Welcome to part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including the most over the top dessert we’ve ever eaten, a pork sandwich showdown, gourmet guinea pig, why you should eat at a place called Ugly American, and a little dish we like to call Fanny’s Frijoles that you can make at home. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2014, part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the Year.
Now, in no particular order, here’s the…
Best Food & Beverages of 2014
Best gin and tonic: Colombia is nuts for gin and tonics at the moment. Bars like Gordo in Bogota are making their own tonic water and the gin selection in good bars finally includes more than just Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire. Most bars serve their gin and tonics in huge snifters lined with thinly sliced cucumber. At Bar al Lado, inside La Escuda de Quijote restaurant in the El Peñon hood of Cali, the bartender has half a dozen gins to choose from (including Gin Mare and others I’d never heard of) and makes his G&T with hand crushed juniper berries and garnished with a carefully flamed sprig of fresh rosemary (below). The result is the crispest, freshest, most “ginny” version we had all year.
Best pizza: It was a veritable pizzapalooza in 2014 with not one but two outstanding examples tied for best pizza of the year. D’Baggio Pizza in Riobamba, Ecuador turns fresh, delicious thin crust pizzas with homemade sauce from a real wood-fired pizza oven (US$13.50-US$23.50 for a 12 slice pie, smaller sizes available). On the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, on the coastal highway between the towns of Sua and Same, you will see a sign for Simons Carne. Make a stop for great square pizza (US$7 to US$25) and decent locally made craft beer on tap.
Best wacky breakfast: Years ago in the small town of Salamina, Colombia the owner of El Polo Bakery devised a way to add eggs to his menu without installing a stove: he used the milk steamer arm on his coffee machine to steam eggs mixed with chopped ham and butter inside a coffee cup. The results, huevos al vapor (steamed eggs), are still offered today. They are hot, fluffy, rich and, yes, a bit wacky.
Best meal, period: Leonor Espinosa is not the only chef claiming to be “reinventing traditional Colombian cuisine” but she is the only one who’s doing it this well. At her chic, acclaimed Bogotá restaurant, Restaurane Leo, local, traditional, and often obscure ingredients and techniques are the cornerstones of elegantly presented dishes. You can order ala carte, but do yourself a favor and choose one of the two tasting menus. Every one of the plates was gasp-worthy in presentation and flavor. Truly creative, but never silly, dishes included Chinese potato dusted cones filled with creamy crab with olive oil pearls on top, succulent dollops of rich, slow-cooked beef tail served on a bed of creamy manioc with basil foam and ant-encrusted seared tuna, and elegant salads. The female sommelier (the chef’s daughter) provided excellent wine pairings and the service was informed and smooth. Oh, and say yes to the fresh lemonade with coffee. It was complex and refreshing and an improvement on both beverages. No wonder Leo Cocina y Cava was added to the list of the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants this year.
Best bargain burger in Ecuador: Cafe Dios No Muere, in a 400-year-old building on a short pedestrian street between the historic center of Quito and the San Marcos neighborhood, is owned by Mathieu Charles Guillory P. He’s a dapper dresser who came to Ecuador from Louisiana 13 years ago to grow coffee and chocolate, which he still does. He opened Dios no Muere in 2011 and, in addition to New Orleans classics like gumbo and jambalaya, he dishes up the best bargain burger in Ecuador. Generous patties are hand shaped with fresh spices, they’re not overcooked and they come on tasty seeded buns with real spicy mustard, onion, tomato and lettuce and fresh made yucca fries plus a non-alcoholic beverage for US$4.
Best over-the-top dessert: Criterion, from Colombia’s famously foodie Rausch brothers, is number 19 on the 2014 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and one of the swankest, most sophisticated restaurants in Bogotá (and that’s saying something these days). When it comes time for dessert the pastry chef unleashes his inner child to create something called the Dessert Placemat. First, a silicone mat is placed over the table top. Next, the pastry chef arrives with cart heavy with the tools of his trade–rich sauces, fresh berries, at least two flavors of homemade ice cream, and half a dozen fresh made indulgences including tiramisu, key lime pie, cheesecake, and more. These ingredients are placed on the mat until you are faced with edible art so ample that comes with a deep spatula for mixing and grabbing. Watch the creation of our Dessert Placemat in our video, above.
