Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Baba Lu and Blue Suede Shoes: Cuban Food comes to Jackson!

Several years ago I had the opportunity to go to Miami. While there, a friend took me into a community known as 'Little Havana'. Little Havana is a neighborhood that is home to many Cuban Americans. The neighborhood is a bustling community filled with cigar shops, cultural centers and restaurants. As we began to walk through the streets of Little Havana, I would see images that reminded me of something I would see on a postcard. Little elderly men smoking cigars played checkers outside of cafes where chickens roasted on spits. The sound of Cuban Rumba music playing from windows of brightly colored houses played as soundtracks to accompany the smells of Cuban dishes being cooked in open kitchens.

My friend Rafael who was born in Cuba tells me " I am going to take you to eat the real deal". I tell him, " please no touristy food. I want to eat what you eat when you come here". He guides me down through rows of shops until we stop at a little cafe. We sit down at a wooden picnic table and he goes up to the window of the cafe and orders. He returns to the table with two heaping plates of food.

I look down to see a mouth watering plate of Cuban shredded beef called 'Ropa Vieja, fried plantains and black beans and rice. He also sat down a small carafe of strong scented Cuban coffee. The beef was unbelievable, filled with peppers, onions, garlic and sofrito. The fried plantains were a nice salty starch that were dipped into a mojo sauce. Lastly the beans and rice were mixed together with onion, garlic and bay leaf to form a dish known as 'Congri'. The food was so good and the ingredients so well put together that I have 'jonesed' for authentic Cuban food for years now.

Thankfully, my wait is over!

Cuban born Marachi Fraga and her daughter Alana Lagares and her husband Hector have enjoyed preserving and cooking family recipes for several years. In Spring of 2013, the family decided to bless West Tennessee by offering authentic Cuban cuisine to the Jackson Tennessee area. 'La Cubanita' is the family's food truck business thats creating a big stir among the West Tennessee foodie community.

La Cubanita offers classic Cuban dishes like homemade empanadas. Created originally in Spain, the empanada is a stuffed pastry filled with slow cooked chicken or seasoned beef. Picadillo empanadas are true Cuban comfort food. The pastry is filled with ground beef seasoned with onions, peppers, green olives and tomato sauce. La Cubanita also makes empanadas with chicken fricase, a mixture of chicken sauteed in Cuban sofrito, spices, green olives, tomato sauce and white wine. The mixture is placed in the pastry and fried. They are so good and usually sell within a few hours.

La Cubanita also makes fantastic Tostones. Tostones are twice fried plantains. Ripened plantains are cut up and fried.  The plantains are lightly salted and the traditional Cuban mojo (mo-ho) sauce is used as a dipping sauce. Mojo is made with orange juice, garlic, cumin and black pepper. It is used as a dipping sauce and to marinate pork and chicken in many Cuban recipes.

Ham croquettes are also served by La Cubanita. Known as 'Croquetas de Jamon', these tiny bites of heaven are made by taking smoked ham and combining it with nutmeg, milk and flour and rolling them in bread crumbs. The tiny snacks are then deep fried to a golden brown. Many Cuban families will cook these for children and serve them at birthday parties.

And just so Southerners don't feel left out, La Cubanita offers two items that include frying and pork. (Two staples of the Southern diet) They serve the classic Cuban dish 'Pan con Lechon' which is slow roasted pork marinated in garlic, orange juice, onions, oregano and black pepper. Typically served at Christmas in Cuban communities,  think of it as Cuban barbecue. Wonderful stuff!

Lastly, my favorite food item at La Cubanita is 'Chicharrones de pollo'. (I almost cannot write this without my mouth watering!) Imagine if you will, taking your grandmother's fried chicken and taking the skin off of it. Now deep fry that skin after marinating it in Cuban spices. HOLY SMOKE...They could be on the list of the best things I have ever eaten. Crunchy golden goodness that crunches in your mouth. OMG...what a flavor!

La Cubanita is set up at the West Tennessee Farmer's Market on Saturday's from 8:30 a.m. till they sell out. They are also set up at various locations in Jackson including Old Medina Market at 2800 Old Medina Rd in Jackson.

Check out their locations and stops at :

And in honor of La Cubanita being the first Cuban restaurant in Jackson Tennessee, I'd like to offer up a little Buena Vista Social Club...

