“My grandma didn’t like to cook, she cooked to survive,” Alejandro Osuna recounts with a playful shrug, “Everyone has to eat.” He grew up on her cooking. It was a routine duty with a fixed calendar of meals: Monday was fish night, Tuesday was beef, Wednesday was chicken. But Thursdays were special because that was the night she made asado negro, a traditional Venezuelan braised beef and “the only dish that she made really well.”
The tender bits of carnage, tints of black and burgundy painted on from a drawn out preparation that begins with an overnight dip in a red wine-based marinade before being intensely seared in panela and molasses and finally returned to the marinade to slow roast for up to six hours. It is traditionally served al plato, sliced into tender steaks and served with a dressed down side like rice and plantains. At Kombinaciones, an informal joint with its roots strongly planted in Latin American street food, the meat is shredded before being stuffed inside a Venezuelan style arepa with fresh avocado.
“That Thursday tradition is the only thing I’ve kept through the years,” explains Osuna. His asado negro strays from his grandma’s original recipe. It is combined with the wisdom of one of Venezuela’s most worshipped culinary patrons, Don Armando Scannone, an engineer by trade who wrote the book on Venezuelan cuisine from memory. Oruna quickly toasts the white corn arepa until crispy golden clouds appear. Underneath the crunch, is a generous ration of beef that is lushly flavored by its own fat drippings that slowly exhale into the wine marinade and absorb back in to moisten the tender meat. Avocado adds a layer of cream to cut the dense beef flavor and a squirt of hot sauce — made from rocoto, jalapeño or puta parió — adds a welcome layer of acidity.
“We wanted to make grandma food, which is the base of food in Latin America and are traditions that we are beginning to lose,” continues Osuna, “And mix that with high end techniques but in a way that still represents street food.” Like la perico an arepa stuffed with a sous-vide 63°C egg, “I grew up eating arepas with fried eggs. Ours incorporates more technique but in a way that is accessible to everyone.”
He hands me a bottle of chunky green catara, a hot sauce popular amongst indigenous Amazonian communities that is prepared with mandioca juice, spices and the backends of a native ant called bachaco. Although I didn’t detect much spice, a subdued citrus flavor grew intenser with each bite. The egg is cooked in a low-temp water bath before being cracked into a hot cast iron skillet. It is fried to give a flaky brown exterior without sacrificing gooey egg whites and yolk, which floods out onto plantain and sweet potato chips.
The technique was perfected during a three year stint as head chef at Fukuro Noodle Bar, where he met the other half of this cooking duo, Gabriel Chavez. The soft-spoken Chavez adds the baleada to Oruna’s arepa. A typical dish from his native Northern Honduras coast is a simple meal that “Hondurans eats every day.”
A thick flour tortilla is smeared with a spoonful of refried black beans and topped with an egg and smattering of vegetables. His version also swaps in the poached egg and adds slightly spicy red onions, buttery avocado and handful of shredded cheese. Chavez recommends adding a splash of silky tabasco sauce popular in the eastern state of Olancho. The tangerine colored salsa is a potent blend of tabasco peppers and vinegar that packs a strong heat and heightens the acidity of the thickly julienned onion. Beans and a fat tortilla add a dense chew.
A handful of hot dogs balances out the menu and allows the duo to sprinkle in flavors from throughout South America. Puffy ghost white bao replace traditional hot dog buns. The adornments are so generous that the german sausage underneath is completely covered. I chose the P.L.T. which is topped with bits of panceta, lettuce, tartar and sweet tomato chutney. It’s impossible to dig in without covering yourself in sauce. I preferred the panceta arepa, la chancha, pork belly cooked low for 12 hours and decorated with a slice of tomato, avocado and tartar. Although I would’ve preferred a more notable char on the slice of panceta to compliment the fat layer the rich pork flavor lingered on the tongue.
Chavez and Osuna left home five years ago and have set out to create a small escape for fellow expatriates looking for nostalgic flavors. “We come from places where people aren’t used to dining out,” Osuna explains, “but people come here with their whole families and tell us they feel at home.”
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