The Heat

2012.Mar.15 Thursday · 2 comments

in Life, Restaurants

One of the things I was warned about before coming was the combination of heat and humidity that I was going to encounter in Asunción. I was prepared, but the first two days were rather mild – Sunday was in the high 80s, but not particularly humid, and cooled into the mid-70s in the evening. Monday was much the same – I think it actually hit about 92 in mid-afternoon, but again, not particularly humid and wasn’t at all uncomfortable (though I did buy a truly adorable Indiana Jones style hat for sun protection since I realized I’d forgotten to bring one). Tuesday, however, turned out to be a different matter entirely. First off, warnings abounded for heavy thunderstorms, though not expected until early evening – however, it meant things were “heavy” and really humid, from early morning on. And, it got hot. We’re not talking about it went up to the mid-90s or something, the temperature topped out in the afternoon, according to local sources, at an official 108 degrees F, but “felt like 117 F” (42 and 47 degrees C, respectively), with 90%+ humidity.

And I got a late start – intentionally, after all this is vacation, and I spent a good part of the morning by the pool, reading, writing, and just relaxing. And then decided to head to the northeast part of the city for the afternoon – plans were to check out a snack sort of place that Rodrigo had recommended the night before, walk a bit, have lunch at one of several restaurants that I’d gotten recommendations for, and go out to the botanical gardens and zoo (though I’d been warned they weren’t much to look at, there is a small butterfly museum on the grounds that sounded intriguing), and the Museo del Barro, an indigenous and folk art museum. So I headed out along Av. España, one of the main avenues stretching from the city center to the northeast.

Avenida España

The avenue seemed to me to be significantly less trafficked than Av. López, that I’d walked the day before, but, I was also headed away from the downtown area rather than towards. It was noticeable that there were fewer sidewalk stretches (López had sidewalks on both sides the full distance), often leaving me and everyone else to trudge through weeds and dirt shoulders, and even those that exist were really poorly maintained. I would note that despite the poor maintenance of roads and sidewalks, one thing that was evident was the lack of things like dog poop and also very little litter – in fact there are recycling and garbage cans at almost every major intersection, and often at smaller ones.

Avenida España

There are some beautiful homes along the avenue, and in fact, last evening I passed through the stretch to the west of where I’m staying and it’s packed with mansions – I may try to get over that way before I leave today. I ended up with more free time than planned as Rodrigo got called into work and had to cancel our trip to the surrounding province for the day.

Avenida España

Today’s fruits were limes and grapefruits. Everywhere. I guess the street sellers just get whatever they get for the day.

Avenida España

First stop was a shopping mall. Yes, a shopping mall. At the point where Espña splits off to the avenue I now headed onto, Aviadores del Chaco. A branch of Ña Eustaquia, a chain of places that serve up typical “snack” type foods was on my list to checkout

Ña Eustaquia

The branch here is just a stand with a small indoor seating area and a few tables on a terrace, outside the mall. I decided to stay outside (though in the shade). Here was the opportunity to do a little side by side tasting of some of the dishes I’d been hearing about.

Ña Eustaquia

Ña Eustaquia

Ña Eustaquia

At the back is a Paraguayan empanada, they’re round here rather than half-moons, but other than that, pretty much the same, though the filling choices are different than those in Argentina for the most part. I had one filled with surubí, the tigerfish, that was nice and spicy as well – fish, hard-boiled egg, chilies and onion – delicious. The smaller round puff in the lower left is a chipa guazu, a corn-flour crust filled with, in this case a four cheese mixture, which is the house specialty and which Rodrigo highly recommended. It was okay, but a bit too bready with little filling, though what there was was tasty. The flat white dough is an mbeyu, a yuca flour flatbread of sorts. Rather than stuffing it, what they do is put a scoop of filling on the griddle and the flatten the dough over the top of it – they only cook it on one side, which gets lightly charred, and the top just barely gets cooked through. I find the taste interesting, but the texture to be sort of gummy and not all that pleasant. More empanadas please? A very refreshing large papaya juice completed the “snack” (I only ate half of each, they’re just all too doughy and filling) – grand total 32,500pgy ($7.50) for a quick bite.

