Café Azul

When I imagine the life of a restaurant owner, I envision daily slogs of hard work and very little personal or family time. Many chefs and industry workers lament how hard it can be to achieve a healthy work/life balance working in restaurants. But Monica Serrano and Mickey Torrealba have successfully figured out a formula that puts family first. Their restaurant, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer, located in the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District, is a true multigenerational, family run business. Their success can be attributed to many factors; timing, location and business model, expert industry knowledge, but above all, delicious homemade Venezuelan food.

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer: In the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District

Monica Serrano was born and raised in the Washington DC area and went to college at the nearby University of Maryland in College Park. Her father grew up in Alicante, Spain and her mother in Colombia. Her husband, Mickey Torrealba, is Venezuelan but like so many of his compatriots, he left his troubled home country and Monica and Mickey ended up meeting and falling in love in Puerto Rico. But without family close by, Monica knew that she wanted to come back to her hometown to put down roots. She figured that a college town with a constant supply of hungry customers would be a great place to open a restaurant. Plus, she recognized that the area was still a largely untapped treasure.

Located just over the border of Washington DC, the communities along the Route 1 corridor in Maryland like Hyattsville and College Park are vibrant communities in their own right but also conveniently located to downtown DC.  They offer the comradery and charm of a small town but with the walkability, diversity and vibrancy of a city. Add a relatively affordable housing stock, large detached homes with big yards and a commercial retail center, and this area has all the right ingredients for growth. Today, the steady influx of new residents and the thriving small business and restaurant scene are evidence that Hyattsville is booming.

When Monica was a child, her father successfully ran two high-end Spanish eateries in nearby Bethesda, MD. She saw first-hand how hard running a restaurant can be and what it took to be successful. She applied the lessons from her father’s success to Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer. Mickey and Monica prefer not to have a space that’s too large. Larger restaurants need more customers and staff to serve them. Plus, preparing larger amounts of food is harder to control for quality and consistency. Although they wanted a cozy spot where people feel welcome to sit down and savor their food, the couple knew that offering table service would increase overhead expenses significantly. Instead, patrons order their food at the counter. They also wisely keep the menu small and manageable, allowing them to deliver only the freshest and highest quality food.

Inside of a Cafe

A cozy interior where patrons can enjoy their food

Venezuelan Pride on Display

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is unique in that the café is located just below Monica and Mickey’s home in one of the first new development projects to spur growth in Hyattsville. Live/work units were once common small business models, particularly in urban areas, but they fell out of favor in the US with the rise of the suburbs. They can still be found more frequently in cities throughout Latin America and Europe, but they are starting to pop up in the US again in conjunction with the urban revitalization happening all across the country. When the Arts District development in Hyattsville was built in 2007, it included a handful of these units with storefront retail space facing the busy, commuter artery of Route 1 and two levels of living space above. Some owners lease out their commercial spaces but others took the opportunity to open their own small businesses right where they live.

There are a few benefits to this model. First, it allows families to work with their children by their side instead of having to commute to a separate place of business and pay for childcare. It’s more cost effective as housing and business costs are bundled together. It also means that since Monica and Mickey own their building instead of lease it, their business costs don’t go up. In fact, they are accruing equity. Since they opened the restaurant in 2009, the cost of real estate has increased steadily in Hyattsville. In a rapidly gentrifying metropolitan area like DC, rising rent is one of the most common reasons why restaurants close their doors but for Monica and Mickey, this isn’t a concern.

In addition to urbanization, the current fast-casual dining trend is another social factor that is working in the family’s favor. Americans want food that is affordable and quick, but still healthy, fresh and delicious. Particularly in the DC area, we also want our restaurants to be as diverse as our population. Monica and her father acknowledge that the fancy, sit-down Spanish restaurants they once owned, and that were so popular two decades ago, might not be as easy to keep afloat today. But Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer has timed the trend of casual dining just right and Hyattsville is the kind of laid back community that welcomes a diversity of cuisine in a casual setting.

Mouth Watering Menu Options

Spend a little time in the restaurant and it becomes clear that the focus on family is the main priority for Mickey and Monica. They have three children ranging in age from 9- to 4-years-old who bustle in and out of the restaurant. It’s clear that they feel as if the café is an extension of their home. The kids might help out by taking a few orders and cleaning some tables, but then they can run upstairs to finish their homework. Monica’s mother and father also regularly stay with them and help out with both the kids and the restaurant. They benefit from her father’s years of experience in the restaurant industry, plus he loves to chat with the customers.

After putting in many long hours upon first opening the café, Monica and Mickey made the decision to close two days a week so they can rest and have quality time with their children, family, and friends. They also close for a month in the summer. Since they believe in teaching their children through experiences, they are committed to making time for them to travel, play and explore. Monica took her daughter to Spain last year to experience where her grandfather grew up. She already has plans to take her to Colombia this summer. Unfortunately, the family won’t be able to visit their father’s homeland anytime soon given the current political unrest. It makes Monica sad to think that they might never see the country where their father was born, where they have roots and where some of their family members are still living. But the restaurant helps to keep their connection to Venezuela strong.

