Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pampas' Bakery

'Best to keep an eye on this place...just don't look too closely at the decor.'

Growing up we often visited an aunt of mine in southern California. My aunt Florence is an amazing cook, whipping up the most tasty breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you can imagine. Although Disneyland or Universal Studios was often the planned "activity" of the vacation, in retrospect I would argue that the true attraction and highlight of our trips down south was her food (both for the adults and the kids). One of the things that my aunt introduced me to that I am absolutely in love with today - is the empanada. And my aunt made the best empanadas. The empanada originated in Spain but many Latin American and/or Spanish colonized/influenced countries have their own version of this stuffed bread or pastry. I thought that the farmer's market was one of the only places where you could pick up an empanada to go in SLC when...

I was meandering down a strip mall in Sugarhouse enjoying the artwork in a local gallery this past weekend. I noticed a bakery just below the shop I was in. It was about 3pm in the afternoon (time for my afternoon snack) so I thought a drop into the bakery was well in order. I immediately got the sense of deja vu (a glitch in the matrix?) when I dug deep to remember that this space was formerly occupied by the Italian restaurant Michelangelo's. I had a hard time connecting the space to Michelangelo's because the owners of Pampa's had really changed the interior. In a word, the decor is...well...bizarre. The place is oddly situated with a few tables, covered in plastic, on opposite ends of the restaurant separated by a humongous wooden bar. I wouldn't call the layout off putting, but my first impression was that the decor wasn't exactly calling me out to come take a seat.

What the interior design lacked was well made up by the warm and friendly service at Pampa's. I was greeted at the front counter by the owner who explained the Argentinian concept and walked me through several dishes and pastries. He was very proud of his Argentinian food and described the kind of flavors that were commonly found in Argentina. Unfortunately when he mentioned empanadas, I tuned everything else he said out. I knew what I wanted: 2 empanadas please! He also spoke really highly of a pastry filled with a homemade caramel that I also ordered as well. $4.00 later (can you believe how cheap it was?) I took a bag home with one chicken empanada, one beef empanada, and my caramel dessert.

Once I got home, I opened up the bag up with much excitement and immediately devoured the empanadas. The filling was still piping hot and the savory beef and onion mixture oozed out of the crusty bread when I took a big bite. The beef was robustly flavored with a slight hint of tomato, very moist and tender with onions and garlic. Although not done in the style of empanada of my aunt, I very much enjoyed this Argentinian version. The chicken empanada was also very tasty, a lighter dish than the beef option, stuffed with pieces of hard boiled egg. I really should have stopped there. I mean really, I was going to eat dinner in like 3 hours. But I just had to try the highly recommended caramel pastry. The pastry itself was light, buttery, and flaky topped with powdered sugar. It contrasted nicely with the caramel - a thick, sweet goo. I got about halfway through the pastry before I had to quit eating, to save myself from gluttony (too late actually).

Pampa's also offers a variety of Argentinian style dishes such as pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, and various Milanesa dishes. But there is something I just find so brilliant in the empanada; the meaty filling wrapped up in a baked buttery dough pouch is truly the perfect all in one meal.The kitchen is still getting its sea legs, so the owner encouraged me to come by when things really get going. If the empanadas are any indication of what good can come from the kitchen, Pampa's is bound to serve some truly great dishes. Best to keep an eye on this place...just don't look too closely at the decor.

Pampa's Bakery
2156 S Highland Dr
(801) 738-8058

Pampas Bakery on Urbanspoon 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Shahrazad Market and Restaurant

'I found the smells of different spices and herbs that permeated the aisles intoxicating.'

If you've never set foot in an international market, it's well worth doing. Not only do you see an array of products you've never seen before, but the people, the decor, the smells, and the overall vibe really give you a glimpse of the cultures behind the market. A friend of mine told me about a Middle Eastern Market on the West side of Salt Lake with a restaurant in the back. I must say his description of the place really piqued my interest, both as a lover of food as well as from the standpoint of an interested tourist on a virtual vacation to the Middle East. The Shahrazad Market and Restaurant is a great introduction to Middle Eastern culture and food. The market is simple, reminiscent of a large mom and pop operation - think Emigration Market... Middle Eastern style. I found the smells of different spices and herbs that permeated the aisles intoxicating. In fact, I found myself gravitating toward the back, past the deli cases of freshly butchered meats, to where there was clearly some food being fired.

The restaurant in the rear of the market is pretty simple with some nicely situated tables and a front counter from which to order. A placard above the counter spells out the menu - combination plates of kabobs, meatballs, different yogurt type beverages, some sweets, and some breads fill the menu. It can be overwhelming, especially for someone like me who doesn't know much about Middle Eastern cuisine. However the guys at the restaurant are really good at explaining the dishes and are genuinely interested in helping you to have a great experience. Moreover, the deli case contains some examples of the food, so you can always point to what you want if you see it.

We started off with a yogurt, mint drink called dugh (pronounced doog) - a really refreshing start to the meal. We quickly gobbled up some hot naan that came alongside. The naan (a leavened, flat type of bread) was served steaming hot with mint, parsley, goat cheese, and walnuts. We were told to rip some of the naan and then add in the above acoutrements, roll everything up like a sandwich, and then eat it. The warm naan melted the goat cheese and helped the mint and parsley to open up. The crunch of the walnuts added some texture to the gooey cheese, while the herbs left a clean, fresh taste in your mouth.  Absolutely delicious.

For the main course we had the chicken and beef koobideh (pronounced koo-be-day) and the lamb liver skewer. The savory chicken and beef koobideh are like meatballs shaped in almost a square shape. The skewered lamb livers are just like they sound - rotisseried livers on a skewer. These were all served with basmati rice, a side salad, and a baked tomato. We were told that the proper way to eat the dish was to take the meat off the skewer, cut all of the meats and tomato up, and then mix everything together, dusting the whole thing liberally with sumac (a middle eastern spice). The meatballs were tender, moist, and had a floral quality to them with the addition of the sumac. Mixed in with the rice and tomato, it was all together quite a filling meal. The livers tasted like most any liver I've eaten and were suprisingly tender and tasty. I devoured half my plate (which was humongous - see picture at left; we each got a plate like that) but still had a whole table full of treats ordered by my Persian friend who encouraged us to try a couple different things. To be honest, the rest of the meal is kind of a blur; I'm lucky to be able to share the little I can remember at this point. What I can I tell you though is that the meal was terrific; something about eating at the Shahrazad Restaurant made it feel like we were that much closer to a true Middle Eastern experience. 

Living in Utah, you often forget that we have great international food resources right at the tip of our fingers. There are a few really good Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, even African markets in town. What's really cool is that most of these markets sell prepared food items for take away or even dine in. These markets offer true, authentic food from the trenches...made by those people submerged in the culture. So if you're like me and you love wandering around these markets, but don't really know what to do with half the stuff...take advantage of the good home cooking offered at these places: grab a quick bite, take all of the ambience and culture in, and then let the food guide you through a virtual vacation...right here in Utah.

Shahrazad Market and Restaurant
1615 West 2100 South
(801) 975-9977

Shahrazad Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon