Friday, November 22, 2013

Pollo Campero to Canada!

Ah, the good stuff.
I think everyone in Latin America knows how delicious Pollo Campero is (although a friend of mine calls it Pollo Con Pello). This unique Guatemalan/Salvadoran treat uses a special brining and flouring process and excellent and tasty, locally raised chicken to produce a terrific product. I think it was good enough to recently put KFC in El Salvador out of business.

My son has visited me here several times and loves the chicken. He once drove from Toronto to Florida to eat Pollo Campero (which has numerous franchises in the US). But the chicken doesn’t taste the same there, probably because the chickens here are less aggressively farmed and may be fresher. In fact, the grocery stores in El Salvador routinely sell locally raised chicken (that is smaller, yellower and not frozen) for $1.50 a lb while the giant, white and pre-frozen US chicken is sold at $1.00 a lb. I once bought three pieces of each chicken for grilling in a “taste-off” and was amazed that the local sample had an intense chicken flavour while the US import tasted watery and bland in comparison.

"Sharing the flavour with my friends, with my family, with the whole world" ... except for Canada

This is another reason why people travelling from the San Salvador airport to the US still purchase special large bags full of Pollo Campero at the airport even though they can get the fresh cooked version locally. And this is being done legally.

What would happen if you tried to bring the deliciously fried Pollo Campero into Canada? I did try on one occasion when my son asked for some chicken. I went to the San Salvador airport which is mostly run by Taca, the local carrier (recently bought out by the Colombian based Avianca and is being slowly and painfully debranded), and has a very busy Pollo Campero outlet with way too few tables upstairs. At lunch time, there is always a huge line up for chicken but, somehow, by the time the chicken is served, a table magically opens up or you can always ask to share a table. So I purchased 12 pieces of chicken, ate one in the restaurant (steaming hot and delicious), ate two more on the airplane (cooled down but still delicious), and declared the chicken to the customs official. Bam – or Squawk rather – off to a secondary customs check. I opened my bag and showed the 9 remaining pieces of chicken, sealed in a Ziploc bag, to the very polite officer. He said that I could not enter with the chicken. I mentioned that it was commercially prepared and fully cooked but he said no way. He did say that I could eat the chicken rather than surrendering it ... but I already had 3 pieces of chicken and was full!

So I had to tell my son that there was no fried chicken for him and he would have cried himself to sleep if he wasn’t 24 years old at the time.

The Chinese get to eat it too.
Now what happens if you don’t declare your friend chicken? Consider the sad case of Mario Castillo. He was in El Salvador visiting his family and before his flight, he was in the shower when his mother secreted 15 pieces of fried chicken with a stated approximate value of $18.00. The chicken was discovered by the crack Canadian Border Services Agency Officer on the night of 25 January 2012.
The attempted illegal importation of fried chicken was considered by the Agriculture and Agri-Food Administrative Monetary Penalties Regulations as a contravention of section 40 of the Health of Animals Regulations and classified as a “serious violation” which resulted in an $800 fine for Mario.

Mario had the choice of paying $400 within 15 days but he stuck to his guns and bad legal advice and decided to have his day in court. On 2 November 2012, he went before the Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal whose stellar adjudicators decided to throw out the case on a technical issue of Mario not being given “a reasonable opportunity to justify the importation of a meat product found [in] their bags.”

So justice for Mario and perhaps his mother could stop feeling so guilty about using her son as a fried chicken mule.

But wait a minute, slow day in the Canada Border Services Agency legal department and they decided to appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal - the second highest court in Canada! I better not find out that there is outside counsel involved who are charging the Canadian Government (and taxpayers) a huge hourly rate for this!

 The Federal Court of Appeal held the hearing in Toronto on 30 September 2013 and delivered their decision on 20 November 2013. See .  In a nutshell, Justices Sharlow, Mainville and Near decided that the appeal should be allowed, that this was an absolute liability violation and it was immaterial that his mother had packed the chicken without his knowledge (akin to the dog ate my homework defense) and that the tribunal erred in law in deciding that Mario should have been provided with a reasonable opportunity to justify his importation of fried chicken. What does that mean? Back to the Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal. Thankfully, no costs were ordered.

