Naiara Calviño carefully pieces together a ‘ahogado de cabeza’ in the little rectangular kitchen at the back of Chochán. She slices an individual loaf of glass bread that has a slight bubbly surface and rich brown color that tells you it will be distinctly chewy before you even bite into it. She throws on pickled onions, avocado and dense little snowballs of feta atop gentle slices of pork head. The top slice of bread is carefully arranged and a ladle a steamy red sauce is poured over the towering sandwich. She rings the bell and instructs you to, “Be careful to grab the plate from the sides.”
Tacos de cabeza smothered in salsa roja or salsa verde is a popular taco filling in Central Mexico. Traditionally, a whole beef head is steamed until the meat begins to slide off the bone. At Chochán, a pig head is cured for three days and slow-braised until the meat can be pulled off and thrown into a ‘drowning’ sandwich. At the counter, a father-daughter date debates the menu to themselves in audible English. I suggest the sandwich, which I’ve ordered every time I’ve eaten here (and sometimes twice in a single sitting), but they politely shake their heads at the idea of ‘cabeza’ and choose the safer ribs and milanesa options.
“It is a popular dish but a lot of people still don’t quite understand it. Not just because of the meat but the sauce is poured on the outside. I catch a lot of people eating it with a fork and knife.”
Being misunderstood isn’t anything new to Calviño. She opened her first restaurant Aipim (meaning ‘mandioca’ in Portuguese), in 2012. The project featured a menu decorated with duck, pork knuckles and pollock fish but only lasted a brief six months. It was followed by the first induction of Chochán in 2014 on a sleepy San Telmo street. The wildly different restaurant introduced an ambitious all pork menu that fused together far flung flavors from the rest of Latin America, North America and East Asia.
“People imagine some sort of romanticization of pork and it wasn’t that at all. We came up with the name ‘chochán’ during a brainstorming and developed the concept after,” explains Calviño, “The average porteño isn’t used to consuming pork, or at least, not more than pork chops or shoulder. People steadily started coming to ‘eat weird stuff’. It’s strange. We forget that we eat every part of the cow, so why is pork heart or tongue so weird? And if people say, it’s just tradition, well, it was once tradition to prepare locro with pig’s feet.”
The ahogada de cabeza comes out on a warm stainless steel dish. A puddle of red sauce surrounds a crusty looking brown glass bread, a collaboration between sourdough baker Francisco Seubert Alsó and Calviño. It hides a satisfying audible crunch that makes the delicate fatty texture of the meat stand out. A wedge of lemon sits freely; diners are left to decide whether to squeeze it over the clump of feta cheese on top of the bread or over the buttery meat. A creamy avocado sauce pulls out the acidity of crunchy pickled onion. Each new bite should be made only after mopping up a subtle chipotle salsa with the bread. Although hot sauces tend to have louder notes of vinegar or cream than spice, the kitchen has often had a secret supply in the back.
Two other sandwiches and three mains round out the menu. The porchetta sandwich is a similar celebration of fatty flavor with a surprising layer of skin, which turns into a crispy, sometimes chewy, extra texture. Arugula and pickled cabbage bring a welcome green acidity to the richness of the pork roast. Ribs are slathered in a vinegary gochujang that ruffles your nose even if it’s being consumed a few tables away. The ribs are just the right juicy without sliding right off the bone. Milanesas—Calviño has a tattoo of a milanesa with mashed potatoes on her arm—are made with bone in pork chops and tossed in panko.
Pig ears, panko crusted sweet potato and yucca root served with aji amarilla take the place of the traditional french fry. Gooey potato and blood sausage fritters quickly become addictive. The scotch egg is particularly good—this coming from someone with a phobia of hard boiled eggs—it is given a pickled twist and runnier center. They are served with a memorable mustard seed sauce that latches on to the back of the tongue.
Calviño is developing a parallel donut project called Donas de Acá, a semi-regular pop-up that rotates between Shelter Coffee, Alaska and Full City Coffee House. The donuts made a recent appearance in the restaurant as replacements to buns for an otherwise traditional hamburger (made with pork, of course). No word yet on when they’ll return, my fingers are crossed they’ll soon sit next to the ahogado de cabeza on the menu.
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