Friday, October 4, 2013

Feasting on Good Karma

It's not every day that I get the opportunity to chow down at a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. However last weekend I had the pleasure of joining the members of Tu Vien Quan Am Buddhist Temple in Memphis for a food sale and dinner to raise money for the temple. The temple was started in 2002 by the venerable monk Thich Nguyen Tanh. The temple grounds maintain housing for monks, a meeting hall and several gardens where fruit and vegetables are grown. The  temple serves members of the East Memphis Buddhist community and conducts services every Sunday. 

The sale was held inside a meeting hall directly behind the temple. Outside of the hall, an elderly lady was selling bags of fresh vegetables grown on the temple grounds. Visitors pick up large handfuls of green leafy Chinese cabbage, bok choy and assorted vegetables. Once inside the hall, the smell of wok oil fills the air. The smell of onions sizzling begins to pierce my nose. The sound of English and Vietnamese filled my ears as crowds of men, women and children surrounded vendors tables. 

It is then I see her. Sitting barefoot on a wooden stool and surrounded by cooking tools, a short Vietnamese lady begins to pour coconut milk into a heated wok. She then begins to add spoonfuls of bean sprouts, onions, tofu and various vegetables into the mix. Right at this moment, it's just me and her in this room. And I'm captivated by her wok.

As I peruse the various vendors I recognize numerous dishes and then run across some that I cannot identify. Hot pots of steaming soups, rice noodles and mystery vegetables, all for at very affordable prices. I walk up to one vendor who is serving a refreshing looking iced beverage in tall plastic cups. A sweet looking white liquid over cascades of ice cubes. My mind wanders to drinks like a sweet bubble tea or even a Thai style iced tea filled with cream and sugary goodness. I ask the lady behind the counter what is in the drinks. She smiles and tells me that is is made from beans. Suddenly I feel obliged to decline. Not so much a fan of beans, yet alone beans on the rocks.


As I watched two ladies stirring a large pot of a spicy soup broth, my eye would keep being drawn to a box of green colored pyramids called 'Banh Gio'. When I asked one of the vendors what it was, she explained to me that it was filled with bananas. I decided to try one of the interesting looking treats. Wrapped in banana leaf, banh gio is a Vietnamese snack food that is typically made of steamed rice dumpling and minced pork. Some cooks add additional ingredients such as onions, mushrooms, fish sauce and oyster sauce. These particular rice dumplings were slow steamed and filled with a creamy ball of banana which produced a sweet and starchy taste.

My next stop was a table filled with mysterious looking dishes in bright red and orange colors. I inquired with the lady behind the table as to what these mystery dishes were. " It's shrimp, shrimp and chicken dishes." I heard shrimp and that's all I needed to hear. I grabbed up one of the red colored dishes of shrimp. I glanced down at the plate and had to do a double take. Was there really a shrimp the size of a lobster on my plate? I plopped down my meager four dollars for the plate and ran to the closest table to indulge my senses.

I settled on a plate of my favorite Vietnamese dish besides Pho (and I did ask if anyone had any!) known as Ban Xeo. Ban Xeo is a French inspired crepe made from rice flour, coconut milk and green onions. It is typically filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. It is then served with fresh lettuce, fresh mint and fresh cilantro. The finished product is then dipped into fish sauce. Big, messy and delicious. I also grabbed up one of the banh gio rice dumplings and my shrimp. The ban xeo was delicious while the rice dumpling was good but the banana inside was mediocre. The shrimp was this beautiful juicy behemoth of a dish. As I began to cut into the shrimp I noticed that it was actually stuffed. The inside of the shrimp was filled with a cornbread type stuffing. The marinade was a sweet and spicy sauce that tasted of hints of lemongrass, vinegar and tomato. I polished one of the four ginormous shrimp off and was getting full. I would later discover that the inside of the shrimp was filled with seasoned fried tofu. It was great and I am so not a tofu kind of guy!

The temple is beginning to offer the food sales very weekend after their Sunday morning service. Do yourself a favor and drop by for an authentic taste and experience of Vietnamese and Buddhist culture. Tu Vien Quan Am Buddhist Temple is located at 3500 Goodlet, Memphis Tennessee.