From infraction (sorry, “serious infraction”) to a federal appeal in less than two years - not bad Canadian legal system! Now let’s start a crowd funding drive to raise money to take this to the Supreme Court of Canada. IF YOU LOVE FRIED CHICKEN, DO NOT LET US DOWN.

Hmm, never mind. This stupid blog is enough work as it is.

Elliot about to attack a heaping plate of Pollo Campero.
But my son living in Canada does love the chicken. So how do you get the fried chicken past the Canada Border Services Agency? What permits or certificates could you obtain to import fried chicken? Or to paraphrase the appeals court decision, how do you satisfy a CBSA Officer, on reasonable grounds, that the chicken was processed in such a way that would prevent disease from coming into Canada?

So I went onto the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada government website and hunted around. Obviously, not easy to find guidance on this and the regs were no help so I decided to send them a message:

I am a Canadian lawyer living in El Salvador. My son has visited me on several occasions and loves a local fried chicken brand called Pollo Campero. They are very large with several hundred locations in Latin America, the US and internationally in Spain and China. It is legal for travellers to bring the cooked chicken from El Salvador to the United States and this frequently occurs with a restaurant in the San Salvador international airport providing special packaging for carrying on the chicken. But it appears that it is illegal to bring the chicken to Canada and I experienced it when I flew back one time and declared it - I was told that I could eat the chicken on the spot but would have to surrender the remaining chicken for disposal. A recent Federal Court of Canada decision adjudicated on the case of an individual who was apprehended entering Canada with fried chicken. They refer to certain exemptions at Part IV of the Health of Animals Regulations but these provisions are quite vague. The case mentions "CBSA Officer was not satisfied on reasonable grounds that the chicken was processed in such a way that would prevent disease from coming into Canada." How can one satisfy a CBSA Officer that commercially prepared fried chicken was processed to prevent disease from coming into Canada?

I also wrote to Pollo Campero on FB: 

Sabes que esta legal a traer Pollo Campero a EEUU pero esta illegal a importar a Canada. Porque y puedes hacer algo? Mira este caso en el segundo mas importante tribunal en Canada

I will follow up when I hear back ... if I hear back.

Wow, all this talk of fried chicken is making me hungry. Guess what I am going to have for dinner!  And anyone looking for a great franchising opportunity in Canada ... this is it!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Havana and Buenos Aires

I have been reading a few other blogs and have come to realize that my blog isn’t very helpful regarding living in El Salvador. Plus, to be frank, this country is great for many reasons but it is small, somewhat limited, and life here is a bit dull compared to some other countries.

So I will continue to mix entries on El Salvador with other cities and countries that I have been lucky enough to visit.

I recently got back from Cuba. With the explosion of free market retail in Havana and with the lifting of travel restrictions and with many hundreds of thousands of Cubans with Spanish passports, there are a huge number of Cubans traveling to Ecuador and Panama to purchase clothing, accessories and small light items to import into Cuba for sale.  Flying routes connecting to these countries see business class seats full of upgraded Cuban flyers. I was unlucky to be on a plane with about 40 of these mulas.

You always know when you are on a plane with a lot of Cubans. They are loud, expressive, drink quite heavily, and carry on loud conversations across aisles and sometimes back several rows. As an overly polite Canadian, I actually like and admire Cubans for not really giving a damn what you think.

Yeah, second last in the customs line up!
So the flight was fine and I came loaded with three checked bags and three carry-ons full of crap for my friends living in Havana. Landed early, cleared immigration quickly, and went to the baggage carousel and waited ...  and waited ... and waited. Finally there were only two of us and the Russian woman who works for Taca went looking for my bags and found them still in the back. Of course the xray showed some items that needed to be investigated further.

