Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Street Art of Buenos Aires, Argentina

A few weeks ago, just before leaving for Buenos Aires, I randomly got a recommendation from a stranger.  I was in the Golden Crown Panaderia in Old Town Albuquerque yammering about our upcoming vacation.  Out of nowhere, a woman exclaimed, “You have to take the Graffiti Mundo street art tour!”  She went on to tell me that it was the highlight of her visit to Buenos Aires and that I needed to make a reservation a month in advance.  Her fervor was so convincing that I booked it that week.  Thank goodness I did.

Kirsty of Graffiti Mundo at the first graffiti wall we visit, which spans an entire block.  Here we get an introduction to the first collective of pioneering artists and how they got started.  They simply asked a store worker nearby if they could paint the wall.  He said yes, and so began an ever evolving, often repainted installation. 

Founded by two British expats in 2009, Graffiti Mundo leads several different tours of Buenos Aires’ unusual and fledgling street art scene.  We chose the bike tour, which takes place on Sundays when there’s less traffic.  For $35, you get a bike rental, helmet and bike guide (all provided by Biking Buenos Aires) plus an engaging art tour led by Graffiti Mundo.  You also get the equivalent of an international meetup.  An Aussie named Kirsty educated us on art, and the shepherding of our eight-person tour – which included Americans, Columbians and a Dutch chick – was done with Scandinavian precision and brio by a fellow named Karri

Bike guide Karri (right) keeping us hapless tourists safe.  Also, you can see here that each bike rental comes with a custom license plate from that bike's "sponsor."  You don't get to choose.  The unfortunate plate I got: SCHMERLZ.  

Over the course of four hours, Kirsty led our merry band of tourists around the historic neighborhoods of Palermo and Villa Crespo while Karri put himself between our group and oncoming traffic at many an intersection.  Amazingly, in this big city of speeding, lane-shifting traffic, every car (including taxis) politely stopped when he raised his hand or rang his tinny bike bell.  With the fear of death removed and a warm breeze wafting through the tree-lined (and often cobble-stoned) streets, I found myself as relaxed as the weekend vibe in Palermo, the hippest area of Buenos Aires.  I was also able to see more of the city than I had in the entire week prior.  On bike, you simply go farther – and take in more.

Is it a little bit odd to be standing on a cobblestone street, looking at a beautiful old building, that has a very bright, colorful, modern mural on it?  Yes and no.  But the street art of Buenos Aires is generally embraced by its residents.  Even painting over someone's work with a new mural is generally okay, although a few artists get upset about it.  Those held in the most esteem are somewhat safe - out of respect.  The biggest no no came when someone stole street art off the buildings and put it up in a gallery for sale. 

That was an entirely pleasant perk of the tour, but Graffiti Mundo also delivered the goods.  I learned a LOT about Buenos Aires through its street art.  As a whole, it provides a fascinating psychological study of what’s happened since the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001-2002 – triggering frozen bank accounts, soaring unemployment and an ongoing financial quagmire – and how art can both process and soothe the country's emotions.  This is such a clear realization for Argentines that street art, which only started here after the collapse, is not considered a crime.  In fact, artists can work in plain daylight without fear of arrest. In many cases, building owners welcome the artists - or even invite them to come.  Case in point:  the city's most buzz-worthy restaurant, Tegui, has a graffiti-covered exterior.

Below is a selection of my favorite street art “installations” with a bit of detail about each.  

A large mural by one of the city's first and best street artists, Mart, who started at age 12.  Like much of his work, it feels very dreamy, fanciful...and almost French.  He  uses aerosol paint yet achieves very fine lines somehow.  It's a very distinctive style that you can recognize instantly when you see his work throughout the city.

Part of a large wall by one of the handful of female street artists, Zumi.  It's a perfect example of how street artists tried to cheer up the city after the economic collapse - and why the police let them do it without punishment.  Animals and other universally beloved, non-controversial symbols became popular subjects. 

A large stencil piece that was put up section by section.  Kirsty said this one was meant to be a shocking statement of what could happen in the future if we trash the environment.  The artist tried to think of the happiest moment this scenario could affect to create an unsettling juxtaposition.

A piece by pioneering street artist Ever, who often paints faces...but never the eyes.  He always does something creative to avoid painting the eyes.  As a result, it's also easy to spot his work right away.  As for the Mao image, it made me think of how Argentina is currently inching away from capitalism towards isolationism.

One of several incredible, large-scale pieces we saw by Jaz, another early and influential street artist.  This guy is clearly one of the most talented - he drew these bulls freehand.  He's also pretty resourceful.  In the early days of the collapse, street artists couldn't afford paint,  so they used whatever materials they could get their hands on.  This piece has no paint - it is done in mud off the ground as well as charcoal. 

