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Eat Globally, Dine Locally

Ethnic Nights Offer Intercontinental Tastes at Home

By Meredith Phillips, Fri., Sept. 19, 1997

Hurtling along in a plane about to take off for New England, the prospect of two weeks between Mexican food and my mouth ate holes into my heart. Then I remembered the eager plans to fill those spaces with pumpkin stewed by Afghani immigrants and zuppa di clams prepared by Italians, two cultures better represented on the Eastern Seaboard than in Texas. Upon closer examination, the sentiment of emptiness assumed an altruistic slant; more than for myself, I fretted for my family members, whose northern latitude insulates them from most forms of Mexican culture, which has become as much a part of my routine as tomato pie and pasta fagioli has theirs. Austin also offers opportunities to appreciate cultures other than Mexican, those that are not in as obvious evidence. Sharing in the dancing, music, and food of other countries is an immediate, fun, and cheap way to flee ordinary life without actually going anywhere.

These are a few events that give us a glimpse into another culture. Things included here are, for the most part, cooks preparing their national cuisine, rather than what they normally prepare in their restaurants. In the case of Ararat, the outstanding food is the same every day, but a bellydancer adds authenticity on Thursdays. This is by no means an inclusive list of all food-related cultural events in Austin, but rather a sampling of special eye-opening events. Feel free to keep us apprised of other ethnic feasts.


Ararat

111 E. North Loop, 419-1692
Thursday nights: bellydancing



Ararat

photograph by John Anderson

The menu says it all: "Ararat beckons you to indulge in the rich heritage of Middle Eastern cuisine," -- this is exactly the kind of meal we're looking for -- "an event in which good friends share conversation, laughter, and, of course, excellent food."

Ararat is all ethnic, all the time, with Kurdish, Persian, Armenian, Arabic, and Turkish delights. It's a good bet any night of the week but most fun on Thursdays, when the dancer, barefooted and bare-bellied, smiles, sways, and clinks her way around the woolly rugs. Bring a bottle of wine. Better yet, bring a bottle of wine for every person at the table -- the dancer invites people to join her but after one bottle split four ways, we didn't approach a blood alcohol level lofty enough to induce spontaneous ethnic dancing.

The low-to-the-ground round table is the favored place to sit, but it involves sitting cross-legged on a cushion, so you'll want to wear your comfy trousers, and if it's raining, maybe even a slicker; the night we went, a deluge outside resulted in a tiny, constant drip on one member of our party, who didn't seem to mind.

Ararat's presentation is casual but beautiful: blue earthenware plates of grilled beef, lamb, or chicken, dressed with both yoghurt and tomato sauces, herbs, and turmeric-yellow rice ($9.50), or chunks of chicken marinated then broiled, with vegetables, bulghur, and cool yogurt sauce ($7.95). Ararat also serves vegetarian dishes and generally offers a fish special. We ordered an outstanding salmon filet ($12.50) with a cayenne pepper/lemon/tahini sauce.

Unusual desserts include figs stuffed with almonds in a carmelized honey and lemon sauce, halva, a Middle Eastern pistachio confection, and Turkish coffee. Beware of Turkish coffee; the first time it was offered to me I was entranced by the flavor, yet ignorant to the effects (it's very, very, very strong); I had three (tiny) cups at about 10pm and spent the first part of the night whirling around in my bed and the latter half racing around the house in a vain attempt to catch up with my heart.

Call ahead to reserve the round table and try both the hors d'oeuvres and desserts. It'll be worth your while.


Chumikal's

3223 E. Seventh St., 385-8898
Salvadoran Menu
Fri, 5-9pm; Sat, 2-9pm

During the week, Chumikal's, also known as Chubby's, is a neighborhood burger joint with a fine reputation. But Friday and Saturday nights warrant a special visit -- it is then that Margarita takes over the kitchen and turns out native Salvadoran specialties.

Whether you bring a six pack to the restaurant or try the horchata or tamarindo, the entire meal will cost less than $10; this really is peasant cuisine. A sampler platter for $5.95 allows you to try almost everything on the menu; order the rest à la carte. Pasteles are salty deep-fried corn tortillas with shredded chicken and mild, savory stuffing -- much like a decadent empanada. Pupusas are masa pancakes filled with shredded pork or green chile and cheese, like Mexican sopes turned inside out. The sizable Salvadoran tamal is a beautiful thing: pork shredded with chopped green beans, olives, and potatoes, mixed with masa and steamed in a banana leaf. Fried yuca with hot sauce and plantains fried with dried pork round out the meal (not to mention the rump) deliciously. This meal will ground you sufficiently that you won't even need the sickly sweet quesadilla, a sweetened condensed milk cream cheese treat that may send you running for the dentist.

Don't go anticipating the heat of a Mexican or Tex-Mex meal; Salvadoran food runs on the mild side.


Miguel's La Bodega

415 Colorado St., 472-2369
Sporadic Latin Dinners

Set in a trendy downtown location with high ceilings and tall, shiny bar chairs, Miguel's La Bodega is perhaps known best for its live Latin music and dancing. Occasionally, it aspires to wow patrons with cuisine more novel than the upscale Mexican it specializes in.

