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Tastes of Chile at La Roja de Todos in Queens

The drink is a shade between dust storm and tea, filtering down through puffy grains of husked wheat. A shadow rests at the center like a fallen sun: a sun-dried peach, fattened overnight in water steeped with cinnamon sticks, then simmered with chancaca, raw cane sugar.

This is mote con huesillo, Chile’s beloved half-drink, half-snack, considered central to the national character. (“More Chilean than mote con huesillo” is the saying.) At La Roja de Todos, a Chilean restaurant and bakery in Corona, Queens, it comes in a plastic cup, as if from a roadside motero (mote vendor), and tastes like a peach minus its voluptuousness, with an attenuated sweetness. You’re meant to eat the wheat, too, chewy with a hint of squeak, like tapioca pearls in bubble tea.

The restaurant’s name is in homage to the Chilean national soccer team, which is close to the heart of José Luis Norambuena, the owner. He comes from the port town of Valparaíso, Chile, about whose labyrinthine cobblestone streets the poet Pablo Neruda wrote, “life / always takes you / by surprise.”

Mr. Norambuena still keeps his day job, in construction, arriving at the restaurant at 4 p.m. to work into the night. When he took over the space — another Chilean restaurant — in November, there wasn’t time to change the décor. So the walls are still hung with ponchos and chupallas (horsemen’s hats) and painted red, and tables are set with blue or red cloths and white runners, colors honoring the Chilean flag.

Vania Isler, Mr. Norambuena’s daughter, patiently steers those unfamiliar with her native cuisine toward dishes “you can find only here.” Foremost among them: pastel de choclo, allied in spirit with shepherd’s pie, presented with an apocalyptic crust nearly as black as the pot it’s baked in.

The top layer is a charred purée of corn kernels gone creamy from simmering in milk, with hidden seams of sweet basil — the classic ingredients of humitas, Chilean tamales. Underneath is the filling you might find in a Chilean empanada: whole black olives and raisins, concatenations of salty and sweet; cuts of hard-boiled egg; and pino (beef seethed with onions), bolstered by chicken.

Ms. Isler advised sprinkling salt or sugar on top. “I like sugar,” she said, and set down not a bowl but a pitcher of it. It worked: a tattoo of crunch and a tempering of the char’s bitterness.

Photo

Vania Isler, the owner’s daughter, works the floor at La Roja de Todos in Corona, Queens.

Credit
An Rong Xu for The New York Times

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