Zesty Cuban Classics

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Arroz con Pollo, Pambiche

The Party gods own Spring Break on the West Coast; they demand a celebration of life in the form of bright colors, loud music and living it up. Naturally, when my friend Lee mentioned wanting to head up for her Spring Break vacation, I enthusiastically accepted. She flew up from the Southwest in the late morning and like any good out-of-towner she stepped off the plane hungry.

Lee had been here before but this time round we decided to stretch outside of our comfort zone and try places even I hadn’t been to. Cuban kept creeping into my mind, perhaps because the sun teased that day and reminded me of warmer times. We Google mapped around us and found a place called Pambiche nearby.

As we made our way up the street, a driving bass line pumped through the vibrantly painted exterior walls. “Yep, this is going to be good,” I predicted to my friend. The quaint restaurant makes sardine cans feel roomy. Crammed within its small walls are more tables than it should have; to further add to the frenetic atmosphere, lively paintings, wooden carvings, and musical instruments hang in the air as one-minded waiters bustle to and from the bar like bumbling bees.

I don’t say this as a critique. The setting seems natural or serendipitous and adds to the experience; its guests gather on this little island, sat close to strangers who become neighbors. You can’t avoid overhearing intimate conversations and smiling, sipping on mojitos and enjoying the feeling of “getting away” for the lunch hour.

Ropa vieja is arguably the most notable Cuban dish and my mouth watered for it, but in the spirit of new experiences, I ordered the Arroz con Pollo. For eight dollars I had enough for two gigantic meals. A big sprig of parsley sat atop Creole-style chicken sprinkled with paprika, saffron, and olives. Valencia saffron rice mingled with a healthy portion of fresh peas, cabbage and cilantro. There’s nothing quite like the flavor of saffron and the first bite confirmed that perfectly cooked rice consistency a Southern girl like me demands of jambalaya.

I was in my happy food place; where music, food and good company all intermingle to create the perfect dish.

 

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Belly-Warming Scandinavian Cuisine

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Lefse Special, Cafe Broder

Surviving a Portland winter requires a transformation of body and mind from mere mortal to Pacific Northwest god. The beards donned by natives [now often seen in metropolitan areas abroad] surfaced here not as a fashion statement but as a survival tactic. Until you have felt the assaulting left hand of rain and right hand of wind tackle your face in a fatal one-two blow, you won’t understand what it takes to be initiated by the Rose City.

A winter morning arrives not by approach of dawn’s light but by the creeping, never-ending darkness of eternal night. There will be no natural indicator of time now, no; only measured moments between downpours of baptizing rain and the empty promise of a forgotten sun’s rays teasing behind a cluster of clouds.

Until late spring you must lie to yourself daily that there will be flowers blossoming one day; that your socks won’t soak through within seconds of stepping outside. You’ll need to stoke a fire in your belly with the hope that comes with warm nourishment and Scandinavian food is sure to do the trick.

Often the smallest factors bear the largest impact, a constant reminder to never judge a book by its cover. Cafe Broder is such a place, unimposing in size and almost unnoticeable if it weren’t for the queue that forms outside on the regular. The generated warmth of body heat and lively banter welcome you into the quaint oblong cafe. Vintage baubles, stainless steel cabinets and a slack-jawed bass mounted on the wall muddle Danish

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Half-eaten lefse, Cafe Broder

modern with rustic industrial.

Perched at the bar, I couldn’t help but notice muscles (bulging under a stranglehold a of faded black fabric) sling what looked like a muffin tray of gooey batter into the oven. The muscles belonged to the head cook who expertly manned multiple orders destined for either the frying pan or the oven;

I ordered the daily lefse special, consisting of potato pancakes with ham, farmer’s cheese and lingonberry jam topped with two eggs and greens. I tried not to notice when I saw “Muscles” pour half & half into the mini square skillet that held the eggs. I needed sustenance to guide me through the assault of rain pellets that waited for me beyond the cafe doors.

The first bite launched an ephemeral twitch of my taste buds, a gentle nod of agreement in response to the artfully combined sweetness of ham and lingonberry with the savory bite of cheese and pancake. I could feel my belly warming with each slice and swallow and I almost missed the sound of wind scraping natural elements against the window outside.

As I took my last bite, I let the flavors linger in my mouth and prepared for the journey home. I layered my waterproof jacket on top of my sweatshirt and folded my scarf under as I zipped up. I was unaware of the assortment of weather that would soon greet me, but for the first time since the sun last shone I was smiling.