“In these recent years of hard times, people have started new collaborations and new models of businesses with very low expenses: using a
personal home or the art studio of a friend is always cheaper than renting, decorating and managing a restaurant,” she tells us. “And the results are attractive, because the service feels warm, human and intimate – you are not part of a commercial routine.” Paula Mourenza, Barcelona Correspondent for Culinary Backstreets (qtd by V Larson in “Barcelona’s Restaurants Go Underground,” Culinary Backstreets, 13 February 2013)
On a recent visit to the grocery store, I saw a jar of Costa Peruana Aji Amarillo Paste. I’d never seen this particular chili paste before, so I decided to try it out. Aji amarillo peppers belong to a different class of peppers than the peppers we commonly use in Texas (jalapenos and poblano). It has a deep yellow-orange color, and a fruity taste. It’s one of the main ingredients that Pervians and Bolivians use in the dishes they cook. When I got home, I (naturally) did a Google search to see what others do with aji amarillo paste. On a website called SaltShaker, I found an interesting recipe for a traditional Peruvian dish called aji de gallina, which I decided to make with my chili paste.
This website interested me for another reason , as well. Just a few days before I conducted my search for a recipe that uses aji amarillo paste, Phillip directed my attention to an article in the New York Times about secret restaurants in Spain. The article describes the way some people are making a living, without having to carry a large tax burden, by turning their homes into hidden restaurants that use secret notices and passwords to keep authorities from learning about their existence (much like the speak-easies during the period of American prohibition). I found the concept of an intimate, secret restaurant intriguing. While I was perusing Saltshaker website, I found that the website’s owner, Dan Perlman, runs Casa Saltshaker, a secret restaurant in Buenos Aires. Also on his website, I found a page that lists underground restaurants all over the world. This list of restaurants includes the names of two Austin underground restaurants: Dai Due and Supper Underground. Just the day before I read this list on SaltShaker.com, my daughter-in-law sent me a link to an article about Dai Due. I had never heard of this underground restaurant until that day. The next day I see it on mentioned on a blog located in Argentina! So within a few days time, I had been exposed to secret, underground restaurants in a variety of ways, including two operated locally. How very exciting to find out that Austin has its own secret restaurants! (See this article for an interesting history of the growth of secret restaurants in the South).
Secret restaurants have risen in number and popularity in response to economic difficulties in various parts of the world. Some secret restaurants operate legally with the state, but otherwise behave as secret restaurants. As reported in a recent Culinary Backstreets article, the secret restaurant has become a marketing concept. People are attracted to new, interesting experiences, and having to use a password to get into a restaurant adds to allure of the experience. Additionally, diners appreciate the more intimate setting that secret restaurants provide. Furthermore, as Dan Perlman states in Ultra Eye Buenos Aires, running a secret restaurant provides more than merely economic advantages for the chefs who run them. They cook and plan with freedom lacking in formal restaurant settings. They can experiment and create without the constraints of a printed, standing menu.
Although the intimate setting, the joy of tasting creative food, and the stimulation offered by meeting new people in a unique dining situation has great appeal to foodies especially, gluten-free foodies might best be wary of the experience. The menus for each dinner provided by secret, or underground, restaurants are mostly unpublicized so that diners do not know what, exactly, they will be eating when they arrive for dinner. In such an environment, someone with celiac might not expect the chef to cater to her specific dietary concerns. Even if some of the courses at one of these dinners are gluten-free, someone with celiac still has to be concerned about the possibility of cross-contamination. Moreover, the website for Dae Due in Austin states that dinners cost anywhere from $55 to $100 a person (Supper Underground’s website doesn’t list prices). The price is probably worth the experience for most people; however, someone with Celiac might end up paying $55 to $100 for a meal she is unable to eat. Even though people with Celiac have much better dining and food offerings now than ever, some dining experiences sadly and disappointingly remain too dangerous for us to explore. However, Austin is such a creatively foodie city that some enterprising chef might consider starting a totally gluten-free secret restaurant . . . .
The good news is that even though we may be necessarily left out of some foodie trends, we can take almost any recipe and make it safely gluten-free, which is what I did with the aji de gallina recipe I found on the SaltShaker website. The ingredient amounts aren’t really specific, for I was trying to stay as true as possible to the recipe (for once!) and the ingredient amounts in the recipe I used are unspecific. I think, though, that this recipe is one of those in which people can take great liberty when cooking and it will turn out delicious, anyway. I used aji amarillo chili paste instead of fresh amarillo chilis, because I had the chili paste, but using the paste allows you to skip the steps of boiling, then peeling, the fresh aji amarillo chilis. Traditionally, aji de gallina is served over sliced, boiled potatoes, but is also served with a side of rice. I couldn’t wrap my head around serving potatoes and rice in the same meal, so I omitted the potatoes from the recipe. I served the aji de gallina over rice, instead.
NOTE: I have emailed Supper Underground and Dai Due and asked for information regarding the ability of the people who prepare dinners for these underground restaurants to accommodate those who must follow a gluten-free diet. I will update this post with the pertinent information as soon as I receive their responses to my emails.
Update: Tamara Mayfield with Dai Due answered my question about the chef’s ability to accommodate patrons who must follow a gluten-free diet, and how a patron might let someone at Dai Due know that she has to eat gluten-free. Ms. Mayfield stated that “they [those who must eat gluten-free] should contact us in advance by email or telephone to see if a particular evening’s menu will be appropriate for their diet. Due to the nature of our events, we are unable to offer substitutions for items, but people can skip an item in a course. Some menus will have less gluten items so the meal will be a better value for them.”
Ms. Mayfield also stated that the chefs at Dai Due are able to minimize the danger of cross-contamination for those patrons who must avoid gluten.
Gluten-Free Aji De Gallina
1.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 tbls Aji Amarillo chili paste
Port salut cheese, to taste
3 slices of gluten-free sandwich bread, torn into pieces (I used Whole Foods g f sandwich bread)
A handful of walnuts
Milk or Cream, as needed for the right consistency
Fresh garlic to taste
Paprika or chili powder to taste
Place the chicken in a pot. Add enough chicken broth to just cover the chicken. Bring the chicken to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until done and tender enough to shred easily. Remove the chicken from the heat and finely shred it.
In a blender or food processor, blend the chili paste, port salut cheese, bread pieces, and walnuts, adding enough milk or cream until the mixture is the consistency of a thick, smooth puree.
Finely chop the onion, and the desired amount of garlic. In a pan, saute the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the chili paste puree and the shredded chicken; stir until the chicken is well coated with the sauce. Add paprika or chili powder to taste, to add a little color and a bit more spice. Simmer the mixture on low, until glossy (about fifteen minutes). Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from burning. Serve over rice.