Here it is folks, the ANTM Food & Drink awards. For those of you who don’t already know, we are vegetarians who also eat fish occasionally. So, it needs to be said that our dietary choice excludes at least 80% of traditional foods and typical dishes throughout the regions we traveled. There were plenty of small mountain towns where this number was closer to 100%. As a result, we’ve eaten more pizza in the last seven months than in the last seven years combined. We came up with many inventive solutions along the way, ultimately purchasing our own camping stove to travel more freely. Plus, as travelers on a budget, we couldn’t afford to buy all of our meals on the out even when there were ample selections to be had. Having said all that, we have tried many different foods over the course of our journey. Without further delay, here is a sampling of the best, worst, and most unexpected culinary offerings we’ve encountered. Provecho!
This is a bit of a ridiculous category, we know. Comparing apples and oranges—or ceviche and veggie burritos—is a bit pointless by definition. The truth is that we had dozens upon dozens of regionally based meals all over South and Central America that were so mouth-wateringly good and each unique in their own way. But in the interest of the ANTM Awards show, we thought we had to narrow it down just a little in order to give you a taste of what our palettes were treated to over these past seven months. We encountered our first contender in the first week of our trip, in a popular restaurant upstairs from the bustling central market in Valparaiso, Chile. Stocked with succulent chunks of fresh (as in, caught hours before) fish, shrimp, mussels and the like, this seafood stew was the best we on the trip . . . maybe, in life. Along those same lines, we also would be remiss if we didn’t mention the mackerel ceviche prepared by Mark and Gisbert, none other than Captain of the Santana himself. Oh, and yes. That fish was so fresh, it was caught mere minutes before it was served, while we were sailing from Colombia to Panama. But what was our favorite dish? Drum roll please. The Best Meal Award goes to El Germen, a veggie restaurant in Sucre, Bolivia, for serving the most bizarre-looking and super-filling concoction set before us during our seven months of travel. Think layered quinoa casserole with potatoes, veggies, and cheese. Mmm.
Winner: Pastel de Quinoa at El Germen (Sucre, Bolivia)
Runner-Up: Seafood Stew at the Mercado Central (Valparaiso, Chile)
Honorary Mention: Mackerel Ceviche (San Blas Islands, from Colombia to Panama)
We can’t even write about this meal, it was that bad. What’s worse, we “ate” it for Mark’s birthday (sad!). There are literally no words to describe the horrendously unappetizing slop that tries to pass as Indian food at this British curry joint in La Paz, so I won’t waste your time in doing so. The bottom line is, if you’re ever in La Paz, DO NOT eat at the Star Of India, whatever you do. Your stomach will thank you later.
Loser: Star Of India (La Paz, Bolivia)
Best Veggie Restaurant
As you might expect, it is not always easy keeping a vegetarian diet in Latin America—even when you eat fish. When not cooking for ourselves, we have often been faced with a limited selection from the local restaurants and comedors. Having said that, many of the cities we visited have had at least one full-on vegetarian restaurant. Naturally, the capitals always have them, but we also found vegetarian joints in less-expected locales. This does not mean there are a lot of vegetarians out there. We get the sense that people mix in the odd vegetable-based meal for health reasons. This award goes to the best restaurant with a completely vegetarian menu. Special merits go out to Sesamo in Bogota (delicious!) and the above mentioned El German in Sucre. La Posada del Angel takes top prize for their incredibly tasty renditions of traditional Peruvian fare.
Winner: La Posada del Angel (Lima, Peru)
Did you know that a “pesto” in Salta, Argentina, is actually a giant bowl of butter-soaked pasta with a few flecks of parsley and a bit of crumbled walnuts? . . . that a “mushroom” pizza in Ipiales, Colombia, also includes massive amounts of ham and shredded chicken by default? The Surprise! Surprise! Award goes to the “Thai Pasta with Vegetables” we ordered one night in Sucre. We were hoping for some sort of tasty peanut sauce—a hope not unfounded, as peanut sauces are used in other contexts in Andean cuisine. What we got was a plate of spaghetti covered in half-a-bottle of soy sauce with a few shredded carrots thrown in. Ouch!