Images of Caracas

Dancing Devil Mask from a Venezuelan religious festival

Monica and Mickey are also very close to the large, robust Catholic community in Hyattsville. They both grew up within the Church attending private Catholic schools and wanted to raise their children in that same tradition. Monica and Mickey’s family attend St. Jerome’s Catholic Church and their children go to St. Jerome’s private Catholic school. St. Jerome’s is a top-rated Catholic school and it is walkable from their home. Their church and school community have supported them during challenging times, and Monica and Mickey show their appreciation by giving back. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer donates meals to new moms who have just given birth in their community. They donate a meal a week, on average. The personal connection with their community and the loyal support they offer keeps the business thriving.

Mickey and Monica bought in a great location; in the heart of the community that is synonymous with home and belonging for them. They bought at a great time; when the area was just starting to be recognized as a destination. Their restaurant industry experience led them to make wise choices in organizing the café. But none of that would matter if the food were not delicious. That is what keeps people coming back. Mickey is the chef and he clearly takes pride and care in preparing the food from his home country. Venezuelan food has become more common in the DC area over the years. Arguably the most well-known dish is the arepa. And arepas are front and center at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer.

Chicken and Avocado Arepa

Arepas are like thick, corn tortillas that are made with cornmeal and cooked on a skillet. They can be stuffed with all kinds of delicious things. Most of the fillings offered at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the most popular found in Venezuela. Arepas can be filled with shredded beef, chicken or pork as well as beans, cheese, vegetables, and plantains. One of my personal favorites is chicken with avocado. The chicken is prepared as a cold chicken salad with mayonnaise and creamy avocado stuffed inside a warm, crispy corn arepa. It is decadent. Arepas are traditionally made with butter but Mickey will make them without for customers who are dairy free. The secret to getting the arepas crispy on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside is to make sure that the cornmeal is well mixed and the skillet is properly heated. When I asked Monica if there is a filling that is popular in Venezuela but that might not go over well here for Americans, she suggested fish. Indeed, I haven’t come across a fish-filled arepa in the DC area yet, but I would definitely give it a try if I did. And a tip if you’re trying an arepa for the first time; you might be given a knife and fork, but you should really just dive into it like you’re eating a hamburger.

Sweet and briny cheese cachapa

As mouthwatering as the arepas are, it was the cachapa that I couldn’t stop thinking about. A cachapa is a corn pancake made with only fresh corn and a little flour, no corn meal like the arepa. The sweet corn goodness of this pancake is then balanced out with the slightly salty Venezuelan queso de mano or homemade cheese. Venezuelan queso de mano is a soft cheese similar to fresh mozzarella but more complex in flavor. Queso de mano is brinier, reminiscent of the sea. Cheese is the difference between a good cachapa and a fantastic one, so Monica and Mickey knew they would have to go to great lengths to find traditional queso de mano. When they first opened, there were no distributors that they knew of making Venezuelan cheese here in the States. But they eventually found one in Miami and so they regularly have fresh queso de mano brought up from Florida.

Traditional Venezuelan Tamal or Hallaca

Another notable offering at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan version of a tamal. Hallacas are filled with a cornmeal dough or masa and chicken, pork, beef or a combination of all three. They also have raisins and capers and olives for that irresistible mix of sweet and salty. They are then wrapped in plantain leaves instead of corn husks like Mexican or Central American tamales. But like Mexican and Central American tamales, they are traditionally eaten around Christmas time. In fact, because of the demand for hallacas at Christmas, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer stays open on Sundays in December. Thankfully though, hallacas are available all year round at the cafe. And since they make them fresh but don’t cook them right away, you can always take them home and freeze them. Once they defrost and you steam them, it’s just like eating a fresh tamal.

Given the diverse background of the family, the menu also inevitably includes treats that are popular in other parts of South and Central America as well. Delicious homemade empanadas are fan favorites and almost always available, as are tequeños which are cigar-shaped, cheese-filled pastries that are very popular with kids. They also do a mean Cubano sandwich at the café. And if you’re not too stuffed for a sweet treat, they even make a delicious tres (and cuatro!) leches cake.

The Beloved Empanada

For ten years the Hyattsville community has been able to enjoy the offerings of Venezuelan food that Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer shares. That’s a lifetime in restaurant years. And there’s no sign that we won’t continue to be able to enjoy Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer for many more years to come. A variety of factors have led up the longevity and success of this local, family owned business where the kids might ring up your food order and their grandfather might deliver your food to the table and chat you up about his recent travels through Central America. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is a local treasure and as a nearby resident who is lucky enough to enjoy the lovingly prepared, delicious food and welcoming ambiance of this very special place, I can safely say that the communities they serve are very grateful that they’re here.

