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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Red Hook'd: Rojas Ecuadorian

Do you have a car with a bumper sticker, friend? Maybe your child is an “honor student” or you encourage fellow motorists to “honk if they're horny”? Carmen and Victor Rojas aren’t so crass. Instead, they rest a single sign on the window of their van, one three-syllable word, a humble hint at the greatness that lies within: ceviches.

To the uninitiated, ceviche is a dish of fresh raw citrus-marinated fish. The Rojas get their seafood the night before and lightly “cook” it overnight (off-heat, in an acidic broth). The next morning, they add crisp slices of red onion, cilantro, and a little tomato. And every Saturday and Sunday, at the Red Hook Soccer fields, they offer folks like you and me three varieties: camaron (shrimp), pescado (fish), and mixto (shrimp, fish, squid and octopus).

C. H. Baker's 1951 South American Gentleman's Companion urges readers to avoid mixed ceviche, but The Porkchop Express was ready to break some rules. So we sat down at the counter, munched on a few homemade corn nuts (giant toasted salted kernals), and eagerly awaited our bounty. What arrives is a round sealed plastic container, about a pound, of seafood swimming in a milky white broth.
ceviche mixto

It's a generous, welcoming assortment. Lime, onion, and fresh herbs greet the nose, while plump rosy shrimp urge the eyes to get the brain to tell the hand to have some already. One of the nice things is the utter lack of fishiness: the product is fresh in every sense of the word. Blushing shrimps, certainly, but also toothsome chunks of picudo (blue marlin), tender slices and long silky strips of squid, and wonderfully rich, chewy cubes of purple octopus. I experimented with a little fresh lime (not necessary) and extra salt (ditto), but really enjoyed dashes of their hotsauce. The thick puree of green chilis and scallions added a little zing to the schwing, without detracting from the delicate flavor of the seafood. And no matter how we tampered, one thing was clear: this was a winner.
Victor and Carmen Rojas, cooking up the W's

Still, skeptical reader, this may sound well and good on the bright white sands of some cool clean beach. But maybe you’re thinking: why on earth should I eat semi-raw fish at a Soccer Field? In Red Hook? From a mini-van?!?

A few years back, on a roadside in Thailand, I was faced with a similar decision and ordered crab and papaya. What arrived was a giant bowl of raw blue crabs tossed with shredded green papaya, citrus juice, and torture-hot chili peppers. It might have been tasty but I can’t recall all that clearly. Far more vivid are the uncontrollable sweats and mild hallucinations that follow eating sadistically spicy raw crustaceans off a Southeast Asian highway.

Ms. Slab (often the voice of reason) seemed to think that I had fried whatever few braincells were still hiding under my skull, and gruffly refused to go near it. Her position was categorical: she felt it daft to eat semi-raw seafood sold out of cars or at street stands.

Now Ms. S is a woman of true grit and moral fiber, but she knows when to make exceptions. And this Red Hook ceviche was clearly time for her to dig in. So rather than listen to another anti-street-stand-sushi lecture, I soon found myself pulling out every trick in my book to make sure that she didn't eat more than her fair share: fork kung fu (the 37th chamber), dousing shrimp in hotsauce (an easy deterrance), techniques I used on my dog (look over there!).

Rambling story short, if ever there comes a time to try fish from a van this is it. And unlike those evil evil crabs, eating the Rojas' seafood didn't leave me feeling like someone slipped me an LSD-roofie. Far from it, this was one of the finest ceviches I have ever had the pleasure of eating, under a roof or no. So great, in fact, that we decided to try everything else on their modest menu.
We continued down the path to delicious with a bag of plantain chips. Carmen peels green plantains and slices them with a mandoline into a pot of bubbling oil; fresh indeed. The knowledgeable young lady who served us, Kimberly, suggested we throw a few crisp, lightly salted slices into our ceviche for contrasting texture. Around that time an empanada arrived: hot, savory dough, just-stuffed with queso blanco and well-fried. Yes, good reader, this was turning into quite a feast. Ms. Slab uncomprehensibly bowed out at this point, but I stayed behind. After all, there were two more items to try.
plantain chips and cheese empanada

