There are many cheesy, self-helpy things to say about going outside of your comfort zone and eating unfamiliar foods from unfamiliar cuisines as often as possible. Lately, though, I’ve come to realize that adventuring on the scale of Jonathan Gold and Robert Sietsema or, for that matter, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern has to be in your blood; as much as you might push yourself, if you’re not drawn to experience new and exotic taste sensations, there’s not much that’s going to change that. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to break out of my routine, for those cheesy, self-helpy reasons, but would I prefer to eat a good roast chicken instead of drinking cobra blood in Indonesia? Why yes, yes I would.
But that’s an extreme example. Most of the time, going outside of your comfort zone and eating foods from other cultures is about discovering tasty things you’ll enjoy that you didn’t even know existed. So, the other day, I had time to kill before going to a friend’s backyard screening of The Valley of the Dolls and I found myself on Pico Blvd., one of the more ethnically diverse parts of Los Angeles, Googling “Jonathan Gold Pico” on my phone while at a red light. His #1 rec, El Parian, proved to be closed on this particular day so I drove back a ways to his #2 pick, a Nicaraguan restaurant called La 27th.
Inside, the place was bustling with soccer on the T.V. screen. A host/waiter guy eyed me at the door and gave me a look like: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” I said, “Table for one, please” and he guided me to a table right near the door.
The menu had pictures and translations, so it wasn’t at all confusing; I decided to take Gold’s advice, ordering the Vigoron which he describes as “a Nicaraguan cabbage salad ballasted with fried pigskin, too.”
This condiment was placed on my table after I ordered:
My adventurous side was eager to taste it, but my neurotic side started to worry about what exactly it was, how long it had been sitting out, what kind of bacteria might be crawling through it. Is it illegal for a food writer to worry about such things? I feel like my badge will be torn off my suit like that scene in Superman 2 when Zod tears open that astronaut’s spacesuit or that scene in Mary Poppins where the guy at the bank tears George’s flower in half? Anyway, I didn’t try it (I know, I know).
But I did try my Vigoron when it came out:
It really was exactly as described: cabbage salad with fried pork skin. Only, beneath all that, were pieces of cooked yucca–which tasted of buttery potatoes, only there were fibrous threads that ran throughout. I’d never experienced that before, so I spent some time wondering what exactly I was eating (I thought it might be a fish, though it didn’t taste fishy).
This dish had great balance: there was the refreshing crunch of the salad, the decadent salty/fatty crunch of the fried pig skin and the creamy, nourishing taste of the cooked yucca. Somehow, this didn’t fully satisfy as a meal–especially dinner–but it satisfied me enough to get me through Valley of the Dolls. Afterwards, I may have snacked on a few cookies and fauxnuts.
As for the experience itself, I didn’t walk away transformed, though I was glad I tried something new. There really was a moment at La 27th where I felt like I could’ve been in Nicaragua. Why not? From the TV to the food to the people, I certainly didn’t feel like I was eating a roast chicken at Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills. Which, I suppose, is precisely the point: even if you’re not transformed by going outside of your comfort zone, you’ll certainly be transported.