Monthly Archives: April 2009

Cubanos And Platanos

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

I don’t dream about food as much as you might think. But when I do, I often dream of a Cubano sandwich, on a grilled crisp baguette brimming full of slow-cooked pork, cheese and homemade pickles. It’s either that or fried plantains. And beans, black ones. Most of the time, it is all of those things. And in my dream, I eat everything in sight and I still wake up hungry.

And now there is a little surprise in West San Jose that has my Cuban food-lust-dreams working overtime. El Habañero is tucked away in a non-descript shopping center hidden by a clot of gas station/office building/rust-bucket ex-Sizzler buildings off of Winchester Boulevard. Although their name doesn’t immediately evoke Cuban staples of black beans and rice, plantains and grilled or stewed meats, they do Cuban and do it well.

From the street, El Habañero appears to be just another Mexican restaurant in the West San Jose area that already has plenty of really great taquerias and restaurants. So unless you’re paying attention, the restaurant may escape your notice. But because El Habañero is so good, I am in favor of a huge neon sign that says “Cuban food NOW!” a la Krispy Kreme just to hammer the point home.

The room itself is part of an ex-“pizza and pipes” Italian joint that was there for a couple of decades. So even before you order and eat, it’s that neighborhood feel that was established long ago that makes El Habañero very comfortable. Ada, one of El Habañero’s owners, is on the spot, chauffeuring you to your choice of table or booth and making you feel at home.

Their menu is split about 50/50 Cuban and Mexican. Ada explained to me that their menu featured both Cuban and Mexican food because her husband (and co-owner) is Mexican. However, Ada is from Cuba and you really you want the Cuban food here. Thinly-pounded meats, flash-grilled with salt and lime or breaded (bistec empanizado) and served with grilled onions, flank steak stewed with tomatoes (ropa vieja), arroz con pollo…all of the basics. By the way, many people assume that because Cuba is close to Jamaica that the food is spicy – most of the dishes use onion, garlic and other leafy herbs to achieve their flavor rather than chilis.

Black beans, rice and plantains are Cuban staples and, logically, they appear with every dish on the menu. The cool thing is that they offer them in the “moros” style (moros y christianos). The black beans are cooked with the rice resulting in a dark-grey, purplish flecked mixture that gives them the nice texture detail of a pilaf. But the Cuban staple that had me all a-twitter was the plantain. They have the double-fried tostones, made from green plantains, which have a sweet/savory flavor and a starchier texture. The fully ripe plantains are turned into my all-time favorite maduros fritos, which come out in bias-sliced, crisp-around-the-edges disks. Soft on the inside, these platanos are sweet, slightly chewy and compliment any strong flavor on the plate. You could also opt for just the plate of maduros and be in true plantain heaven.

A friend mine who tipped me to El Habañero told me that she heard that they had a “secret” menu of Cuban dishes. When I asked Ada about it, she laughed and said although there is a huge variety of dishes in the Cuban repertoire, it’s untenable to try to do them all but that they might be expanding their menu or offering non-menu weekend specials in the future. (She did give a wink and said that if there was something special that I wanted, that they would make it, provided they had the ingredients on hand.)

El Habañero is the kind of place where you feel so welcome that it’s difficult to resist coming back. The food is excellent and Ada and her staff attend to your every need, making sure that you are enjoying your time there. And if you want to talk about Cuban food with her, you’ll have an even better time. My only concern is that they are in somewhat of a restaurant dead zone on the edge of a residential neighborhood. I want to see them succeed because if I can literally walk down the street to get an excellent plate of ropa vieja or a lechon cubano sandwich then I’m a very happy guy indeed. Hopefully, word-of-mouth and the quest for Cuban food-love will keep them around for a long time.

