosOfi
GPS Coordinates: 4°36’25.0″N 74°04’15.4″W

Restaurante Brasas Llaneras
# a 6-144, Cl. 2 #62
Cajicá, Colombia
GPS Coordinates: 4°55’01.0″N 74°01’38.3″W

GALLERY: See images of capybaras and the places that prepare it as food

VIDEO: Watch Val enjoy a serving of chigüiro at Leños y Palos in el Centro de Bogotá: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rx1_UpFSURk

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Let The Chips Fall Where They May

Mac’s Fish and Chip Shop
Santa Barbara, California (CLOSED)

Mac's Fish and Chip Shop in Santa Barbara, California

Mac’s Fish and Chip Shop in Santa Barbara, California

When you’re a European-born chef trained in classical French cuisine, it only stands to reason that the obvious thing to do in order to utilize your culinary talents is to open a chip shop in Santa Barbara, California. Although British expatriate Grant “Mac” MacNaughton offers typical and traditional chippy fare (such as fish and chips with mushy peas), he also playfully takes the menu where few men have gone before. The first indication that MacNaughton has turned the chip shop on its ear is the decor – where most respectable chippies in the U.K. might barely achieve a “B” letter rating in Los Angeles county, Mac’s is sparse, crisp and neat. There’s no menu board menu with plastic letters missing here, no bins of pre-cooked fish or chips under lamps – everything is made to order and the place is spotless.

A sizeable piece of Alaskan cod in Mac's fish and chips

A sizeable piece of Alaskan cod in Mac’s fish and chips

As with any chip shop worth their salt, Mac’s uses cod as their fish of choice; however, instead of the familiar Atlantic cod used for battering and frying, theirs is sourced from Alaska. All of Mac’s fried items (which include the fish and chips) are served in baskets lined with fake newsprint to recreate the British experience without getting ink all over your hands. The ample fish filet is flaky, hot and tender with only a slight residue of oil from the fryer. Bangers are also available from the menu – these are sourced locally, made especially by Shalhoob Meat for Mac’s. Naturally you can also get a side of baked beans (Heinz, of course – the most popular tinned baked beans in the U.K., courtesy of the folks from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania known domestically for their ketchup), the aforementioned mushy peas, curry sauce – everything you’d expect to find in a British chippy right down to the malt vinegar and brown sauce. Mac’s also carries homemade meat pies, including Cornish pastys, Shepherd’s pie and cheese and onion leaving little to want for the displaced Brit, save for possibly some black pudding.

The unique, homemade deep-fried haggis

The unique, homemade deep-fried haggis

As good as Mac’s fish and chips are, I’m as likely to queue up for a newspaper-full in Santa Barbara, California as for a Chicago hot dog, bowl of New England clam chowder or Tex-Mex combination plate – what got me through the open-air archway was the sign in the window advertising something I’d never seen before, even in the U.K. – battered haggis. MacNaughton makes his haggis in large batches, which can be a gamble since it doesn’t keep long once prepared.  Imagine a baseball-sized orb of the illustrious oat and organ mélange, dipped in the beer-based fish batter and deep fried to dark brown. Split with a fork, the steam rises from the gut ball’s innards and up to the nostrils to confirm that Mac’s haggis is the real deal (sans lights (lung), which the state of California bans in either fresh or imported haggis). The taste is a tad less earthy than a sturdy haggis consumed in the U.K., but it is still heady, fragrant and bursting with flavor although in its deep-fried form the inside temperature is slightly less than the surface of the sun.

The delightful mess that is the fried Reese's Peanut Butter Cup

The delightful mess that is the fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup

If you’ve saved room for dessert, Mac’s has taken a cue from New York’s The Chip Shop and offers up a variety of deep fried candy bars. With fried Snickers being old hat, I opted for what sounded like the perfect oil-submersible snack – the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The problem with the Reese’s cup is that the peanut butter turns to lava-like goo in the Frialator which fights off the batter and results in a fried blob; as unattractive as this sounds, the taste is heaven. The fried candy bars are available simply with a light dusting of powdered sugar or nestled in a generous dollop of whipped Chantilly cream and drizzled with Ghirardelli chocolate sauce, and while it may have been overkill I opted for the dressed-up version. The dessert comes with two Reese’s cups, about twice the limit of how much of the ultra-sweet confection I could handle.

