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Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Surprise in Nearby Palms: Latin American Cuisine at La Cocina del Gagaguey

Speeding down Venice Blvd. heading to the 405, it's easy to miss La Cocina del Cagaguey

Open for less than a year, La Cocina is tucked away in the back corner of El Camaguey Meat Market (10925 Venice Blvd, Palms, between College and Midvale; a mile east of the 405). Much more than a butcher shop, El Camaguey has a wide selection of packaged goods, beverages and produce that are Latin American favorites.
Strictly for take-out, La Cocina del Cagaguey has an extensive menu of Latin American dishes, some familiar like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), some like encendido (braised oxtail) sound exotic.
Call ahead (310/839-4037) and Ilonka Garcia, chef and owner, will have your order ready for you by the time you park in front.

As she sauteed fresh green tomatillos in a giant cast iron skillet, she explained, "The market started out being mostly for Cubans and Spaniards, but over time expanded for a larger clientel. Now you can find food that appeals to Brazilians, Peruvians, Argentianians, Venuzalians, Mexicans."

She learned her craft cooking for Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican chefs.  When she was thinking about opening the cafe, she explained, “I was in between cooking Cuban or Puerto Rican dishes. I knew someone would get upset whichever way I went, so I decided to cook them all."

Coming from the Dominican Republic, the three islands have many cooking similarities. All use grilled onions and cook with beef, chicken and pork.
But she doesn't limit herself to island cooking.

“A little bit of something for everybody. Colombian tamales and empanadas use cornmeal. Every country has their own version of empanadas. They’re all different. Dominican empanadas are fried, using a special dough that doesn’t absorb the oil so they are crisp without being soggy. The empanadas are filled with beef or cheese.”
Venuzalians like the ropa veja (shredded beef), which I tasted. The tender, moist meat had lots of succulent flavor, kicked up a notch by her fiery, vinegary jalapeno salsa--which has almost no tomatoes just finely minced red onions, jalapenos and cilantro leaves.

Asked about which dishes are her most popular, she looked at the photographs of the dishes on the wall above her head and went through the list. The shrimp salad, chuleta encebollada (pork chops with grilled onions), fried plantains, camarones al ajilo (shrimp in garlic sauce), camarones en salsa de coco (shrimp on coconut sauce), alcapurrias (stuffed fritters) and mofongo con chicharon y ajo(mashed plantains with crispy, fried pork rind and garlic) are all good.

The bacalao con papas (salt cod with potatoes) is also very popular. She makes fried chicken, but with "small pieces with batter so the flavor goes into each bite.”

The portions are large and priced affordably. The two dozen entrees are priced between $7 and $11. The appetizers and side orders cost from $1.50 each for the empanadas and bulgur meat pies to $7 for the fried chicken and fried green plantain dumplings.

The daily special, including a generous helping of rice and beans is an amazing bargain at $5.99 + tax.
Every day she makes a different kind of rice and beans. She likes making arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon beans). The pigeon beans are like lentils, she told me, but different. “Sometimes I make black eyed beans, white, black, garbanzo, and, another day, lentils. I change the beans daily. It’s an adventure to see what kind of bean I have.”

Even when a bean is popular, like the pigeon beans, she'll change to another bean the next day.  “I get to choose. I hate to get stuck with one item.”

Recently she was reviewed in the LA Times by Bill Esparza on April 7: The Find: La Cocina del Camaguery with the result that she's been even busier than usual.

During the short time I was at the cafe, a constant stream of customers came in to pick up their orders. While some cooks can hardly wait to get out of the kitchen, not Ilonka.

“There’s always something going on here. I like a lot of invention in my kitchen". She and her helper cook all day long because she says food tastes better if you make it in small batches.
All of her meat, poultry and sausages come from the meat market behind her. All of the meat is fresh, never frozen. Because the customers come from different Latin American countries, they want their meat  cut differently. That's no problem. The butcher will give you whatever cut you like.
Even difficult to find Brazilian picanha.

The sausages are made in the market with the exception of the morcilla Argentina. They have even started making chicken chorizo.

She takes a break from sauteing the green tomatillos to describe the recipe. “I almost burn them, then add them along with garlic and cilantro and puree them and then add to braised pork ribs which have been cooking for two hours. After I add the tomatillo puree, I only cook the ribs another twenty minutes. I like the smoky bitterness of the tomatillo.”
In addition to the fresh cooked rice, she cooks her beans, whichever kind, "so they are creamy, with onions and two peppers [red and green], garlic and a lot of love. We cook with a lot of love here.”
And it shows.