Visit:

Café Azul
4423 Longfellow Street,
Hyattsville, MD 20781
Phone: 301-209-0049

Laura Pimentel is a Washington, DC based foodie who likes to explore her world one bite at a time.

Buen Provecho

Kattia Rojas grew up in San Jose, Costa Rica, in what she describes as a traditional Latin family. She loved to watch as her mother cooked for the family and as her grandmother cooked for guests at the coastal inn that she and Kattia’s grandfather ran. Kattia was encouraged to pursue her studies rather than to spend too much time in the kitchen and it wasn’t until years later that she would blend these interests, with the creation of Buen Provecho Restaurant, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

That blending began in 2000 when Kattia decided that, in order to move forward with her marketing career and to work for a trans-national company, she had to learn English. She had several family members living in Sussex County, New Jersey, and soon found herself living there for what she thought would be one month. One month turned into several and then into a year. As her English improved, she ended up working for her uncle’s company where she met her husband, William, who was also from Costa Rica.

When an opportunity to move West to manage a ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, presented itself, Kattia and William decided to take it. It was there, in Southern Colorado, that Kattia remembered her love of cooking. The ranch’s owners were an elderly couple who enjoyed socializing and Kattia began making desserts and dishes for them to take to events. It was during this period that Kattia realized cooking came naturally to her and that, more importantly, she enjoyed it. “I should take this seriously,” she thought.

Along with other managerial tasks, she began cooking for 20-30 guests at time, harking back to time spent in the kitchen at her grandparent’s inn. It was up to her to create the menu and she would periodically throw a traditional Costa Rican casado into the mix.  Though casado literally means a “married man,” in Costa Rican cuisine it also refers to the meals wives traditionally cook for their husbands, always consisting of rice, black beans, plantians, salad, a tortilla and a protein, usually pork, chicken, or beef.  In addition to traditional casados, Kattia would also cook favorites such as ropa vieja ( shredded beef in a tomato sauce) and arroz con pollo (chicken and rice).  According to Kattia, “arroz con pollo is very traditional in Costa Rica. If you get married there, you have to serve arroz con pollo. If you have a birthday party, you must serve arroz con pollo. It’s what we do. It’s tradition. For my daughter’s birthdays, I always serve arroz con pollo.”

Over time, Kattia and William became full-time assistants to the owners. They spent summers in Pagosa Springs and the rest of the year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where their bosses encouraged them to go back to school. In 2011 Kattia enrolled in the baking program at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM)  and then in the culinary arts program. As a student, she began selling her pastries and desserts to restaurants around Albuquerque. She graduated with a degree in baking and soon began an internship with The Streetfood Institute (streetfoodinstitute.org). The internship helped turn Kattia’s dream into a business. In addition to offering entrepreneurial classes and support, The Streetfood Institute helped her to find a commercial kitchen space to rent.

Kattia began by making tamales. Though New Mexico has its own traditional version, Kattia wanted to introduce Albuquerque to Costa Rican tamales, which use a different kind of masa (cornmeal), often less spicy fillings, and are wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. She began slowly, selling only to friends and to others in the local Costa Rican community, until several of her teachers urged her to expand and begin selling tamales to the public.

In 2015 she and William obtained their first business license and food permit and bought a customized van so they could sell tamales, pastries, and desserts at the Railyard Market on Sunday mornings, in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood. Long lines formed almost immediately and she began to sell out every Sunday. Though markets can be grueling, with pre-dawn load-ins and set-ups, she loved meeting people and watching as they were introduced to Costa Rican flavors. And, through these markets, her reputation grew. She began catering private events, added two more markets to her weekly repertoire and, with the help of one friend from baking school, was making 300 tamales and pastries each week.

In the summer of 2017, she received a call from someone she’d met at one of the markets, who loved her tamales, asking if she’d be interested in opening a restaurant in the El Vado Motel. Originally built in 1937 and located on Route 66, near Albuquerque’s Old Town and the Rio Grande river, The El Vado was being revamped as not only a hotel but as a combination of restaurants, shops, a taproom, and lofts, all surrounding a common patio and fountain. Kattia’s friend, who now managed the El Vado, wanted she and William to sign a lease for one of the soon to be opened restaurant spaces. After discussing it, Kattia and William decided they didn’t feel ready and they decided not to sign.
Over the next six months, the couple they had spent sixteen years assisting needed less help from Kattia and William. They encouraged them to expand their business and to start a restaurant. In 2015, the husband passed away and in January, 2018, on the same day that the wife moved into an assisted care facility, Kattia received another call from her friend at El Vado. There was one spot left and, though smaller than the one they’d originally opted out of, could be perfect for them. Kattia loved the rustic, cool vibe of El Vado’s white stuccoed adobe walls because it reminded her of her grandparents’ inn. By this point Kattia’s confidence had grown because of her success at the markets and she took it as a fortuitous sign that another spot had opened up. She and William decided to take the leap and to officially open Buen Provecho.
The new El Vado opened in May of 2018, with Buen Provecho standing proudly between Zendo coffee and Happy Chickenzz. Kattia tears up remembering the day she first saw the sign hanging above her door and of all of the hard work that had gone into making her dream a reality. Buen Provecho is cozy, welcoming guests with the smell of Costa Rican coffee (roasted specially for the restaurant), tres leches cake, and an assortment of casados