You recognize this as Mart's work, right? (Same artist as the boy on the bicycle above.)  I had to feature one more of his pieces as he was admittedly my personal favorite.  That said, don't ask me exactly what's going on in this mural.  I guess that's the point, though.  His work is otherworldly. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eating Up Louisiana: Two Tasty Road Trip Stops (Part II)

Read Part I, which details our Cajun feast at Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.

Now, we flash forward to Sunday and road trip stop #2.  We’re leaving Natchez, Mississippi, after a delightful weekend in this historic town on the Mississippi River (stay tuned for a separate post on that!).  

This time, we make our brunch pit stop 1.5 hours south in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the city's #1 ranked restaurant according to TripAdvisor: Juban’s, which is a bit more affordable at brunch.  Located in a strip mall, this award-winning, 29-year-old culinary gem makes you forget all about that once you step inside the gracious interior.  It also provides a contrast to Café Des Amis in that it specializes in upscale Creole cuisine instead of Cajun cuisine.   

Juban's Restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an ideal road trip stop right off I-10. Epicurean dining in a strip mall, though there's a lovely Southern facade out front. 

The difference?  I’m glad you asked, as I’ve always had a bit of confusion about the distinction between these two French-influenced cuisines.  Basically, unlike the Cajuns who migrated from French Canada, Creoles are descended from the early colonial settlers in Louisiana.  Most were of French and Spanish heritage, and most lived in or around New Orleans.  Later, the term included African-Americans as well as those who were mixed race.  Thus, while there’s a strong French element to both Cajun and Creole cuisines, Creole food also reflects other influences, such as from Africa and Spain.

So it’s apropos that the two most famous Creole dishes – gumbo and jambalaya – are both symbolic of this fusion of cultures.  Essentially, both are a big heap of things thrown into one big pot.  In fact, the word jambalaya is the combination of the French word for ham (jamon), the French and Spanish article “a la,” and the last syllable of the Spanish word for a rice-based dish (paella).  Of course, just to keep you on your toes, there is also a Cajun version of jambalaya that later evolved, but unlike the “red” Creole version colored by tomatoes, the “brown” Cajun version has a tasso base. 

Got that straight?  Phew!  Fortunately, at Juban’s, I was able to put my quest for understanding such nuances aside and just indulge my palate.  To try as many things as possible without passing out, we again split three items.  Selections were made while munching on the complimentary sweet potato chips dusted with powdered sugar.  

Sweet Potato Chips dusted with confectioner's sugar, the complimentary snack that hits your table upon arriving at Juban's.  Clearly a secret plot to rev your appetite. 

I would like to thank the heavens now that I started with a Strawberry Mint Julep, which uses strawberry-infused honey bourbon. (Essentially, it’s Knob Creek bourbon that’s had a honey comb and strawberries soaking in it.)  While my meal was excellent, this cocktail goes into the pantheon.  Sweet but not too sweet.  Husky but not too intense.  In sum, the best mint julep I’ve ever had. 

The Strawberry Mint Julep at Juban's.  Perhaps the most amazing discovery of the trip.

Now, back to the food.  First off was the Pain Perdu (“Lost Bread”), the Creole version of French Toast.  Adding as much richness as possible (seemingly the name of the game in any Louisiana cuisine), this dessert-like breakfast incorporates custard and Chantilly cream as well as a topping of wild blueberries.  It was absolutely divine, and it practically melted in my mouth.  

The Pain Perdu at Juban's.  Perfect if you like dessert for breakfast.

Next, we took a sharp turn to the savory with a cup of Juban’s Gumbo, made with smoked chicken, roasted duck and andouille sausage.  Of all the gumbos I’ve tried, this seafood-free, meat-laden version was definitely one of my favorites.  It was incredibly smoky and flavorful with a dark medium roux (a French thickening base).  

A cup of gumbo at Juban's is a must with any meal.  Interestingly, it comes with a smattering of rice on top.

Last, our Monte Cristo Madame arrived, a peculiar-yet-satisfying merger of a Monte Cristo sandwich and a Croque Madame – and of flavors both fatty and sweet.  To break it down, it’s a fried ham and gruyere cheese sandwich topped with a poached egg (that’s the “Madame” component) as well as fruit compote.  Overkill?  Definitely.  But it all melded into one big “I can’t take another bite…but I must have another bite” finish.

And that, in the end, was the gastronomic theme of this entire trip:  where excess meets ecstasy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Eating Up Louisiana: Two Tasty Road Trip Stops

In recent months, I’ve been reminded of how much I love a road trip.  Or more precisely, how much I love plotting a road trip based on where to stop and eat.