Avenida España

Back onto the avenue, and slipped off to the right onto a different one, Santa Teresa, and a clearly more upper middle class neighborhood. The museum I wanted to go to was over this way, but unfortunately turned out not to be open (they’ve cut their hours and are now only open on Wednesday through Saturday, late afternoons and early evenings – had I checked their website I’d have known that). So I wandered the neighborhood a bit, and then also discovered that all three of the restaurants in that area that I was recommended to were not open for lunch (I could have done a bit more digging – though few restaurants here have websites, I could have made some phone calls, but I was winging it).

Avenida España

Avenida España

People often ask me why I walk everywhere rather than, say, take a bus or cab to get to my ultimate destinations. And sometimes I do, particularly if I have somewhere I really want to be and even more so if I need to be there at a certain time. But, walking lets me discover things I might not otherwise discover, like:

Avenida España

Avenida España

Avenida España

Would I ever have found the Mini Aeronautical Museum that takes up a two block stretch on the median strip? It’s actually rather cool, with models of aircraft from hot air balloons to small private planes to fighter jets to commercial airliners. Now, about this time, and having gotten just shortly after this “museum” to discover the third of my intended restaurants was closed for lunch, it was hitting that high temp point I mentioned. Despite chugging along gamely, I realized that I was completely soaked with perspiration from head to toe – like really soaked to the point where I was dripping onto the sidewalk, plus the sky had clouded up and there were rumblings of thunder with occasional drips from the sky. So I grabbed a cab back to the hotel figuring on a dip in the pool and changing clothes. I have to admit that when I got back, I just couldn’t face going out again, and decided that even though I’d not finished my snacks above, I’d had enough to tide me over for the afternoon and I’d just plan on an early dinner. I’d been hoping that some local friends whom I’ve been trying to hook up with would join me, but they’ve gone incommunicado. Ah well.

Good timing too, as just about the time I got to the hotel the storm hit, probably wouldn’t have been pleasant out at the botanical gardens, which are actually outside of town to the far northeast (though I had walked a good percentage of the way there, I probably still had another 45-60 minutes walk to get there) – it wasn’t as bad as predicted, but it rained steadily for the rest of the day and night. I called the place I had wanted to go for dinner for a reservation only to find that they were closed for a private party, so I switched it for the planned next night’s spot, and headed out to Tierra Colorada Gastro.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

Beautiful place. In the middle of, well, kind of nowhere. It’s a mixed residential and industrial area, though the block it’s on is almost solely residential. The cab driver didn’t believe me that there was a restaurant out there, and even when we pulled up in front of it refused to leave until he made sure that I had gotten in the door (he offered to wait, but I could only imagine what the meter would have rung up during a two hour or so dinner – and I was pretty sure that the restaurant would call me another cab when leaving). Very pleasant and attentive service at the start – it got a bit less attentive as the night wore on because a party of nearly 20 showed up and the woman who’d arranged it didn’t like the seating arrangements and threw a fit, making them rearrange everything in the dining room (which included shoving one of their tables literally up against mine, to which she snapped at me, “Move!”). Reminded me, to be honest, of dealing with a group of wealthy Long Islanders (and the rest of the party who arrived reinforced that – guys with open shirts and chains, loud and demanding scotches before they sat, telling “the girls” to go sit and talk about “girl stuff”, and the women all in, well, too much spandex, makeup and cheap jewelry. Not to over generalize the Long Island population because they’re not all like that, but there are enough of them who are to know the stereotype fits. Regardless, her temper and the pushiness of the group meant that all seven staff members on the floor basically were handling no one but their party, and the rest of us in the dining room basically got ignored the remainder of the night. I ended up just grabbing my bottle of wine and water from the side table and moving them to mine because I couldn’t get anyone to pour them. Poor management.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

The wine was great – I’ve been intentionally trying Chilean wines since I can get all the Argentine ones back home. Antu Ninquén Carmenere Cabernet blend, 2009 – beautiful flavors of fresh raspberries dominated with some other red fruits behind it, a slight smokiness, medium high acidity, great balance, well integrated oak. That’s one I’m going to try to get to have around home. At 135,000pgy (the list had stuff ranging from about 90,000 to 500,000), or $32, it was a bargain.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