When asked about her menu, Kattia says she spent over a month planning and thinking about it. She knew she wanted to have appetizers, sandwiches, and some larger plates, along with her famous tamales and pastries. Because their space is small, they rent a commercial kitchen where they make all of the tamales and desserts. The meals are all made fresh to order with ingredients bought that day. Although Kattia misses being able to pick mangos and passionfruit in the backyard, she has no trouble finding them, along with other essential ingredients such as coconut, tamarind, and banana leaves, at supermarkets in Albuquerque, especially Ta Lin Market and El Mezquite market.
I visited Buen Provecho twice for this story, once at their stand at the Railyard Holiday Market and once at their El Vado base. At the market, I ordered one of their vegan tamales, filled with mushrooms and topped with sun-dried tomatoes and a tapenade made of capers, green and black olives, roasted red peppers. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it was delicious and easy to eat while strolling through the market. Two women asked me what I was eating and where they could get one as I looked at soaps and candles a few stalls down from Kattia’s. When I visited their restaurant, I ordered the Ropa Vieja casado and Vegetarian Nachos. First of all the meal was beautiful! Garnished with avocado and mango, the plate came with shredded beef in a tomato sauce, perfectly seasoned black beans, picadillo stew (which reminded me of my favorite New Mexican calabacitas), sweet plantains, a salad, rice with a fried egg on top, and a homemade corn tortilla. It was an abnormally warm December day and I sat on the patio, though both the casado and the homemade cheddar cheese sauce drizzled nachos would have gone well with a beer from the El Vado Taproom, had I wanted to eat indoors


Within two weeks of opening Buen Provecho, Kattia and William had lines snaking out the door and realized they would need to hire more help quickly. They now have 8 part time employees, most of whom Kattia met through the baking program at CNM. When asked about plans to expand, she says that the goal is to open another Buen Provecho in 2019 and possibly more beyond that. Because business has been so good, she has had to cut down on markets which she misses but hopes to do one per month when the season returns. Her eleven year old daughter loves to help at the markets and, as Kattia tells me, “is proud of her mom.”
When asked if she thinks the American Dream is possible, she says yes, but it is not easy. She and William have achieved it through hard work, education, saving money, and a periodic leap of faith. She says it has all been worth it because of the happiness she feels by sharing her food and culture with her customers. As it says on the back of her menu, “my customers are like my family and my food is my gift to them.”
Buen Provecho!

BuenProvechoABQ.com
2500 Central Ave SW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
(505) 550-9668

Winter Hours:

Tuesday- Thursday 11:30-6:30
Friday 11:30-7
Saturday 11-7
Sunday 11-5

The Author: Claire Sandrin lives, writes, and eats in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can follow her adventures at smagik.com or @smagikstudio on Instagram

Kattia Rojas grew up in San Jose, Costa Rica, in what she describes as a traditional Latin family. She loved to watch as her mother cooked for the family and as her grandmother cooked for guests at the coastal inn that she and Kattia’s grandfather ran. Kattia was encouraged to pursue her studies rather than to spend too much time in the kitchen and it wasn’t until years later that she would blend these interests, with the creation of Buen Provecho Restaurant, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

La Chiva

Walking into La Chiva is like coming home. Winter is still in full force in downtown Denver, Colorado, and the drastic 20 (and sometimes, 30) degree difference between day and night makes the brisk evening air feel that much colder. But being greeted by the smell of hot oil and spices and feasting your eyes on the greenery and vibrant colors in the cozy little restaurant are enough to warm even the coldest hands and cause even the fullest tummies to grumble.

Spanish music plays softly over the speakers while Carmen dances and sings along in the kitchen. She gives prompt service behind the register to her guests and always with a bright smile. Her husband, Jorge, is busy cooking in the kitchen. The Colombian couple are the proud owners of La Chiva, a restaurant specializing in Colombian cuisine which originally started as a food truck.

La Chiva – A Brief History

“La chiva” is a Colombian party bus and the perfect name for their food truck, which still makes appearances around the city. The couple thought it best to start as a food truck and when the time came, open a brick and mortar restaurant. The food truck has been traveling around Denver for 4 years and the brick and mortar was opened about 8 months ago.

