They look like noodles, but they taste like fish. So what are they? my dining companion wants to know. He discovered the long, skinny ribbons in his seafood soup, or to be more precise, his cazuela de mariscos. The names means seafood casserole, although the huge bowl of creamy stew studded with scallops, shrimp, octopus, squid, oysters and chunks of fish resembles a New England seafood chowder more than a casserole. There are lots of these long and noodly items in the soup, and you'd think they were some kind of pasta, but when you bite them, they have that resilient fish-protein texture.
"¿Qué es?" I ask the Colombian waitress as I hold one of the dripping streamers above the bowl. The woman, who speaks only Spanish, either doesn't know what it is or thinks I'm crazy -- possibly both. And I can't seem to get the attention of the chef who's sitting at a table up front watching a Colombian television program, a popular pastime here at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet. The Colombian network is broadcasting a skimpy bikini fashion show, and the chef is not about to be distracted.
We're seated on backless benches at one of nine picnic-type tables in the modern shopping-center space. A collection of framed prints by Botero (a Colombian artist who paints rotund people) graces the walls. The restaurant is one of several Colombian businesses in the Hamilton Plaza shopping center, a little slice of South America on Veterans Memorial between Beltway 8 and FM 1960. There's also a Colombian bakery, a Colombian bar and a 24-hour Colombian water-and-ice store (yet another South American mystery).
I have ordered the Gourmet's Dish, a collection of grilled meats and "pork skin" served with rice, beans, salad and a corn patty called an arepa. I expected the pork skin to be crunchy fat bits like chicharrones. Instead, a thick stripe of segmented pork has been deep-fried. A bit of crackly skin, crunchy fat and chewy meat comes off in each neat little chunk. It tastes like bacon jerky. The meats -- a steak, chicken breast and pork cutlet -- have been pounded flat and grilled plain. They're served with no sauce, on a plate with a fried plantain, a lame scattering of iceberg and a chilled arepa. The stiff white corn patty has all the appeal of a cold hockey puck.
Both the casserole and the mixed grill come with rice and beans (a plump variety I've never seen before) on a separate plate. It is an oddity of Colombian cuisine that each item is kept discrete and eaten separately. This doesn't help the meats, which need some dipping sauce or something. But it doesn't hurt the excellent seafood casserole, which is so rich it could easily have fed the two of us. I suspect that the creamy thickness of the stew comes from evaporated milk.
As for the odd noodles, I finally despair of getting an answer from the kitchen and try the Sherlock Holmes approach. Washing one of the ribbons off with a few drops of water, I detect the presence of artificial red coloring along one edge. I ask for a menu to verify my hunch. Just as I thought! The description says that the casserole contains crabmeat, but we don't see any chunks.
The noodles are the crab -- actually "krab," with a k. Fake crabmeat is made of surimi, a cooked and washed slurry of fish protein that can be formed into any number of shapes. The type of fake crab in our soup was manufactured by rolling the surimi into sheets. When you cut the rolled surimi into small pieces and place it in hot soup, it loses its adhesive qualities and begins to unroll, forming these long, strange noodles.
Fish noodles are a fascinating thing to find in your soup. But I wonder if they're actually common in Colombian cazuelas -- or just a case of seafood serendipity.
I have to sample the arepas and empanadas in a review of a restaurant called Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet. So I go back at lunchtime, hoping the cold arepa that came with my Gourmet's Dish was just a leftover.
The arepa topped with stewed chicken and avocado I order for lunch is a five-inch disc of white paste hot off the griddle. It looks and tastes like a mashed potato pancake. There's nothing wrong with the snow-white pancake topped with chicken and avocado -- except that it's a tad bland. But this is remedied by a homemade salsa piquante of minced green chiles in vinegar. The sauce isn't terribly hot, but it brings some zest to the pancake.
After lunch, I find a completely different kind of arepa at the Colombian bakery called Panaderia Central two doors down from the restaurant. It's yellow with swirls of brown crust. I buy one out of curiosity and get a café con leche to go with it. "After you eat this, you will be back," says the baker. He's right. The arepa is made of fresh corn, and it's baked rather than griddle-cooked. It has a wonderfully sticky crunch under your molars that I remember from other Latin American flatbreads like pan de arroz.
So which of these two arepas is the real thing? The corn pancakes common to Colombia and Venezuela (also found in Bolivia and Ecuador) vary by region. White arepas are made with ground dried white corn; yellow corn arepas can be made of ground dried yellow corn or fresh corn straight off the cob or a mixture of both; and quick arepas are made with precooked masarepa flour. They can have ingredients mixed into the batter, like the ones at Panaderia Central, which are made of whole corn with cheese and sugar added. Or they can be made plain and topped with other ingredients, like the ones Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet. These remind me of the pancakes at IHOP: The flavor comes from the toppings; the pancake itself is tasteless.
The empanadas aren't what I was expecting, either, but they're a pleasant surprise. I'm used to the kind of empanadas that have a sugary, pastrylike crust and are filled with camote (yam) or fruit. The meat-filled variety at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet are much better. The outer skin of these fried pies is wonderfully chewy. The chopped beef is well seasoned and mixed with potatoes, and the chicken is minced in a tomato sauce. Both are served piping hot with salsa as an appetizer, although you could make a meal of about a half-dozen.
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For dinner we try the pargo rojo, a whole fried red snapper served with french fries, yuca and green plantains, and a paella-like dish called arroz marinero. Before it's deep-fried, the sides of the fish are scored with a knife so the meat comes easily away from the bone. The good news about this cooking process is that the fish is extra-crispy; the bad news is that the meat is dry. I douse each bite with fresh chile salsa and I'm very happy with it, but my daughters complain that they like the moist red snapper à la plancha at Tampico better. And they demand an order of ripe plantains because they don't like the green ones. (Kids are so picky.)
Likewise, I think the arroz marinero -- squid, scallops, octopus, krab with a k and fish in turmeric-colored rice with a sprinkling of green peas and a wreath of tomato quarters -- is quite delicious, but my far more critical companions find it boring. Flavoring a large amount of rice with a decent portion of seafood is an art developed by people trying to stretch expensive ingredients. And as such, it is an art lost on most Americans, who think in opposite terms: They don't think you should have to eat so much fattening rice to get to the tasty bits. The kids also thought the portions were ridiculously large.
So what's wrong with large portions? I took the rest of the seafood rice home with me. Besides, I find that it's generally easier to reheat than to recall.
Complaining about large portions is something that would never occur to me, or, I suspect, to the average patron at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet. The restaurant caters to Colombian immigrants, not to the general public. If you go, your best bet is to try the cazuela de mariscos. It may be your only opportunity to sample fish noodles.