Even with the proliferation of British flags and smattering of regional signage I’m not sure I would classify Mac’s as an authentic chippy where you can shut out the masses on State Street and be transported to the Olde Country, but the classic chip shop fare served up with delightfully modern and tongue-in-cheek twist makes Mac’s a nice diversion from the standard Santa Barbara restaurant options; think of it as a chip off the old block.

Mac’s Fish and Chips Shop
503 State St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
GPS Coordinates:  34°25’0.64″N 119°41’44.87″W

VIDEO: Watch Val and Cue the Critic’s Quincy Freeman tackle Mac’s deep-fried haggis and Mars Bar at Trippy Food on YouTube:

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Sons Of The Pioneers

Pioneer Chicken (Bab Han Kki, One Bite)
Koreatown (Los Angeles), California

The 3-piece Pioneer Take Out chicken dinner

The 3-piece Pioneer Take Out chicken dinner

Those who were living in Southern California in the 1970s may recall a time when Pioneer Pete was circling the wagons and flipping the bird at The Colonel; Pioneer Take Out (more commonly known as Pioneer Chicken) was once a formidable opponent, having hatched from the Pioneer Market in Echo Park back in the early 1960s.  The company couldn’t compete with the corporate conglomerate yardbird shacks, and by 1987 founder H. R. Kaufman had manned his last Frialator. The hatchet fell for the last time in 1993 when AFC Enterprises (parent company to Popeye’s) purchased what remained and converted most of the restaurants to Popeye’s.

Bab Han Kki, One Bite, new home of Pioneer Chicken

Bab Han Kki, One Bite, new home of Pioneer Chicken

Today, there are three locations remaining (with full restaurants on South Soto Street and in Bell Gardens); a restaurant on a busy wedge along West Olympic Boulevard closed in 2014 and the building went up for sale (hopefully for some enterprising businessman to reopen as a Pioneer Chicken, rising from the ashes like a phoenix chicken). In the meantime, the assets of the Olympic location reappeared in the Koreatown Plaza Food Court in February of 2015. Loyalists and nostalgia buffs can rekindle that gas flame at the two restaurant locations, but for the food adventurer who wants a taste of the past in an out-of-the-ordinary setting, your best bang for the buck is the Koreatown Plaza location.

The limited Pioneer Take Out menu featuring Pioneer Pete

The limited Pioneer Take Out menu featuring Pioneer Pete

Because of the requirement that they abide by the regulations of the food court, finding Pioneer Chicken proves the adage that life is about the journey, not the destination. With the abundance of neon signage, you won’t find a back-lit throwback cartoon Pioneer Pete sign – the food kiosks carry Korean names, and the chicken is to be found at Bab Han Kki, One Bite. The vinyl banner below the light up Korean food signs provides the minimalist fried chicken menu; there are essentially three dishes from the once-popular chain.

Three Pioneer chicken dinners live under the shadow of bibimbap

Three Pioneer chicken dinners live under the shadow of bibimbap

For the complete mash-up experience, go with the 3-piece meal that comes with 3 sides for $8.99. Forget about your paper cartons or cardboard buckets – when your paging device signals that your meal is ready, it comes served to you on a glass dish. The chicken is perched on a half-moon wire rack to prevent the steam from ruining the magical crispy golden shell that lovingly envelops the meat. The first bite exposes the hot, moist and tender flesh, with the crunchy contrast of the intact coating hinting at a roll in some Corn Flakes. The sides are adequate, with a heavy-handed application of mayonnaise on the potato salad and coleslaw, but the French fries are perfect – golden brown and firm on the outside, hot and pillowy on the inside.