Next on the radar? A dish with three names: encebollado, a/k/a sopa de tuna, a/k/a Ecuadorian tuna soup. They strain their rich, slow-simmering tomato-based broth (infused with herbs, garlic, onions, scallions and long green Italian peppers), spike it with lightly cooked chunks of fresh tuna, pour it over softly boiled yucca, and top with thinly sliced red onion. In a word, delicious. Really something, even better than it sounds. And invigorating to boot. Carmen's soup strikes that delicate balance between light and rich, and I showed little restraint while eating. (It was pretty clear why so many folks were ordering this on a sunny Summer's day.)
Carmen plays it coy with a bowl of Encebollado

Still, good reader, there is a point at which we all hit a wall. The Slab was there, a gallon past full and forced to retreat, yet silently vowing to return the next day. After all, I still hadn't tried their Ecuadorian take on seafood fried rice, arroz con mariscos. So Sunday afternoon, I pulled a Jedi Mind Trick on Ms. Slab and dragged her back to the Rojas tent to finish what we had started: rounding out the menu.
Arroz con Mariscos: Celia works the wok

Celia Alcantara, Kimberly's mom and a Rojas family friend, prepares the arroz by frying garlic, red onions and scallions in hot oil with a splash of soy sauce, then adding gobs of shrimp, squid, octopus and clams, fresh peas, carrots and herbs, before tossing in the rice. The end result is like everything else here: fresh and flavorful. Try adding some of their hot sauce and a twist of fresh lime to this generous plate of South American stir-fry.
Down for delicious: Deyssi and Roberto Mesa, #1 fans

Our whirlwind culinary tour left The Porkchop Express with plenty of questions. For example, Victor is Chilean yet almost everything we ate hailed from his wife's native Ecuador. The Rojas seemed shy, but luckily a few enthusiastic patrons were on hand to help break everything down. Deyssi Mesa, their self-described “best customer,” was kind enough to wax eloquent about her native Ecuador, its seafood, and her favorite ceviche in the city.

As Deyssi tells it, great Ecuadorian is hard to find in the five boroughs. Which is why she makes a point of stopping by the stands each week. Simply put, only the Rojas prepare delicious, authentic food “in the real Ecuadorian style.” This is partly because they are such sticklers for detail. Take the ceviche: it's pure Ecuadorian both in technique (this is not the drier, spicier, far more prevalent Peruvian version) and ingredients (the Rojas only use shrimp caught from their native waters, 200 miles of clean mineral-rich sea that stretches to the Galapagos Islands). They use the freshest seafood, veggies and herbs, and never skimp on costs. Everything (literally from soup to nuts) is homemade, and well made at that. Which is why Deyssi not only returns, but passionately spreads the word.

Truth be told, her enthusiasm was extremely infectious. After talking I was considering hopping a plane to Ecuador, to eat more seafood on sparkling beaches, to watch humpback whales breach and water-raft thru the Amazon. Instead, I sat back and ruminated on the delicacy of the flavors, the freshness of the ingredients. And when all was said and done, Deyssi and her husband Roberto's loyalty was pretty understandable. At only 5 years in America and 3 years at the food tents, the Rojas are the newest additions to the Red Hook Soccer Field scene. They are also, hands down, one of the best. So do yourself a favor: welcome them to Brooklyn, try some of their delicacies, and see what the fuss is all about. It's a win-win situation.

Rojas Ecuadorian
Bay Street side
(last tent on the block)

Seafood runs between $6.00–$7.00
Empanadas: $1.50–$2.00

To purchase Ceviches & Encebollados after the Red Hook Ball Field Season ends, call (718) 832-6745.

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Blogger Asad said...

Hey Slab...

Just got back from a ceviche mixto and a couple empanadas from Rojas. Ooohhhh. Aaahhhhh. Mmmm.

I think there's coconut in the ceviche liquid... any intel?

9:40 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

haha, true indeed... but alas, no coco in the mix. the milkiness is au naturel, akin to a chemical reaction...

2:50 PM  

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