Okay, that’s fine. I open my bags all the time for various food stuffs like jalapenos and tortillas. Unfortunately, and here is the part about being unlucky to be on a plane with mulas, I got into a line with 15 Cubans with giant bags full of literally hundreds of items of clothing that had to be checked by hand, piece by piece, before they could get to me. The majority, maybe 25, of the mulas were in another line and just had to have their bags weighed, pay about 1,500 Cuban pesos (about USD 60) and go off to make their hundreds of dollars selling the clothes to the public or to kiosks. There were a varying number of customs officers ranging from a high of 5 and down to 2 when I finally got to the head of the line two and half hours later. I complained to a supervisor who went to an office behind us and yelled at someone to finish the flight off.

That's the pregnant woman that got me.
This very pregnant woman comes out (not in uniform since it wouldn’t cover her large belly) and I start complaining to her that everyone in the line was there for a commercial purpose, bringing in goods for sale, and the customs officers are running their own commercial program, charging people lots of duty for bringing in goods, while I was just a tourist coming in to visit friends for a week! She wasn’t sympathetic and opened my bags to discover a large ceiling fan for a friend and a big bag of heavy medals for the international school swimming meet. She called over the supervisor and I complained to him and he looked at what had triggered the xray and the search and said I could go. So pile everything back into the bags and head for the door to be stopped by the guard who said I hadn’t paid yet. More yelling back and forth and finally three hours and 45 minutes later, I am out!

My friend was still waiting for me and I had to have a few cold ones to revive myself.

Havana is still powering forward with free enterprise and commerce. I attended a meeting put on by a Cuban service provider where they gathered all their big foreign customers to fill them in on recent legal changes and to provide information on new procedures and services they were offering. This was quite extraordinary since these Cuban companies normally just work for other Cuban Ministries and empresas and now they were actually trying to do more work, provide more services, and help foreign companies expand their businesses.
Made it to some of my favourite paladars. 

Delia and I enjoying a leisurely lunch
Had a nice 3 hour lunch with Delia at Starbien on 29 between B and C in Vedado. A nice white wine and shrimps, octopus and fish. Also had great brick oven pizza at Carboncita. Took a chance and ordered food at the state run 19th hole at the golf course and the food was pretty ghastly – the food was old, smelled off and was badly prepared. The jamon Serrano sandwich was actually just processed cooked ham.

Champagne? Why not.
Found a new place called Mediterraneo Havana on 13 between F and G in Vedado which we went to after hearing there was a cute waitress on the upstairs terrace. She was cute but even better, they had a good cheese plate with a slice of parmesan, blue, a semi-soft and fresh house made ricotta. And they had a risotto made with porcini mushrooms and home-made sausage that was so good that I went back the next day to have it for lunch. A different cute waitress and I split an order of the porcini risotto with the seafood risotto which wasn’t very good. Definitely will go back for the porcini one and will bring some truffle oil to drizzle on top.
Giant baby octopus with pesto sauce
What else ... checked out La Fontana for dinner and ordered the grilled pesto octopus and a seafood plate for appetizers and was brought so much food that I couldn’t get through it. It was supposed to have the busiest bar at 3 in the morning but it was pretty quiet up until we left at 1:30 am. Someone said it was done up like Miami style and, a tribute to the great designers in Havana, I thought it was a bit cheesy and shabby compared to some lounges I have seen like Milanos and Cocinero.
The lads at la Fontana before things got ugly
So a fast 6 days in Havana and then flew home via Buenos Aires. I was shopping tickets to get the best price for the most miles and found a flight back to San Salvador via San Salvador to Lima to BA to Lima to San Salvador. Lots of points but it was a 23 hour trip which included about 9 hours in the Lima airport. It is big and nice and they have an okay lounge that has a sleeping room with chaise lounges and showers ... but they only want to let you in for 4 hours for Star Alliance Gold card holders. Actually they will stretch this to maybe 5 hours and I went early on the way back and she said I would have to leave in 4 hours but she didn’t find me to chase me out – maybe because I was asleep.
Stefan getting creative in the flea market
Long trip later, I hit Buenos Aires for the first time! Got through immigration quickly having paid my $150 reciprocal fee on-line (that is for the multiple that is good for 5 years). Got my bags quickly and out the door. My friend told me to get a taxi from Manuel Tienda Leon (I think that was the name) and I had the choice of paying 340 pesos or USD60. That was close to the official rate of 5.4 pesos to the dollar and to avoid changing money, I paid the USD 60. The hand off was really weird because I was told to wait at a spot and then this guy comes over and says he is my driver. I said where am I going and he said he didn’t know – so I made him go back to the counter to verify that he worked for the same company and was not some random taxi driver who was going to ask me for more money or worse. He was a very interesting guy named Julio Cesar whose mother gave him the “JC” initials since he was born on December 25. He gave me a good run down on the economy and politics of the country and blames the politicians for f*cking up such a resource rich country and reducing it to a third world economy. Julio explained his economic manifesto to me and said that Argentina should lease half their land to China and the Chinese could start farms and ranches and mines and processing plants and factories and pay a share back. Then all Argentines could retire and let the Chinese do all the work. Sounds like a good plan to me.