The story of La Chiva was many years in the making. From an early age, Jorge could always be found in the kitchen. “Growing up, I loved food, I loved going to the kitchen. My brothers…they would tease me because a man’s not supposed to be in the kitchen.” Jorge immigrated to the United States with his family as a junior in high school. He attended college where he met Carmen, who had immigrated to the U.S. in order to further her college education. Carmen went into the healthcare field, while Jorge started his career in IT. He worked in the IT field until retirement, but opening a restaurant had always been his dream.

Carmen and Jorge lived in New Jersey, Chicago, and Atlanta before settling in Denver to be close to their collegiate daughter. “Everywhere I went, I wanted to find Colombian food,” says Jorge. Jorge decided to attend culinary school in order to get the skills he would need to achieve his goal. While opening a restaurant seemed intimidating, a chef at the culinary school suggested that he first open a food truck in order to get a feel for the food industry. And the dream what was La Chiva finally came into existence.

While the name “La Chiva” has been humming around Denver for several years, the restaurant is only 8 months old. “Having the restaurant, it gives us the chance to explore other things and serve other foods that we just can’t from the truck” says Carmen.

Although both Carmen and Jorge are from Colombia, they grew up in different areas and their experience of food was very different. Carmen hails from a city called Cali, a city near the coast where the food is characterized by freshness and vibrancy. Carmen remembers enjoying a lot of fresh fruit and fish in her hometown. Jorge, on the other hand, comes from the capital of Bogotá, which is high in the mountains. The population there enjoys dishes that are heavier in carbs (mostly in the form of root vegetables, such as potato and yucca) and meat. Soups are also popular in this region. When opening La Chiva, they decided to represent recipes and dishes from all areas of Colombia, even researching recipes suggested by others, both native Colombian and visitor alike. “Culture influences a lot, not only what we’re trying to serve but how it’s being received and perceived,” explains Carmen, who represents the food she loves by using as much organic food as possible. She even grows her own herbs for the restaurant, some of which live on the window sill at the front of the restaurant. “I grow a lot of the herbs…I try to have that sense of freshness.”

Opening a Colombian restaurant was a brave endeavor indeed, considering the majority of Latin food eateries in Denver feature Mexican cuisine, which is a very different dining experience. But Jorge stands by his food. “I was confident that once people started tasting it, they would appreciate it a lot more and learn about it. Then, I would be OK.” While admitting that it was a risk, Jorge also knows that having a unique flavor would be an asset. “I certainly love it so I figure, why wouldn’t people love it?”

 

The Meal

The meal starts with a Latin food staple: empanadas. Many Latin dishes that are well-known in America are usually as variegated among the Spanish-speaking world as barbeque recipes in the U.S., and empanadas are no exception. At their core, empanadas are a filling wrapped in dough. These fillings can be savory (meat or vegetarian) or they can be sweet (usually fruit or chocolate) and the choice of dough is meant to compliment the filling. While usually fried, these sumptuous Spanish bites can also be baked.

Tonight, the appetizers are beef and chicken empanadas. The meat is tender and well-seasoned, encircled in a crispy pillow of masa (corn flour dough), making for a very rich and decadent empanada. On the side is a simple vinaigrette, which cuts the richness and completes the dish by striking a perfect balance.


Meat Empanadas with vinaigrette

Reflecting Carmen’s desire for freshness, the menu at La Chiva boasts fruit beverages made with tropical fruits of the region. These frothy fruit blends cleanse and refresh the palate.


Front: Limonada Cartegenera, Back: Guava Juice

Arroz con camarones (translation: rice with shrimp) is a deceptively simple name for a very flavorful plate. The combination of yellow rice; plump, pink shrimp; and motley pick of vegetables makes this dish a celebration for the eyes and the taste buds. Spices from the rice combine with natural sweetness from the shrimp, peas, and carrots and earthiness from the onions and beans to give this dish a well-rounded flavor harmony.

The arroz con camarones is served with a side of both savory and sweet plantains. Plantains are plants that resemble bananas in appearance – they start out a vibrant green but turn yellow as they ripen. Both green and yellow plantains are cooked and eaten and while they are the same plant at different stages of ripening, the have an immensely different flavor.

Green plantains are usually fried twice and then dusted with salt. Their starchiness is closer to a potato than at banana at this stage and their taste and texture is similar to a thick French fry – salty and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Yellow plantains, on the other hand, are sweeter, yet still very starchy. They can be baked, but are also usually fried. The cooked yellow plantain tastes sweeter, like a caramelized banana with a toothsome texture, making it a harmonious side in both sweet and savory applications.


Arroz con camarones

The Bandeja Moñatanera (literal translation: “mountain tray”) is a traditional Colombian dish that arranges red beans, white rice, chorizo (Spanish sausage), sweet and savory plantains, arepa (flatbread made from cornmeal), chicharrón (pork belly), pork ribs, avocado, and a fried egg together. This dish is a deconstructed plate: the guest can combine each element in any way desired to experience a plethora of flavor combinations. The red beans are served in a deep, rich broth and the meats are charred and smoky with plenty of melty fat. The avocado and fried egg provide a complimentary creamy element, while the arepa is warm and homey. Any pairing of two or more elements creates a unique palate experience, new and exciting until the last bite.