El Habañero, 3132 Williams Rd, San Jose, 408.557.8914

Fromage Fort

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

There is always cheese in my fridge. Always. And it’s pretty rare to have small scraps of cheese left over. The urge to wrap them up by popping them into my mouth overrides the tearing-off-some-parchment muscle memory. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. That flies in the face of making fromage fort which is supposed to be made with random scraps of leftover cheese. If there’s never any scraps left then…cannot….make…fromage…fort…then…brain…hurts. Bad.

Since fromage fort is just one of those things that is nice to have around as fodder for a midnight pantry raid or when getting a surprise visit from whoever, I always want some nearby. And truth be told: I don’t snack anywhere around midnight. But I’m kicthen-knife capable and just murderous on food like this during the daylight hours. I got locked into the “must have scraps” mode for a while but started to cheat by cutting bits and pieces off of the larger pieces of cheese and just getting down to business.

fromage fort in its natural habitat... (photo by wm. christman)

fromage fort ON its natural habitat… (photo by wm. christman)

As with many foods that are pure satisfaction, fromage fort is simply made. The added bonus is that you can use cheese that seemed like a good idea to buy at the time but ended up being less then, well, adequate.

Cheshire cheese falls squarely into this camp for me. Often I am seduced by the ruggedly smooth face of a Cheshire wedge and pushed over the edge by a good per pound price. The anticipation of that cheddar smack and tang quickly crumbles into a chalky, bland, less-than-dense mess. I feel cheap, used, and left to cry into the pint of ale that was supposed to provide a post-cheddargasm cuddle. You’d think I would learn by now.

However, this cheese makes a great fromage fort base and its crumbly, mealy texture is ground into smooth submission (yes!) as the carrier for the other cheese flavors. So Cheshire better watch it’s ass because I now hold the upper hand…er, knife.

five cheeses, no waiting... (photo by wm. christman)

five cheeses, no waiting… (photo by wm. christman)

The version of fromage fort shown in the pictures here was made from 5 different cheeses: the aforementioned Cheshire, a Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold (a semi-hard cheese similar to a Gruyere), a slightly creamy Italian Gorgonzola, a random white sharp cheddar and a piece of the super-delicious Herve Mons Camembert.

Beyond the cheese, all you need is a food processor (a blender on a slower speed would work too) and some white wine. You could add garlic if you wanted – lots of online recipes use it – I prefer to let the cheese do all the flavorizing.

If you want a smoother fromage fort (and I prefer it this way), then chop up and process the semi-hard cheese first. The Fiscalini was just shy of a dried Asiago in hardness so it got chopped with the white cheddar and thrown for a spin in the food processor. This makes it easier to blend the rest of the cheese, especially the softer ones, to make a smooth texture.

before and after adding wine (photo by wm. christman)

before and after adding wine (photo by wm. christman)

Add the rest of the cheeses in semi-hard-to-soft order, stopping to scrape the bowl to keep things moving. Once you’ve got everything pretty well macerated, add small amounts of wine carefully blending until fully incorporated – remember you’re essentially mixing water and fat so you want to make sure to get some emulsification.

Keep at it until you get a spreadable texture. Because the food processor warms the cheese up a bit, it can appear to be pretty runny. Once it is refrigerated, it will firm up into a dense spread. By now, you’ve probably tasted your creation so add some seasoning if you prefer. Salt, pepper, fresh herbs all can be added. Stir or pulse those in.

the finished product, packed and ready to go (photo by wm. christman)

the finished product, packed and ready to go (photo by wm. christman)

Scrape the fromage out of the processor and pack it into containers and refrigerate. I like to use clay crocks for their decorative look but you can use any container you want. If you just can’t wait, eat some now and eat some after it has firmed up. Because it is all cheese (mostly), the same cheese temperature/texture/taste dynamics apply.

Fromage fort rarely lasts more than a week in my fridge. The mere fact that it is sitting there just waiting for application to toast, a schmear on flat bread, melting on top of a seared piece of beef, or paired with some freshly sautéed green vegetables, makes it a constantly endangered species. Speaking of which, the batch you see here is gone, gone, gone…time to go on a Cheshire hunt.