A little amuse bouche of a slice of grilled sopa paraguaya, the cornbread I mentioned the other day, topped with a local cheese. A little dry for my tastes, but interesting flavor. I’d hoped for a bit more creativity given what I’d heard about the restaurant and from as fascinating as the menu sounded on reading through it.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

First up, a poached egg salad – the eggs, two of them, unfortunately hidden away under the greens (would have been a much nicer presentation if you could see them), are cooked “in the manner of Arzak”, one of the famous molecular gastronomy chefs of Spain. Good, though slightly inconsistent – neither egg had a runny yolk, one was cooked just passed that point, the other was solid through. The greens turned out to be just simple oak leaf lettuce dressed with a very citrusy lemon vinaigrette – one of the things I noted here is that things that are citric are really citric – not once have I had something that was balanced out with either salt or sugar – I think it’s just the local tastes rather than poor cooking, because I’ve also been served at almost every meal a plate of lemon or lime wedges to add even more citrus to dishes if I wanted.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

One of the local specialties I’d not yet tried is called a payagua mascada (sometimes pajagua mascada), which is basically ground beef, onion, and yuca that are cooked together as a fritter. This one was nicely twisted with shrimp filling in for the ground beef. Great spicing, and a fun presentation as a little log, a nice touch of crunch from the sheaf of fried yuca sticking out of the top. More greens, again with a really acidic dressing – thankfully salt on the table that was able to fix both salads to my tastes.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

After I’d finished my eggs and salad, the chef had popped out to introduce himself. My waiter, while he was still paying attention to me, had let him know that I was a chef after we’d chatted a bit. So we ended up chatting for about 10 minutes about the restaurant biz and cooking in BA vs. Asunción. I left my main course up to him – whatever he thought would be of most interest to a fellow foodie – and got his slow cooked (12 hours according to the menu) oxtail. The meat has been removed from the bone and then repacked as a large puck of tender, melt in your mouth oxtail. Served in a potato puree that was absolutely silky smooth and delicious. As best I was able to determine, since none of the waiters were being at all helpful by this point, the green smear at the back is a yuca puree with “some sort of herb, maybe spinach”, but no one was willing to go ask the chef. Other than a slightly gluey texture, from the yuca starch, it was a nice contrast to the potato and meat, and really helped make the dish – part of why I wanted to know what it was.

Tierra Colorada Gastro

And, decided to give a shot at one dessert while I was in town. Not really keen on the presentation (too many “heel in goose poo smears” as Giles Coren once put it), a white chocolate soup with a passionfruit sort of pudding in the middle, passionfruit and vanilla creams on the sides. Not bad, but not a wow. Best things were the two middle courses. Overall a bit heavy was my feeling (the chef is German I think, so maybe there’s some cultural influence coming through), though I might not have felt the same way had my main course been, say, a fish – for midsummer and over 100 degree heat outside, I’m not sure I would have picked braised oxtail to show off my cooking that evening – actually I’m not sure that I’d put a dish like that on the menu at this time of year – but then, I gather, that even during wintertime in Asunción it’s still relatively hot and steamy, so maybe it’s just not relevant to the local thought processes. And, on the other hand, I’m not sure that anything past a cold drink and maybe a ceviche wouldn’t have seemed heavy in that weather. After all, like Argentina, asados/parrillas, and steak sandwiches and such dominate the cooking scene, year-round. Overall recommended. And the 330,500pgy ($77) price tag before tip was not out of line, particularly since the wine was 40% of the bill, and that was my own choosing to go with something a little pricier.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Osvaldo March 30, 2012 at 12:53

I would like to add to your article that “Pajagua mascada” literally means “Dog’s chewing gum”.

dan March 30, 2012 at 13:13

I’ve seen some write-ups that list that as the guarani to spanish translation, but others that give it a different definition – given that the payagués were the indigenous people of the Chaco Boreal region and mascada also means a buried treasure. I wonder if this is one of those where we’ll never really know…?

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