Bandeja Moñatanera

Traditionally, flan is a Spanish dessert custard with a caramel syrup topping. The desserts served at La Chiva are specials – not on the regular menu. One of the special desserts tonight features this traditional favorite with a La Chiva twist: coconut flan.

The flan is a thick custard bursting with coconut flavor and a hint of almond extract. The warm, nutty flavor pairs with the milky consistency and light sweetness of the dessert – a rich, dark cup of coffee makes the perfect couple.

Culture

“Is it like you remembered?” inquires Carmen gleefully. The customer responds with an emphatic “Oh, yes!” and Carmen smiles brightly, then starts chatting in Spanish with another guest paying at the register. Jorge stands behind the kitchen counter, sporting his signature brown fedora. He waves at customers leaving the warm restaurant and venturing into the snowy and bleak evening air.

Indeed, culture is an important ingredient weaved into every recipe made here at La Chiva. A strong sense of connection with the community permeates this snug little restaurant, coupled with a comforting hospitality that breeds contentment – no wonder this restaurant is full when there’s 5 inches of snow on the ground. It’s an excellent place to find shelter from the weather – and also a strong cup of Colombian coffee.


Jorge and Carmen – Owners of La Chiva

VISIT:

La Chiva
1417 S Broadway, Denver CO 80210
(720) 389 9847

About the Author:
Colleen’s WordPress Blog
Born and raised a military brat, Colleen has always been passionate about cuisine and culture. Fascinated by infinite combinations of flavors, she uses every experience to influence her cooking and to hone her palette. Colleen currently resides in Denver, Colorado with her husband, Cecilio, and dog, Duncan.

Boca do Brasil Restaurant

The Las Vegas Valley is dotted with strip malls of all shapes and sizes that seemingly drive the functioning of this metropolis. You'll see shops lit up as bright as the lights on Fremont Street with words like “smoke shop” and “laundromat”, or for the slightly more popular centers, Dunkin Donuts, Carl's Jr. and the like. Properties like these have filled in almost every piece of vacant land within the city limits to the point where our authenticity feels like it can be summed up in a credit rating from Standard & Poors. Assimilation into this kind of cityscape is key for any restaurant to survive, and it's because of this that you will find some of the most authentic and memorable eateries within these strip malls.

Tucked away in a tiny plaza with the likes of Enterprise Rent-a-Car and two fast food restaurants, you'll come across Boca do Brasil. The fast food drive-thru’s and U-shape of the center make parking tight, but you’ll soon find out that risking the possibility of being towed is worth it. As you approach the front door, the scents of freshly baked breads and seasoned beef waft past the hinges and reel you in. Roughly three feet in front of the entrance, you hit a short dividing wall with display glass that rises roughly another foot, giving you a front row view of the wood-fired oven and prep tables where the chefs proudly display their work. As you walk into the main dining area, you immediately notice the country’s flair for bright colors that inspire relaxation and happiness.

The walls are painted bright shades of yellow and green with paintings of hard-working fishermen and the amazing landscape that call Brazil home. Even the tablecloths are green, a patriotic nod to the Brazilian flag. A large photo of one of the country’s many waterfalls covers an entire wall next to the restrooms. Subtly, this tells you everything. The “rush-n’-go” atmosphere you find in most American dining establishments has no place here. Like the waterfall, you move at your own pace; enjoying the moment in which you find yourself. This restaurant is merely the creek-bed that guides the way to your cliff where the moments shared between you and your company, like the water, flow freely from dish to dish before dispersing, only to return some time later after yet another cycle of life has passed.

This is an all-Brazilian staff, led by head chef and owner, Angela Mahaeta. During a trip to Las Vegas to visit her son, she decided to move and bring her passion for authentic cuisine with her. Then, in 2011, she opened the doors to what can rightfully be claimed as the only “homemade” Brazilian restaurant here in town. Angela initially started with a menu that incorporated many Greek dishes, characteristic of a population that has such a noticeable presence throughout southeastern Brazil and Sao Paolo. The menu now, however, is comprised of mainly traditional Brazilian dishes with some old favorites thrown in, like the Lamb or Chicken Gyro, Greek Salad with imported Kalamata Olives and feta cheese and lamb-topped “Greek Pizza” with tzatziki sauce. As for that “samba” flavor that most patrons here crave, you’ll certainly find that in plenty. A can of Guarana Antarctica is a terrific way to start everything. This soft drink is a staple of the Brazilian culture. In addition to the 16 other ingredients common to the Amazon Rainforest, it’s main ingredient is the natural caffeine from the fruit of the indigenous Guarana plant.  This fruit, with it’s coffee bean-sized seeds, has been used by the local population for almost 3,000 years. Also, their Coxinha is second to none. A crispy, fried potato dough stuffed with shredded chicken and a brand of cheese named Catupiry, native to Brazil thanks to an Italian immigrant Mario Silvestrini who introduced it in 1911. An additional “must” on the appetizer menu is an order of the Pao de Queijo. Palm-size balls of baked potato dough with a warm, cheesy center that are far more flavorful than they appear at first glance.