My buddy Stefan is one of my closest friends from his years in Havana but we hadn’t seen each other in eight years. I was a little apprehensive that he might have changed (diplomats often get large heads when they get promotions) but he was the same and showed me awesome hospitality. He had a very nice two bedroom apartment in Palermo with a killer view of many of the downtown parks and the big river.
Lovely architecture! Also demonstrations and riot police ... this is Latin America.
So began a 6 day odyssey of beef eating and Malbec drinking!

I had some preconceived notions of course. There are a lot of Argentinean steak houses in San Salvador and they usually serve steaks that have been butterflied open and are very thin so hard to cook medium rare. I have also tried a lot of mid-priced Malbecs that were okay but not great and often with a slightly bitter taste.
First dinner at Don Julio's

Stefan took me to his favourite place, Don Julio’s which is a very charming rustic parrilla. The walls are covered in shelves holding empty bottles that I think have had their labels inscribed by clients. They have a great salad system where you can choose exactly what you want and get and pay for just that. I love arugula which we ate daily in Cuba (until a storm surge flood during a hurricane killed off the plot planted in Miramar) but rarely in ES (sold in tiny little bags for two bucks) and they had it everywhere. Along with onions, tomato and parmesan cheese, a perfect salad for me. Stefan ordered a wine which was fantastic – fruity and full but a bit acidic which helped cut through the fat of the 5 steaks he ordered for the three of us. 
3 of the 5 steaks ordered.
And we ate them all.

I should explain that Stefan is a marathoner and Ironman having completed two of those insane competitions. So the calories were no problems for him. His girlfriend Mary is a really lovely woman from nearby southern Brazil. She is a former model and still looks like and eats like one – so not a lot of help with that much meat on the table. As for me, when the beef and wine are that good, I can pull my own weight.

So I was happily surprised to see that they cut their steaks very thick and prefer to cook them medium rare – the call this jugoso or “juicy”. The rib-eye or “ojo de bife” was one of the best I have ever had. Nicely charred on the inside and super juicy and rare on the inside.

