Day 36: Chile
Restaurants have been getting empty. It’s a frightening side effect of the financial feces storm that has been engulfing the country like Jonathan Gold at an all-you-can-eat taco truck. It’s been getting more pronounced of late, but mostly— and most depressingly, it’s been happening at small, independent restaurants. As my crew rolls in to Rincon Chileno in Hollywood, there is only one other person in the restaurant and he seems to know, or be the owner. Meanwhile “Danielle” points out that the Togo’s she passed on the way here was packed. We look at the strangely enjoyable models of small, old-style Chilean ranch homes on the walls as our waiter brings us menus, happy to serve us, but seemingly a little confused as to why we’re here. Air Bear sticks to water, but “Danielle”, Bosque and I pass around some fresh juices, highlighted by the very pear-tasting and not too sweet pear juice, which is subtly and appropriately grainy. We’re brought a green chili sauce and butter, which leads us to think that bread is coming, but after fifteen minutes, we have no sign of its arrival. Finally we realize why, as hot and fresh biscuits make it out to our table. With fork marks on the top and an incredibly dense interior, they’re a welcome change to plain old bread.
Our ceviche mixto arrives, along with an array of other dishes, and comes off like a spicy cross between the bright flavors of a Peruvian ceviche and the darker tones of a Mexican seafood cocktail. The bits of various fish hide under lettuce, onions and a red murky broth, but the biggest delight probably comes from grabbing one of the mussels on the half shell, covered in various marinated seafoods and sliding everything but the shell down the back of your throat. It is what I wish the ocean tasted like. Eventually, two other people join the restaurant, but that still leaves another twenty odd tables completely unoccupied. Our waiter comes to check on us and make sure everything is okay. He seems concerned, or maybe just bored, but at the very least slightly uncomfortable.
A sweet corn tamale called a humita makes the rounds and is a velvety smooth departure from any version I’ve ever experienced. Air Bear meanwhile starts to break the yolks of two fried eggs which rest atop a thick, medium-rare ribeye. I reach rudely across the table, dropping a portion on my plate along with the beautiful dark brown onions, dot it with a little green chili sauce and enjoy the merits of a simple steak with simple additions, done properly. The accompanying french fries are a miracle of crispiness, while the inside is so light and fluffy that if I’d never looked inside, I might have guessed they were hollow. Our server checks on us again, now even more nervous and out of place.
Simply cutting through the tender shell of the ground beef empanada is a perfect example of how different dishes can become when you try a version outside of your comfort countries. If an empanada could be a cloud, this would probably be it. We only shared one for the table and it’s quickly clear that I will need a whole one to myself to even begin to understand it. Maybe another time, because as I begin to think that we could use a little more food, my memory is jogged by our final two dishes arriving. Pastel de choclo and choritos de parmesan. The pastel de choclo is a cornmeal dish with what seems to be the contents of the humita, but served in an earthen bowl with a caramelized crust on top.
Once the somehow-soft crust is cracked, there is a rush of aroma from the fresh herbs. Digging down into the mysterious cormeal depths, I manage to excavate delightfully tender chunks of chicken, hard boiled eggs and black olives. A truly unique dish that feels like the South American equivalent of chawanmushi— the savory Japanese custard. The final dish is, unfortunately, the lone disappointment. Mussels on the half shell baked with parmesan cheese. One bite and the twenty five percent of me that is Italian has become furious. The cheese somehow manages to intensify the aggressive demeanor of the mussel and leaves me deciding not to mar this great meal with a second bite. I probably should eat more just to be sure, but the evening is going so well and I don’t want to take the risk.
Our server checks on us yet again, for what may well be the fifth time. This time, he asks why we’re here and how we heard of them. I explain that I’m interested in the food of different countries and heard that for Chile, they are very highly regarded. He smiles, says thank you and asks once again if we like the food. We respond positively and he asks us to come back, but with a somewhat saddening level of desperation. At first I wondered if he was just confused to have four white people show up, or if he saw us taking pictures and thought we were reviewers of some kind. But now, I think he just sees an opportunity for more, or any, business. As we leave, we notice a whiteboard of specials that we couldn’t see from where we were sitting. The waiter notices and proceeds to translate every single one individually. As we leave I get a little sad realizing that during a recession, in the restaurant world, it’s the places like this that are going to be the first to go. If everything gets a lot worse before it gets better, then in two years we’ll still be able to get a McChicken sandwich. But easily finding things like hand made biscuits and pastel de choclo? I’m not so sure. Let’s all hope these little treasures, somehow, can find a way to survive.
4354 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Food Breakdown: 3 non-alcoholic beverages, 3 appetizers, 2 entrees
Distance From My House: 13.4 miles