Those already familiar with the larger Brazilian steakhouses will recognize Picanha; if not by the name then certainly by the flavor. This distinctive cut of sirloin steak surrounded by a thick strip of crispy fat that requires nothing more than a few cloves of garlic and a pinch of salt as seasoning, if at all. While some may be concerned by the lack of added spices, rest assured that what the cut lacks in seasoning it more than makes up for in beefy flavor with its perfect char that only a real “churrascaria” can do. If it’s closer to lunchtime and you find steak a bit heavy before returning to work, other menu items common throughout Latin America are here. Various filets of beef, chicken or fish can be found a milanesa (breaded and fried) or grelhado (grilled) with traditional rice and black beans on the side. Something else? Carne com Batata is a hearty, stew-like dish with a robust serving of potatoes, carrots and tender beef soaked in a mixture of olive oil, wine and garlic. Or go with the Bife a Cavalo so you can get protein from both the thin cut of grilled beef and the two fried eggs on top. These pair very well with the rice and black beans, by the way.

I learned something new here. Brazilian food is far more influenced by foreign culinary cultures than I would’ve guessed. Menu items like Beef Strogonoff, a Russian-born dish with chunks of sautéed beef and rice covered in a sauce made of a sour cream named “smetana” that’s found in Eastern Europe, the Chicken or Eggplant Parmegiana and various spaguetti (Portuguese spelling) dishes are very popular amongst the locals and have become staples of typical Brazilian dining. Much of this has to do with the authentic ingredients that are used by the staff, many of which you can purchase for yourself directly from the display shelves behind the host counter. This is where you’ll also find their homemade desserts on display. According to the Brazilian Association of Chocolate, Cocoa, Peanut, Candy & Derivatives (yes, Brazil has their own association monitoring the Sweets Market), the average annual consumption of sweets is 2.6 kg per person. Brazilians clearly love their sweets, and Boca do Brasil clearly know how to satisfy someone’s sweet tooth. Their list of desserts changes from day to day, but you’ll always find a native candy wrapped tightly in individual neon pink wrappings on the display shelf, known as Sonho de Valsa. These perfect, palm-size bonbons have a cashew cream surrounded by multiple layers of chocolate and a wafer cone that gives it a crunchy texture that elevates it to dessert perfection.

I’m no stranger to South America. I’ve lived there on more than one occasion and I have friends that are from various countries throughout Latin America. For whatever reason, Brazil is the one country that I’ve never visited. Boca do Brasil may not be in Brazil, but the atmosphere you feel from the moment you walk in is nothing short of pure Brazilian. It’s easy to understand why many Brazilians always appear so relaxed. Lush rainforests, beautiful beaches and attractive people are no longer the only reasons I’m interested in visiting. Knowing how satisfying their cuisine is makes the idea of finally buying my ticket even more probable, and I have Boca do Brasil to thank for that.

Visit

Boca do Brasil
4825 S Fort Apache Rd,
Las Vegas, NV 89147
Tel: 702)655-9999

 

While he now calls Las Vegas home, Darren J. Alvino, II is an avid traveler who has lived, worked and studied on almost every continent. Four years as an Army Ranger, a B.A. in International Studies from The University of Colorado and an boyhood fascination of National Geographic have ingrained in him a deep love & respect for all aspects of our worlds’ cultures, especially their cuisine.

Rincon de Buenos Aires Restaurant

Rincon-de-Buenos-Aires-1

Bright neon lights in every conceivable color of the rainbow beckon tourists, vying for every ounce of their limited attention span on the strip.  This is Las Vegas, loud, brash and distinctly unapologetic, a surreal fantasy world in the middle of the Nevada desert. The ubiquitous cheap buffets aimed at enticing tourists from the hinterland have now given way to haute cuisine, with every chef worth their mettle clamoring to open an outpost of restaurants on the strip.  From Joel Robuchon to Iron Chef Bobby Flay, you haven’t really made it anymore until you’ve opened a restaurant on the Las Vegas strip.

Step away from the strip and the frenetic pace dies down and Las Vegas reveals it’s human side. The real Las Vegas, if you will.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on Spring Mountain Road, where Las Vegas’ own Chinatown is situated.  In this neighborhood, where the strip gives way to strip-malls, one finds dozens of Asian restaurants parked cheek and jowl, vying for attention. Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese are all represented here without the over-the-top faux-glitz that has now become emblematic of the Las Vegas culture.