Shopping with Mary.
Stefan was working during the days so Mary was kind enough to spend her days with me showing me the city. We took the subway to Florida Street which is a long pedestrian shopping area stretching several blocks. Had my first empenado which was warm and meaty and very tasty. Also did the tour of the city on the open topped double decker bus. Stopped off in Recoleta to take pictures and to have lunch. Stefan told me that they were treating me for all of my meals that week so Mary insisted on paying for every lunch. A rather disconcerting experience having a beautiful woman paying for me all the time but I got used to it.
Hanging out with about a thousand tourists in Ricoleta
Also did lots of shopping. While the official rate was 5.4, the Blue dollar rate was 9.3 and I changed a few hundred at this rate. Ended up getting some great shirts at Zaras. Mary explained to me that Argentinean men are dandy’s and there are as many men’s clothing stores as women’s. Also went to a bunch of shops looking for a purse for Fatima and Mary was very helpful modeling them for me.
I think my favourite part of the city was Palermo Soho, a nice walk from the apartment and full of funky shops and cafes. I had a great salad there topped with another perfectly cooked sliced steak. Met some very interesting shop keepers. One men’s store had great shirts and the gay floor guy spoke perfect English and was very helpful and accurately predicted that we would come back and buy a shirt they carried. Went to a place next door full of edgy pieces and the shop girl was super pale and lethargic and looked like a heroin addict. We had to get buzzed into another place and after picking up a bag on a table near the window, the old guy sitting behind the cash register came out and glared at me as he reset the piece on the table. I asked the older woman working there who made the bags and he said the old man did. She also showed us a replica Birkin Bag he made and was selling for around $300. I'd buy one but my sister wouldn't think that was very cool! Another shop was full of hip clothing with a sales guy, in t-shirt, jeans and Doc Martins leaning back on a table looking tough, who glared at us as we came in and I “Buenos tardes”, glared at us as we walked around, and glared at us as we left without ever moving or speaking.
Dining at La Cabrera - Charming room, great service
We wanted to hit the best steak house parrillas in the city so we called La Cabrera to make a reservation but they were all full up but they did have an offer where you could line up outside at 7:00 pm, get a table, and if you could eat and get out by 8:15, they would give you a 40% discount. I think about 30 people were outside at 7 and every one of them looked like a foreigner with mostly Germans and Brits I think. Obviously, they didn’t mind eating earlier. 
An 800 gm strip loin at la Cabrera
We were a tad rushed but had 2 lb steaks, another great wine, more arugula salads and it was about $60. Headed back to smoke some big Cuban cigars on his 22nd floor balcony.
Churrascaria? Why?
We also managed to hit the churrascaria on the waterfront past the city airport. I forget the name ... something like Rodizio. When we got there, we had no problems parking with only 3 other cars there. This giant two level restaurant was virtually empty although there were two tables of Asians – Chinese businessmen with their large families. I asked the waiter about them and he said that Chinos often come to the restaurant very early. The buffet was pretty good – lots of seafood like big head-on shrimps and smoked salmon, lots of carpaccio and cold cuts. Stefan ordered a nice Malbec and we started a small scene trying to accelerate the deliver of beef to our table. Lots of sirloin, filet and then the picanha. I have to say that I finally had more beef than I could comfortable eat or even look at. Then some giant desserts (included in the price) like molten brownies with ice cream. I had an amazing grapefruit ice cream.

Stagger out to the car and we decided to take a drive through the park to check out the trannies. Hmm, a LOT of cars and some pretty chunky ladies. One tranny was quite animated with a nice rack and a tiny mini-skirt from which extended her very large unit which she was flapping in the wind. Surprisingly big, especially on such a cold night!
Great way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon - drinking wine out of plastic cups, eating steaming hunks of grilled meat with your fingers, and smoking big cigars with a big view
On Saturday, we went to a parrilla bbq at a friend’s place. They had the top floor with a giant built in charcoal grill. Our host would cook big hunks of beef and nicely marinated pork, then cut them up into big pieces and serve them on a platter for us to eat with our fingers. Along with big pieces of fresh bread, lots of chimmichurri and great red wine drunk out of plastic cups, it was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. Oddly, there were no Argentinian men amongst the approximately 20 people there. Most of them were interesting expats - one was half Canadian and half Argentinian with a foreign service Dad. Another guy was Iranian from Texas! Also a smattering of diplos, NGO workers, and Brits from whom I heard the word Argie for the first time in years. I was hoping to speak to an Argentinian who wasn’t a waiter, taxi-driver, bartender or shop clerk but none of these expats invited a local male. There were two lovely Argentinian woman who I was able to meet and speak to. I asked them why this group didn't mix with the local guys and they said that perhaps they found the men to be too arrogant. They said that the men could be quite the dandies as well.

Splurging at Osaka
That night, we went to a Peruvian Japanese fusion restaurant called Osaka. My family is originally from there so I had to check it out. We tried 9 appetizers and some were amazing but the sushi was surprisingly bad – the rice was terrible and way overly compacted. My favourite was a dish made of small cubed raw salmon and small cubed fresh pineapple dressed in ginger and sriracha with what might have been toasted ground sesame seeds on top. Again the service was pretty good and very flexible. They had a no cigar rule but the waiter asked the other three couples if they minded and they said no so we were able to go out onto the terrace to smoke big fat ones and finish our wine.
Diego used to be a member of the Havana Golf Club and I gotta tell you, he looked better back then.
Went to a bar called 878 one night. Took us a bit to find it because it was an ultracool place with no sign (makes you wonder how they stay open). We finally found it when I spotted a big burly guy in a suit texting on his phone – doorman, voila! Great long wooden bar, great mixologists, and some interesting local cocktails. One was made with Cynar, a local aperitif made with artichokes. My favourite was a cocktail with vodka, triple sec, campari and grapefruit juice. And while leaving, I reportedly made friends with the doorman and gave him a big Cuban cigar. This was my instinctual reaction to a possibly hard to get into bar in case we want to go back and there is a line up.

Gladys wrapping up my photographs.
Last day, Sunday, before my flight, we took the subway to Catedral Station to go to a big outdoor flea market at Plaza Dorrego that stretched like 10 blocks through the city. I bought some great photographs by Gladys Blanco, ate two delicious and really filling beef empadados, got some books in Spanish and a hand painted shirt for Fatima and a cushion cover for her collection. 
Eating empanadas in the flea market
Keeping to Stefan’s schedule, we briskly made it back to his hood and had plenty of time for our last steak – this time at a place a block away from his house. I ordered a rib-eye with an arugula salad and he said I should try the mollejas or beef cheeks. 
Mollejas .... yum!
They came grilled to the table with quartered lemons and they turned out to be sweet breads and were perhaps one of the most amazing things I have ever eaten. I spent a long time slowly chewing each piece and washing it down with another excellent Malbec. I never saw the prices of the wine but I think Stefan said we could get great wines for around $10 each.
My last steak. Goodbye Argentina, goodbye beef.
I thought I would get sick of the beef but, other than the night in the churasscaria, I never did. I couldn’t finish my steak so I asked the waiter to take it to the kitchen and put it in some bread and wrap it for my trip home to ES. Oh, and I learned what’s up with the chimichurri sauce. They sell it in bottles and have it at every steak house but every version was a muddled olive oil condiment with too much stuff in it like oregano and other herbs, pepper and vinegar. The recipe that I was taught, and which I love, only has fresh chopped parsley, garlic, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. This restaurant was the first place to have what I thought was authentic chimichurri – turns out this is a different version called chimichurri provenzal.

So back to the apartment, call a cab and this time the ride was half the price using the pesos I had changed at the Blue rate (and getting a discount for using the same cab company). Quite a long ride out to the airport and passed a lot of car clubs meeting at the side of the highways. Airport was big and noisy and there was a big line-up at immigration. It made me think of how different Canada is where we don’t have to pass through immigration when you leave the country – just check in, bag check, gate check and then airplane. Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador and Cuba all have exit procedures. Europe as well where your passport gets stamped when entering and leaving.
A lovely visit with a lovely couple.
Went to a very nice lounge and had a few cold beers while catching the golf. Then bought a big box of Havanna Alfajores and boarded the plane to Lima. Eight hours there and slept very well in the lounge and then onto the plane to El Salvador. Landed at home, hit the duty free store to stock up the whiskey larder and then out to the sunshine and heat.
Puerto Madero from a tour bus
Buenos Aires was definitely a great place to visit. Lovely city with lots of gorgeous European style architecture and lots of shiny condo towers. Some lovely rustic areas like Boca and Recoleta (although the later seems to exist to cater to tourists) and great food and shopping. I bought three slim fit shirts that would look good on me except they won’t fit over the big belly I developed from eating all that food.
It's the Falklands!