Winner: “Thai Pasta with Vegetables” (Sucre, Bolivia)
Best Pizza Experience
There is no question in our minds about who rules this culinary category. While we loved the taste of the pizza served at Minutemen Pizza in Uyuni, Bolivia, so much that we ate there twice, we just had to give the award to La Eliana, located in the oh-so-awesome and super-friendly town of Salento, Colombia. With an herbed-spiked light and fluffy crust, a rich but not overbearing tomato sauce, and a bunch of delectable toppings to choose from (including capers, gasp!), the pizza itself was scrumptiously good. But this award isn’t only about taste, it’s about the entire Pizza Experience. What made us go back to La Eliana again and again (over two separate trips to Salento) was the incredible hospitality of the folks who own and run the place. Jesus and his wife, Luz Elena, are pretty much the epitome of gracious hosts when it comes to restaurants. Always with a genuine smile (Luz Elena) and a hilarious story to impart (Jesus), this couple does everything right. I even got a dough-making lesson when the dining crowds quieted down a bit. Really, if you’re ever in Salento, check out La Eliana, and tell them we sent you. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. (P.S. Their cheesecake is damn good too!)
Winner: La Eliana (Salento, Colombia)
As a bread-baker myself, I (Lex) was especially critical of the bread throughout our travels. Sure, I wasn’t expecting to be able to buy a baguette in the middle of Chilean Patagonia, but I was hoping for bread that could hold its own. Rich, crusty outside. Thick, doughy inside. With herbs or without. I wasn’t picky about what type of bread I was eating, just as long as it accomplished what it set out to accomplish. Although we definitely glommed down the super-dense, bagel-like rolls baked by a hospedaje owner in Chiloe, Chile, and found a reliable source nearby the local market in Villa Serrano, Bolivia, the Best Bread Award definitely goes to a little old lady on the street corner in Old Town, La Paz. Piled high in a huge basket and so cheap, you could get 10 rolls for about quarter, her rustic sourdough-like bread was the best representation of the surprisingly excellent style of bread found all over La Paz.
Winner: Wee Old Lady on the Street Corner (La Paz, Bolivia)
Best Beer, Wine or Spirit
Let’s start with the sad proclamation that all beer tastes the same everywhere in Latin America. We can say this with certainty because we tried all of them. We found some nice craft brew down in Patagonia, but that was it until about five months later, when we encountered the Tres Cordilleras brewery in Medellin, Colombia. As for spirits, there are various concoctions to be had made from distilled sugar cane but nothing we’d be tempted to seek out back home. The Best beer, Wine or Spirit Award goes to the absolutely wonderful Torrentes white wines of the Cafayate region in Argentina. You can read all about them in our post from last March.
Winner: Torrentes Varietal (Cafayate, Argentina)
Best Street Food
Dubious food-safety standards notwithstanding, there are some mighty fine treats to be found on the streets. From simple snacks and fresh juice to complete meals, there’s something for everybody. Unlike in the States, you do not need a license to sell food in public. As a result, you can always find somebody selling something—even here, in the tiny town of Merida on Ometepe Island. Although the vast majority of street grub is not suitable for a vegetarian audience, we found our way to a few favorites. Patacones in Colombia, quesillos in Nicaragua, the popcorn ladies of La Paz—we loved them all. Our award goes to a lady with a street-side stall across the street from the open-air market in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. We were brought there by our friend Andres, a repeat customer. We enjoyed a generous serving of river-fish in a sweet-chili stew, starchy sides, and a wonderfully spiced chicha, all for about $2 each. It is no wonder her folding tables were packed with customers every night of the week!
Winner: Random Food Stall (Rurrenabaque, Bolivia)
Favorite New Fruit
This one was so hard to decide that we decided to mention a few. By “Favorite New Fruit,” we are referring to anything we started eating over the course of our trip that we hadn’t previously known about or enjoyed. Under this definition, we have to include the mandarins of the Yunga region in Bolivia. I (Mark) never liked mandarins before and did not seek these tasty guys out on my own. However, when you are walking in somebody’s mandarin field and they offer you a taste, you have to be respectful and give it a try. I am glad I did! We happened to be in the region at the peak of harvest, when a bag of 20 mandarins could be had for about a dollar. As for newly-discovered joys, the King has to be the maracuyas of Colombia, a sour fruit used for juicing. I’m not sure if they sell them in NYC, but believe you me, I shall do my best to find some. Granadillos in Colombia were also a consistent source of joy, with their oddly bright and minty taste. From here, it gets a bit tricky, since there are countless regional fruits that are called different names from place to place. One favorite is the wonderfully custard-like “zapote” of Nicaragua. The whole experience has left us feeling cheated by the limited, homogenous selection of imported fruits available in the States.
Dish We’re Taking to NYC
Although our lofty intentions of posting recipes of food we ate along the way were never fully-realized, we did learn quite a few nifty cooking techniques (i.e. toasting pasta in oil before boiling it, for a nuttier finish) and ate a ton of snacks and meals (the infamous Tortilla de Papas) we’d like to try our hand at preparing once we return to New York. The winner? The unassuming but so very versatile patacones (or tostones, it is called in Nicaragua). Take a couple of peeled green (unripe) plantains, halve and flash-fry them in vegetable oil. Remove them from the oil, then mash ‘em down. (We saw many techniques for accomplishing this feat, from using an old-fashioned iron to placing them in a bag and stomping them with your feet.) Add a pinch of salt and pepper and shape the mixture as you wish. (We enjoyed them roughly latke-sized, but they come in all manners of shape and thickness.) After the paddies are formed, a trick we learned in Cartagena is to quickly dip them in a bowl of vinegar seasoned with annatto and garlic. Yum! Eat them plain or top them with your choice of spreads (tip: warm refried beans, salty cheese, and a dollop of hot sauce).
Winner: Patacones (Colombia) or Tostones (Nicaragua)
Best Hot Sauce
I (Mark) am fairly obsessive when it comes to hot sauce. Last year, we cultivated several types of hot peppers in our backyard which I used to make my own herb-accented, home-blended salsas. Every country we have traveled to has had a distinct hot sauce-culture, using different peppers with different names. My favorites are always the homemade sauces, although we have encountered a few rather tasty bottled products. Bolivians, to their credit, are far more partial to the homemade stuff. Pretty much every home in Sucre, where we stayed for 3 weeks, has a little stone for making some wonderful locoto sauce. First, you start with the Bolivian national chili, the locoto. Then, you add a bunch of peeled and cored tomatoes. This mixture gets blended down against a locoto stone which is, as the name implies, a giant rock against which you pound a smaller stone to make your mash. Add some salt and that’s it—locoto. I was convinced there had to be more to this sauce. Much to people’s confusion, I would ask what their locoto is made with. (This being like going into a diner in the States and asking about the ketchup.) I’ve asked people what kind of stone gets used, if they believe the stone lends a particular flavor, and other technical questions, but always received the same general reply in return. “I don’t know—this is just what we do!” Well, whatever. It tastes wonderful. For all my fancy blending experiments, I never expected such an excellent sauce could be yielded from just three ingredients.
Winner: Salsa Locoto (Sucre, Bolivia)
Not all empanadas are created equal. Some are too crisp. Others, way too cheesy. Still others are surprisingly disproportioned: too much crust, not enough filling. While we didn’t try any of the meat-filled options famous throughout South and Central America (some might say that this renders our final choice a woefully limited one), we loved trying all the veggie-friendly varieties we came across. Some of our favorites? A clam empanada we bought from a roadside shack in Chiloe, Chile. Tomato-sauce graced the insides of others we tried from La Saltena, a deli in La Paz. But the best empanadas we ever had the pleasure of eating were from the aptly named Casa de las Empanadas in Cafayate, Argentina. Sure, the carafe of delicious Torrontes that came with the variety-plate of empanadas added to our dining experience. But the empanadas—filled with everything from butternut squash to blue cheese to choclo—those spoke for themselves.
Winner: Casa de las Empanadas (Cafayate, Argentina)
There is no more enjoyable a food-shopping experience to be found than in that of a quality market. In Latin America, this refers to a large, generally open-air collection of stalls situated in the center of town. What makes one mercado stand out from the rest? Besides more obvious factors such as price and quality, there are other things we here at ANTM take into consideration. A well-organized market is an asset. When like items are kept in the same section, it is easier to find what you want (fruits and vegetables) and avoid what you don’t want (large flanks of meat hanging in the air). The overall demeanor of the vendors also contributes to the market experience. Do they harass you? Do they try to rip you off? Are they willing to answer your questions regarding all the weird stuff you’ve never seen before? Add it all up and we are prepared to go with Bolivia as our favorite market-culture, with the central market in Sucre as top of its class.
Winner: Mercado Central (Sucre, Bolivia)
Love the awards!