In the midst of this Asian enclave is where you will find Rincon de Buenos Aires, a testament to the melting pot American cities have become. At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss it as a mishmash of foreign cultures, since the restaurant bills itself as an Argentinian restaurant and an Italian deli.  However it is important to note that roughly 70% of Argentinians have some Italian heritage and Italian food in Argentina is intrinsically woven into the traditional meat-centric cuisine.

Rincon de Buenos Aires is exactly what it says it is: a little corner of Las Vegas that will transport you, from the second you walk through the door, to one of the grandest cities in South America. A city with stunning architecture and a distinctly European vibe that has also endured one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has known. While the Dirty War has been over for decades, you are reminded of it every Thursday by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers whose children ‘disappeared’ as a consequence of their activism against the then government.  In the early 2000s, Political corruption was so severe that it torpedoed the entire country into such economic turmoil that they’re still recovering to this day. But Buenos Aires is a survivor and still endures as one of the most charming cities in South America.

Any self-respecting resident of Buenos Aires will tell you, it is all about the food. Similarly, here the pictures of tango dancers, scenes of Buenos Aires and highlights of Argentine soccer on TV screens do little to distract from the food.  The meal starts off with warm baked bread served with chimichurri, a vegetal blend of green herbs, garlic and olive oil. Argentinian empanadas, the ubiquitous pockets of pastry with fillings ranging from beef and chicken to corn are an ideal starter.  Both baked and fried versions are available, along with uncooked versions meant to be finished off at home. Also apparent is the Argentinian love for mayonnaise, in the form of Salade Russe or Russian salad. Pasta, in various forms, and Milanesa- a breaded chicken cutlet, are a nod to the Italian influence in Argentina. That said, the star of the show is the Argentinian grill or Parillada. 3-5 different cuts of meat are brought to the table on a charcoal grill with a side of chimichurri on the side.  One lets their meat cook to their desired doneness, and then just dig in. Different versions of the parillada are available, ones with sweetbreads and blood sausage for the more adventurous, and others with less exotic meats.  And to wash it down, Renee, the owner stocks a number of wines from the famous Mendoza Valley.  A Malbec will usually suffice quite well.  If you’re in a more casual mood, there are lighter options; even sandwiches that the owner, Renee, claims I would’ve fallen in love with, had I not had such a craving for steak. She serves traditional Argentinian sandwiches like choripan filled with Argentinian sausage and the gut-busting Argentinine staple- the lomito- bursting with steak, ham, cheese and a fried egg. For dessert, Dulce de Leche,or milk caramel reigns supreme, flavoring everything from flan and alfajores to milhojas, a ‘thousand’ layered cake. In a hurry? No problem. There’s a roughly twenty-foot meat and cheese display case, as well as additional aisles and shelves in the back with everything an Argentine or South American heart desires. Whether it’s yerba for Mate or Dulce de Leche, this little rincon has you covered. And, as Renee will tell you, just like in Argentina, the closing time listed on the door is only a guideline, not a rule.

You would be excused for thinking that Renee was a Porteno from Buenos Aires, but she hails from Barahona in the Dominican Republic, a beach town roughly three hours east of the capital of Santo Domingo, Renee and her family moved to the United States to escape a sky-high unemployment rate brought on by years of political corruption and economic chaos. After a first stop in Miami, she arrived in Las Vegas twenty-one years ago. It all changed when eleven years ago the previous owners, friends from Argentina who were struggling to keep the doors open finally agreed to sell the restaurant to them. Since then, Renee and her son-in-law Johnny have created a business that has survived the worst recession this country’s seen since 1929.

The success of Rincon de Buenos Aires lies in the tight-knit family that runs the show. For most, it would seem improbable that a mother-in-law and son-in-law could work so closely together with such success. However, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s that very relationship that has fortified this establishment over such a lengthy period and enabled everything to function almost seamlessly. Here in our country, and especially in this city, it’s easy to get blinded by bright lights and massive billboards while losing sight of what matters. It’s through the hard work and family values that Renee, Johnny and their family have been able to steer their restaurant in the right direction, making it all it can be. It’s not just a rincon representing of one of the most beautiful cultures in South America and the world. It’s the seven-lane 9 De Julio street at eleven o’clock at night; a random tango class taking place with their doors open in Palermo; it’s the entire city banging pots and pans in unison to protest another audacious proposition by their government. It’s all Buenos Aires… and, that would make any Porteno feel right at home.

Visit:

Rincon de Buenos Aires
5300 Spring Mountain Rd # 115,
Las Vegas, NV 89146
(702) 257-3331

While he now calls Las Vegas home, Darren J. Alvino, II is an avid traveler who has lived, worked and studied on almost every continent. Four years as an Army Ranger,  a B.A. in International Studies from The University of Colorado and an boyhood fascination of National Geographic have ingrained in him a deep love & respect for all aspects of our worlds’ cultures, especially their cuisine.