If you like throwing all caution to the wind you can accentuate your meal with Korean sides or main dishes, or just sit back, close your eyes, and go back to the days of the tumbling tumbleweeds and declare yourself a winner. Winner. Chicken dinner.

Bab Han Kki, One Bite
928 S Western Ave #139
Los Angeles, CA 90006
GPS Coordinates: 34° 3’16.22″N 118°18’30.05″W

Watch Val try historic Pioneer Chicken for the first time at Bab Han Kki, One Bite in los Angeles’ Koreatown on Trippy Food on YouTube:

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Pinoy Noir

Dollar Hits
Filipinotown (Los Angeles), California

It's Grill City at the Dollar Hits truck

It’s Grill City at the Dollar Hits truck

Apparently, no one went over the food truck rule book with Filipino upstarts Dollar Hits. For starters, the mobile kitchen isn’t – you can always find them on the middle of a block on L.A.’s Temple Street in Filipinotown in front of a small strip mall and a stone’s throw between hipster Echo Park and the eastern fringes of food-centric Koreatown. The business side of Dollar Hits appears to take place in the omnipresent nondescript white van parked in front of the matching canteen. If you can’t find the truck by sight, fear not – the sound of Pinoy pop music and proprietor Elvie Chan on the megaphone-quality mic will indicate the truck’s location better than your TomTom.

Heaven on a stick

Heaven on a stick

Chan (along with her sisters Nely and Josie) launched the business in 2014 with a unique concept: provide comforting Filipino street food at a price that can’t be touched by the gourmet wagons saturating Los Angeles’ streets. The bulk of the menu is comprised of traditional bites on wooden skewers; each one (with three or four pieces) runs a tidy little dollar each, proving that Dollar Hits is not just a catchy name. The trick here is that the skewers are partially cooked – patrons flaunt their charcoal mastery by finishing the items over grills on the sidewalk. It’s a community affair – friends are made, and street cred is built when the onlookers watch you neatly polish off that $2 balut. Items are ordered off a checklist, and your selection is given to you in a foil casserole pan.

Thick and hearty rice porridge

Thick and hearty rice porridge

The skewers are a thing of beauty, with organs and various bits of a variety of animals marinated and ready for the hibachi – bright orange fluffy kwek-kwek (battered hard-boiled quail eggs), the aptly named Betamax (gelatinous cubes of congealed pork blood), (Isaw) coiled chicken and sliced pork intestines, and chewy, savory Adidas (chicken feet). There’s a spicy, vinegar-based sauce and a sweet sauce for dipping, and the knowledgeable staff will recommend which skewer gets dunked in each. In addition to the skewers, there’s a plethora of other Filipino comfort food such as the aforementioned balut, lumpia, and a thick and almost clear arozcaldo (rice porridge) with onion and toasted garlic, the perfect dish for a brisk Los Angeles evening.

The endless vat of melon juice

The endless vat of melon juice

While soda and bottled water is available, the better way to go is with the bottomless Styrofoam cup of melon juice. Iced down in big plastic vats like agua fresca, the juice isn’t overly sweet, and the bits of pulp are a sweet finish to the drink. Lines can be long (which limits space on the grills) and parking can be tricky (unless you luck out and find a spot in the strip mall after the other businesses are closed), but there isn’t a better bargain to be had anywhere in the city of Los Angeles, where you can eat like the King of Filipinotown for a sawbuck.

After several visits, I haven’t found a questionable item on the menu, so if you bring some cash and an appetite, the hits just keep on coming.

Dollar Hits
2422 Temple St
Los Angeles, CA 90057
GPS Coordinates: 34° 4’18.07″N 118°16’21.39″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Dollar Hits in Los Angeles’ Filipinotown

VIDEO: Watch Val slave over a hot grill at Dollar Hits in Los Angeles on Trippy Food on YouTube

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Dollar Hits, which did not influence the content provided in this article.