Best sandwich: Ladies and gentlemen, we have another tie! Sanduches El Primo in Guayaquil, Ecuador (on the corner of Rocafuerte and Mindiburu streets, 10 am to 7 pm every day) does not look like much, just a round, closet-sized kiosk plunked down on the sidewalk. However, this is where proprietor El Primo (cousin in Spanish) has been serving up one of the country’s best sanduches de pernil (pork leg sandwiches) for the past 20 years. For less than US$2 you get a sandwich made on a yucca bread roll (like a denser, smaller sub roll) packed with hand sliced roasted pork leg (marinated in yogurt for extra moistness), pickled onion and chopped iceberg lettuce topped with some chicharron pork crackling and, if you like, a few drops (careful!) of fiery homemade pepper sauce all moistened with a spoonful of hot pork drippings (below, right). El Primo goes through seven huge pork legs a day to satisfy a constant crowd of in-the-know Guayaqueños and, now, you. Quito, Ecuador has no shortage of pork sandwich sellers either and we tried many of them during the three weeks we spent in the city in 2014. For our money, the best version, hands down, is from El Sanduches on Plaza Independencia in the historic center of the city. Here US$4.90 gets you a crusty baguette cut into three length-wise slices and filled with sliced smoky pork, cole slaw, and avocado. Add as much homemade (medium) hot sauce as you like and you’ve got something close to an Andean po’boy.
Best North American favorites in Colombia: From chicken and waffles at a place called Ugly American to real BBQ and perfectly respectable hot dogs, Bogotá, Colombia is the place to be for awesome renditions of North American favorite foods.
Best pie: You may be planning to visit the town of Otavalo in northern Ecuador for its famous Saturday market. Don’t. The market has seen better days. Instead, visit Otavalo for the pie. The Shenandoah Pie Shop, on Plaza de Ponchos, serves more than 10 types of pie daily including apple (below), blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, lemon meringue and many more. They are all filled with fresh ingredients nestled in flaky crust. At less than US$2 per generous slice, it’s the cheapest way to bring back memories of childhood treats from grandma’s kitchen. Thanks to Laurence of Finding the Universe for the tip and the awesome pie eating company.
Best happy hour: La Xarcuteria Gastropub in Bogotá puts on an epic happy hour. Every day (except Sundays and holidays) from 4 pm to 7:30 pm then again from 10:30 pm to closing time all cocktails (which start at around US$6 full price) are 50% off and bottles of wine and all beer (including locally made Chelarte craft brew on tap) are 30% off. They cure and smoke their own meats and turn out an awesome burger too, so come hungry not just thirsty.
Best Italian: Barichara is, by far, the most beautiful colonial town in Colombia. Another reason to visit? The best homemade Italian food we had all year. Restaurante Al Cuoco is run by an Italian transplant who dishes up homemade pasta in a simple but welcoming restaurant he set up in the garage of his home. It can be difficult to find and hours are erratic but your efforts will be rewarded.
Best gourmet rodent: Guinea pig, aka cuy in Spanish, is a delicacy in many places in the Andes where it’s common to see the flayed rodents spinning slowly on roadside rotisseries. What is slightly less common is to see cuy on the menu at a fancy restaurant, but at La Gloria in Quito, Ecuador, cuy is featured proudly and deliciously. Unlike at roadside restaurants, the cuy here is not served whole. Instead, pieces are fried in vegetable oil before being pan-fried and served on a bed of peanut and chili sauce (US$16.50). The result is moist, tender, crispy, and rich–like fried duck instead of fried chicken.
Best new dish we learned how to cook: While renting an apartment in Medellin, Colombia so we could catch up on work, we hired a wonderful woman named Fanny to come in once a week and clean. Like most housekeepers in Latin America, Fanny offered to cook a meal as part of her day hire and one day Karen asked her to teach us how to make one of her family’s favorite dishes instead. She gave us a grocery list and the next week Fanny taught us how to make a Colombian staple: slow-cooked beans rich with spices, sweet carrots, and sausage. We dubbed them Fanny’s Frijoles and the recipe is below. You’re welcome.
Fanny’s Frijoles Recipe
1 pound (500grams) dried Red Cargomata beans (or any large, meaty, red bean you can find)
2 large carrots, peeled
8 links of your favorite sausages
1 yellow or white onion, diced
3 large tomatoes, blanched and peeled
Turmeric to taste
Half a bouillon cube
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tbs of olive oil
Half a bunch of cilantro, chopped
Avocado for garnish
Soak beans in water overnight. Drain and inspect them, discarding any damaged beans. Peel and trim carrots and put them into a pressure cooker whole. Add the sorted, drained beans. Cover with 2-3 inches of fresh cold water and secure the pressure cooker lid. Bring to a boil and simmer until beans are tender (about one hour, depending on the type of beans you are using). There will still be ample water left in the pot even after the beans are cooked.
While beans are cooking, blanch and peel the tomatoes and smash them. Dice the onion and add it to a small frying pan with the turmeric, bouillon cube and oil. Sautee until the spices are incorporated and the onion is browned. Add the smashed tomato at the end and stir, breaking up the tomato as you go.
Remove the cooked carrots from the bean pot and puree them in a blender or food processor along with some bean water. Return the blended mixture to the pot with the beans.
Add the sautéed onion, tomato and spices to the pot with the beans and stir.
Slice your sausage into bite-size pieces and add them to the pot with the beans. Return the pot to the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes to cook the meat then stir in the chopped cilantro and add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve immediately over white rice garnished with sliced avocado.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador