Where I Want to Eat Right Now, Literally: #5
One glimpse, a smell, a sound and BOOM, you are somewhere else far away.
Marcel Proust famously took a bite of a warm madeleine and recalled his own life with such powerful force that his multi-volume “In Search of Lost Time,” more commonly known here in America as “Remembrance of Things Past” (the French still call it La Recherche), is one of the most awarded and admired works of modern literature. I have only read two of its volumes but what I think about ALL THE TIME is the recurring thematic notion of involuntary memory. It fascinates me, and Proust so accurately nailed it in his book. One glimpse, a smell, a sound and BOOM, you are somewhere else far away. Music gets me into food right away.
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Thirty minutes ago I’m sitting in my office, and I hear Lowell George singing “Dixie Chicken,” and as I’m typing away I immediately find myself drifting back in time, and I’m on the roof of the building where Pablo Escobar was shot and killed. WTF??? That’s a big jump.… One of my several trips to Colombia was to Medellín to shoot an episode of a show we created called Driven By Food. It’s one of my favorites, and despite the good ratings it wasn’t picked up for a second season as Travel Channel was soon transitioning from a travel network to a ghost/paranormal based one. I would love to make more of the series, but that’s how life goes … but, that’s how I found myself with a cab driver on a sunny day, outside one of Medellín’s most infamous buildings.
After decades of ruthless evil, and at one point running a cartel that was making over 400 million dollars a day and sending 15 tons of cocaine every 24 hours to the USA, Escobar was hiding out in a middle-class neighborhood in Medellín when Colombian national police and American agents finally caught up to him on December 2, 1993. Gunfire erupted, and Escobar fled across the rooftops behind the house he was holed up in. Both he and his bodyguard were shot and killed.
I think you have all seen the documentaries about him on the streamers but in case you don’t know … Escobar famously ousted a small time local gangster in the mid ’70s and started bringing in large amounts of coca paste from Bolivia and Peru, processed it, and smuggled it into the U.S., ultimately creating the infamous Medellín Cartel. By the mid/late ’80s Escobar had an estimated net worth of $30 billion and was named one of the 10 richest people on Earth by Forbes for six years in a row. At the time, Escobar controlled more than 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States.
There are tours that take you to the house, or if you find the right cabbie, he will drive you by, tell you the story and then you can cruise three blocks over for one of my favorite three chicken meals on the planet. And it’s that meal that raptured my whole “Recherche" moment.
The place is called Pollos Mario la América and it’s simply a one item restaurant: They make pollo a la brasa, the Colombian version of al carbon, cooking over coals. The chickens are roasted over hot charcoal and sold by quarters, halves and wholes. And when I eat there I’m immediately transported to my grandmother’s kitchen in the late 1960s. Chicken fat dripping on my chin, crispy skin in my mouth. Real chicken flavor.… There are side dishes of course, beans, roasted new potatoes, crispy honey-sweet plantains and the rest of the usual suspects. Order them all.
The chickens are relatively small by American standards. They are naturally raised and come off the rotisserie at about 2 pounds. They are beyond perfect. You can taste and smell the coal bed in every bite, the seasoning of salt and lemon is used with restraint and the crowd makes it taste even better. I like lines, and the hustle bustle … it makes the food tastier. You are waiting in a short line, and then cascade to the front as you watch a dozen chickens at a time come off the coal-fired rotisserie and slide into what can only be described as a giant cooked chicken aquarium. It’s a four-sided bin where counter persons can fish out cooked birds and prepare your order. It has a glass side facing the customers. The sight of those 40 cooked birds in the well, the smell, the pure essence of poultry perfection, as if suspended particulate of scorched chicken fat is hanging in the air (I THINK IT IS!) … knowing that one or two or four of those birds will be hacked and plated for you in a few seconds … the feeling is intense! If you go with friends be sure to nab one of the two outdoor tables by the front door. Best people-watching in the city.
And that feeling came out of nowhere. Involuntary memory, the gift that keeps on giving. Guess what I’m having for dinner tonight?
And for those who are super curious, go check it out for yourself.…
And for those wondering where else I love to eat pollo al carbon??? It’s El Aljibe in Havana, which is a must… if I had to eat chicken in any 3 restaurants in the whole world its L’Ami Louis in Paris, Mario’s in Medellín and El Aljibe in Havana … let the arguments begin.
All the best,