On a road trip to Los Angeles over the holidays, that meant arranging our drive around stops at two places:  one a new and unexpected favorite in western New Mexico and the other a California roadside institution since the ‘20s.  The first was the Wow Diner, a surprisingly good “silver bullet” diner found in a truck stop off I-40 in tiny Milan, NM.  My partner Kevin discovered it while shooting a film nearby last fall.  With a worldly menu (lobster rolls!?) and daily specials, it’s a gourmet twist on retro comfort food. 

Sitting on the patio at Shields Date Garden in Indio, CA (near Palm Springs).

The second was Shields Date Garden, the home of the legendary date milkshake as well as the kitschy short film, “Romance and the Sex Life of the Date.”  For nearly a century, travelers have stopped at this tourist attraction off I-10 in Indio, CA, to stretch the legs, buy dates (they grow 10+ varieties) and get a yummy date shake for the road (you have to try one to understand how good it is).  Happily, Shields has now expanded into a full-scale restaurant, where we enjoyed bountiful salads on the sunny, palm tree-filled patio.

Given how much these stops helped to buoy our taste buds and break up our drive, I knew I needed to apply the same approach to my upcoming road trip from Houston to Natchez, Mississippi, with a college friend now living in Houston.  (This is the same girlfriend from previous gastronomic getaways to Austin and Cape Cod, who, like me, lives to eat.)  It was about six hours in between, which meant we could stop for lunch on the way there and back to break it in half.  The question was:  where?  

Our road trip route. A is Houston, Texas (starting point).  B is Natchez, Mississippi (destination).  Most of our drive time was spent in Louisiana, though. Click to enlarge for better legibility.  

Neither of us had ever done this drive (which follows I-10 through Louisiana’s swampy Cajun Country most of the way), and I didn’t want to take the risk of winging it.  We all know how it is to get ravenous and just give in to crappy roadside food or chain restaurants.  But I wanted the real deal.  Fortunately, we live in an age of Yelp and TripAdvisor, where everybody can share everything about a trip or a meal.  Before departing, I had our plan for the drive there – and by the time we left Natchez, I had a plan for the way back.  

Cafe Des Amis, located in a historic building in downtown Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

Road trip stop #1 was a place I saw raves about online over and over – Café Des Amis in the cute little town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, dubbed the “Crawfish Capital of the World.”  Not surprisingly, Cafe Des Amis is known for its crawfish etouffee, a dish that perfectly represents the bountiful seafood of the region and the distinctive influence of the Acadians, French settlers who migrated from Canada to Louisiana in the 1700s.   Eventually, they became known as “Cajuns,” while the region (which comprises 22 Louisiana parishes in the “heel” of the state’s boot shape) became known as “Acadiana.” 

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana (population 8,100) is just a few miles east of Lafayette, Louisiana. From Houston, it's about 3.5 hours to Breaux Bridge.  From Baton Rouge (which is to the east), it's about 45 minutes.

Five minutes south of 1-10, Café Des Amis is not just famous for its food – but also for its Saturday morning Zydeco Breakfast.  We were coming through on a Friday, sadly, but the meal alone made our toes tap.  We started with an appetizer that sounded too ridiculous not to try:  Alligator Sausage Cheesecake.  This savory delicacy involves crawfish, sausage made from alligator meat, gouda cheese and cream cheese baked with herbs and spices and then smothered with a rich crawfish sauce (read:  more cream).  In a word:  awesome.

The mouth-watering (and heart-stopping) Alligator Sausage Cheesecake at Cafe Des Amis.  

Next was the Pepper Jack Shrimp Poppers, which are an even better example of how Cajun food is clearly designed to shorten your lifespan.  Because who would want to eat four ostensibly healthy shrimp unless they’re stuffed with Cajun tasso (intensely flavored smoked pork) and Pepper Jack cheese, wrapped in bacon, breaded, then deep-fried…and then covered with more of that crawfish sauce?  Yes, they were insanely good, and yes, I was beginning to realize that there was no way around gaining weight on this trip. 

The Crawfish Pie at Cafe Des Amis.  The puff pastry just went "poof" upon being punctured!

Then came the entrée – which we split after all that gluttony.  Called Crawfish Pie, it’s a puff pastry filled with crawfish etoufée and accompanied by corn macque choux (a Cajun dish involving corn and veggies braised in – what else? – bacon fat) and dirty rice, both of which were outstanding.  The entrée itself?  I decided crawfish is a bit fishy for my taste.  And we could have done without the puff pastry, which collapsed into nothingness, as shown above.  But it’s probably for the best, because if it had been an irresistibly thick crust, I might have died of a heart attack on the spot.

Read Part II, which dishes on our Creole meal at Juban's in Baton Rouge on the drive back.