The Washbag Lives!


(photo by wm. christman)

I grew up reading San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. I spent a few years as a young teenager delivering the Chron to a handful of porches in the South Bay and used to set aside a copy to read while I was rubber-banding the rest of the papers for delivery. I didn’t udnerstand some of Caen’s references until much later but his “three-dot” journalism had a profound effect on how I write today. The “…” (ellipsis) is one of my favorite embellishments in less, um… formal writing.

There was big Herb Caen tribute in the Chronicle last week because it would it would have been his 93rd birthday had he lived this long. So it’s even more appropriate to have the Washington Square Bar and Grill re-open a few weeks ago after a thorough scrub and remodel. The “Washbag” was one of Caen’s haunts and he wrote about it often and spent even more time there. Since I had been putting it off for well over 30 years with no real reason for doing so, it was time to take the plunge.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Up to the point where I actually went to the Washbag, my imagination (with Caen’s help) painted it as a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room with a smoky, boozy haze…filled with fatcats, miscreants and low-key hipsters-about-town with a large, worn wood and brass bar as a focal point. Except for the smoke, it was exactly as my mind pictured it. Replications and originals of Chronicle front pages, pictures of Washbag regulars and celebrities lining the walls added a slightly misty (for me) nostalgia.

calamari and meyer lemon salad (photo by wm. christman)

calamari and meyer lemon salad (photo by wm. christman)

Food-wise, WSBG is classic bar and grill. New owners Liam and Susan Tiernan took great care to keep much of the original atmosphere of the room and they applied that to the menu as well: grilled or braised beef or pork entrees, grilled fish, classic sandwiches, savory starters, sweet desserts.

The calamari with a Meyer lemon salad starter matched nicely with an expertly made Manhattan. (Michael McCourt, one of the original WSBG bartenders, was hired back as part of the reopening.) WSBG hits the portion dead-on – just the right amount for a leisurely one-cocktail quaff. The bright/tart Meyer lemon salad nicely plays counterpoint to the slightly salty, nearly-perfectly cooked calamari rings and tentacles.

Wood-paneled anything (save for late 70’s American station wagons) makes me think steak so the flat iron steak was the clear choice for my entree. Unfortunately, the waiter didn’t know what the term “bleu” meant so I ordered rare to keep from having to explain in detail…it was just easier that way…

flat iron steak with cabernet butter (photo by wm. christman)

flat iron steak with cabernet butter (photo by wm. christman)

When the steak arrived, I was surprised that it had been cut on a bias. It almost looked like chef nervousness with meat doneness…since it was rare cutting it wouldn’t help the moderately cold cabernet butter to melt any faster. Weird. Fortunately, the steak was cooked to order and the butter melted and added extra richness to the already meaty cut. The frites were crisp and hot and plentiful. If only the glass of wine had made its arrival with the entree.

It could have been first-week jitters, but the service was poor. A computer snag hampered the waitstaff and the three waiters in my section all relayed this to their tables. To a waiter, they said that all of the orders would be delayed because of it. Apparently, there’s no way to talk directly to the kitchen even to expedite orders which would spare customers the backroom drama.

Suggesting that even though the computers were down, they would do everything they could to keep the food coming or that there might be a slight delay would have been much better. But the computer glitch alone, seemed to affect absolutely everything they did, even the non-computer portions of good service. The waitstaff looked and acted as if they were paralyzed.

The end result was that the waiters literally disappeared for long stretches of time and flagging down someone (anyone!) was a chore. My flat iron steak waited and waited for the glass of red wine to accompany it. And the same thing happened with coffee and dessert. Dessert arrived, coffee didn’t. I had to get up and fetch a different waiter (mine was still MIA) to get it. Other patrons weren’t so nice.

Purely from a service standpoint, it was a lousy experience – hopefully, they’ll fine tune this for the future. But the food, the room and the ghost of Herb Caen did much to make up for it. It’s not the penultimate SF experience…but I would definitely…go back.