We stumbled upon Miguel's during lunch on Cuban Independence Day and experienced a delicious Cuban feast for $8 apiece. Ropa Vieja is a sweet stew of shredded beef, cilantro, parsley, garlic, peppers, and onions. Picadillo is a sweeter dish of ground beef, stuffed green olives, plump, savory raisins, tomatoes, and pimiento peppers. Each meal included black beans, rice, and tostones, fat toasty slices of plantain. Cuban food is comfort food: filling and warming, but not without flavor or panache. Dessert was guava paste sandwiched between tiny hunks of white cheese. Throughout the meal, we were serenaded by the singing and guitar music of two local musicians, members of the recently restructured Son Yuma.

A staff member at Miguel's mentioned a plan to introduce different Latin cuisines on a variety of nights. Calling the restaurant seems to be the most effective way to detect the right time to go, though it's certainly not a foolproof method. It is a shame that it's impossible to plan to eat a special ethnic meal and then dance it off -- the ideal scenario -- at Miguel's. Fortunately, it's a great place to go even when it isn't Cuban night.


Gunther's

11606 N. I-35, 834-0474
El Barrio de Triana



Gunther's
photograph by John Anderson

It needs to be said: The Gunther's sign, in large, crumbling Medieval Banquet font, isn't doing Gunther's any favors and may well strike fear into the hearts of potentially hungry passersby on I-35. But a consistent advertisement of "Cuban Night" in our own pages sparked my interest for two reasons: 1) the search for ethnic nights; and 2) the unfathomable combination. Why would a German restaurant boast a Cuban night, not to mention world-famous paella?

Inside the restaurant, the sign out of sight, we were ready to begin a breakneck intercontinental dining experience, beginning with two enormous beers, a Spaten Lager and a Spaten Oktoberfest, from an extensive beer menu. Upon inquiry, we learned that Gunther's, which has been serving wursts, rouladen, and schnitzels of high repute forever, was recently acquired by a proud Cuban who wanted to include his country's cuisine on the menu. The result is a classic German menu (The restaurant's German cooks are still in residence) complemented by a page of Cuban specialties like Ropa Vieja and picadillo, rounded out with two versions of Spanish paella and several pasta options. Though Thursday night is allegedly Cuban night, don't limit yourselves; it turns out that at Gunther's, every night is everything night.

When we realized that we weren't in the presence of a team of highly specialized Cuban cooks brought in specially for Thursday nights, we decided to eat whatever we wanted. Interest in the German and Spanish portions of the menu immediately surged -- the extent of my recent experiences with Latin American fare made the German and Spanish food all the more exotic. As an appetizer, we ordered grilled wursteller ($7.95), an ample sampler including Polish sausage, farm-fresh bratwurst, Old World bratwurst, and another variety. These in conjunction with the requisite condiments (a tub of horseradish and a jar of horseradish mustard) made wind whistle through our brains.

Breathing clearly, if slowed markedly by the sausage, we moved onto Paella Valencia ($27.95), a dinner for two which also includes a fresh, clean salad, black bean soup, and coffee. The paella itself was mounded atop a large platter; shrimp, ham, chicken, mussels, and sausage ensured that we weren't lacking in protein, green peas and pimientos sufficed as roughage, and rice filled the bulk of a very large platter. We gave up an eighth of the way through in sweet anticipation of dessert.

Ever since I learned to say Schwarz Walder Kirsch Torte, black forest cake has been one of my favorite things. Although this moist, creamy rendition hit the spot, I think next time we'll try some arroz con leche instead, just because it's there.


El Rinconcito

1014-E N. Lamar, 476-5277
Peruvian Tasting Party: last Monday of every month

On the last Monday of every month El Rinconcito, normally a saltillo-tiled hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, hosts a Peruvian tasting party for people with an interest in learning about chef Lalo Garland's native cuisine.

Peru cultivates over a thousand types of potatoes and with its extensive coastline, much of the cooking involves fish, potatoes, or both. Nonetheless, the overall impression of this Latin American cuisine, predominantly flavored with garlic, lime, and aji (hot pepper) -- is that of a light touch, compared with stew-like Cuban food, or Salvadoran specialties, which are fried.

A prix-fixe of $21.50 makes Peruvian night more of a commitment both economically and timewise than most of the other ethnic nights, but it's worth a try. Each meal comes with an appetizer (choose from three), salad, entrée (choose from three), and dessert. We even indulged in the optional wine tasting, $7 for a half glass each of blush, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Unfortunately, we felt rushed through the aperitif and, as amateur wine drinkers, wished for some guidance during the drinking.

We chose ceviche de camaron, spicy curls of shrimp in marinade of aji peppers and lime juice, garnished with yams, and causa limena, a cold mashed potato dish on a bed of crisped red onions and shrimp. The dish was bonded together with El Rinconcito's apricot-colored chipotle dressing.

One of our entrées was an ample portion of mahi-mahi in a mint garlic sauce. The other, pastel de choclo -- a mealy, sweet corn souffle of beef, anise, and raisins -- was a delicious learning experience.

Over a dessert of flan and suspiro de limena, a sweetened condensed milk custard that tasted of lemon, cream, and cinnamon, we reflected on the unfamiliarity of an entrée like the pastel de choclo. It's exactly the reason that we will continue to search for ethnic nights.


Meredith Phillips writes regularly about food for the Chronicle.
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