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The Tao Of Taos

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Hlaukkwima (South House), America's 1st apartment building

Hlaukkwima (South House), America’s 1st apartment building

Americans of European ancestry imagine a trip to Taos, New Mexico should include browsing through the galleries and studios of the vibrant century-old artist community or a day of exceptional skiing at Taos Ski Valley, yet a visit to the area without experiencing Taos Pueblo is a missed opportunity to understand how a culture that thrived centuries before a lost Christopher Columbus trod roughshod through the New World persevered with pride and determination despite centuries of oppression. The Taos tribe of Pueblo Indians took their name from the Tiwa description of the area as “the place of the red willows”. The pueblo was established approximately a thousand years ago, with most of the adobe dwellings dating between 1000 and 1400 A.D., making it the one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in what is now the United States. Of nearly 2000 Taos tribe members living in the area on ancestral lands, around 150 live full time inside the old pueblo without electricity or running water in living quarters that have been passed down through generations of family.

The red willows from which Taos takes its name

The red willows from which Taos takes its name

The thick adobe walls were designed for insulation from the elements as well as security; entrance to the one or two room dwellings was originally through a hole in the roof via a ladder (which could be retracted for safety). Remnants of the Spanish conquest in the early 17th century are painfully obvious, starting with the 1850 Mission San Geronimo de Taos (which anchors the pueblo and was built by forced labor in an effort to convert the Taos people to Christianity). The original church was built in 1619, but destroyed several times during conflict with the Spanish, as well as the territorial government of the United States; at the entrance to the pueblo, only the bell tower remains, reserved as a holy place to commemorate the men, women and children who died there after the U.S. Calvary put down the Taos Revolt of 1847. The Spanish also introduced the concept of doors and cemetery burials in caskets. While a large portion of the Native American community incorporate some form of Christianity into their belief system, they also maintain much of their original ideology (the Virgin Mary figures prominently in religious imagery, acting as a surrogate for the earth mother).

Chiles drying in the sun

Chiles drying in the sun

With the indignities unleashed upon the Taos people by the Spanish, Mexico, marauding Comanche, and the United States, one has to wonder why they freely and open-heartedly welcome tourists into their ancient home, but they do so in a warm  and inviting manner that is a model of peace and friendship. Before visiting, become familiar with the customs and respect the values and decorum set down by tribal law so that you do not become the ugly American. If local crafts are your souvenir of choice, many shops located at the pueblo offer authentic and hand-made art, including unique glittery pottery infused with mica – ask for permission before photographing tribal members and respect their wishes if they decline.

Mary Esther Winters and son Robbie make fry bread from scratch

Mary Esther Winters and son Robbie make fry bread from scratch

There are no restaurants to speak of in the pueblo, but a unique dining experience is to be had at the Adobe Cafe, located directly across from the church. The tiny one-room cafe is run by Mary Esther Winters (whose Tiwa name translates to Looking for Blueberries) and her son Robbie (Eagle Bow) in a family-bestowed adobe dwelling with a fireplace for heat and a wood stove tucked into a diminutive kitchen. All of the food is made from scratch on the premises; the signature Pueblan fry bread is made from ground blue corn that was grown at the pueblo. While sandwiches, Frito pie, salads, and other substantial menu items appear handwritten on the board, the perfect accompaniment to the sweet fry bread is a hot cup of freshly brewed piñon coffee, flavored with locally grown and roasted piñon (pine nuts). Winters gushes with pride at a large Kodak print hanging on the far wall of the cafe – it is a photo of her grandfather, Ben Marcus, whose image was selected to be one of the 30 by 36 foot illuminated color prints displayed on the Picture Tower at the Kodak Pavilion during the 1964 – 1965 World’s Fair in New York. While her joy in running the cafe is obvious, Winters looks to a time in the near future when she can take Adobe Cafe mobile via a food truck.

A basket of sage outside one of the shops

A basket of sage outside one of the shops

The people of the Taos Pueblo are resilient survivors, keeping alive a way of life simplistic in 21st century terms, but honoring an ancient and noble tradition; the village should be the chief destination of any visit to Taos.

Taos Pueblo
120 Veterans Highway
Taos NM 87571
GPS Coordinates: 36°26’17.22″N 105°32’49.47″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico

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