My only regret was not meeting and speaking to any Argentineans. Over lunch one day, we started chatting with the people on the other end of the table. They were Venezuelans and super friendly and happy to talk about Chavez and socialism and what countries they had visited. Maybe next time?

For many of us, Argentina is that big country down in South America with Evita Peron and the Falklands conflict and the terrible economy. As rich as the city seems, and it could easily pass for any city in North America or Europe, I hear the country side can be equally poor. I heard that much of their problems stemmed from their corrupt and ineffectual politicians and that consider it a tragedy that their country is the way it is.

At the turn of the century, emigrating Europeans had a choice of going to two different countries with very similar economies, natural resources and job prospects. One was Argentina and the other was Canada. Now the countries are vastly different and Canadians are charged $75 to enter Argentina for the sole reason that Argentinians need a visa to enter Canada.

I paid double that fee to have multiple entries for the next five years. I hope to go back soon, eat more steaks and share a few bottles of wine and some cigars with some locals!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Visit to Cuba

Fresh veggies and fruit in Playa

I thought I would write about a recent trip I took to Havana. I went with a couple of Korean businessmen who are based in San Salvador and the two teenaged sons of one of them.

Their trip was to look at some opportunities in the textile industry and also some commercial retail operations. I was able to get them a decent price at the Hotel Nacional which is always the best place to stay on your first visit to Havana.
Cuban showgirls!
Caught a show at the Parisienne which is like a mini indoor version of the Tropicana but with more white dancers. 
The show at the Parisienne
As you can see, the stage is right on top of the audience so you certainly get a good view of the show. Drinks aren’t too bad there but always ask the price first of anything you order and try to avoid the food – there are much better places.

Like Chansonnier where I ended up going back to a few times. They have done some more remodelling so it is even more hip and trendy looking. Hector is letting us smoke in the vestibule now and when I asked him to put on some music, he had some great chill lounge tunes for us. I also got to meet the Italian chef who came out to say Hi. We asked him to make us his best dishes and he sent out great eggplant and octopus starters and then a sweet potato ravioli that was fantastic. Not huge portions but very tasty.

Dining at the Chansonnier
I ended up going back with some friends including Shana and Jose who used to work for PWC in Cuba about a dozen years ago and are now based out of Amsterdam. Shana hasn’t changed at all and Jose lost about 80 lbs and they both look fantastic. They brought their kids as well and they were super well behaved in the restaurant.
Built solely for tourists in Old Havana, but still great food and service.
Also went to this place in Old Havana which I think was in the Feria de la Artesenia building. I would normally avoid places like this like the plague but one of my Cuban associates suggested it and knew a lot of people who worked there. Food was delicious, service was great, and the singer was amazing. I asked for my three favourite songs “Cuarto de Tula”, “Como Fue”, and “Oye Como Va” and they did a shockingly good job. I sometimes forget how incredibly talented Cubans are.

Celio Perez Martinez belting them out.
 We also walked through Old Havana which the guys from El Salvador liked because it was such a huge area and it was all safe to walk through. In El Salvador, it seems like the only safe street to walk through at night is Paseo del Carmen – although you are seeing more and more people out at night in other neighbourhoods.
Can I have my camera back?
At one point, we were all at the Capitolio and we had to get back to the other side. Since there were 7 of us, we needed two cabs. I asked some guys with the old cars how much and they said $12 for each cab. I pointed out that there was a Panataxi van parked across the street that we could get to drive us for $5. So they said $20 for two old cars and I said no and they came back with $12 for both and we struck a deal. The visitors wanted to take some pictures so the guy who brokered the deal took my camera to take some pictures. This is me trying to get my camera back!
Very large canvas, asking $140
We then went to the big artisans market in the port area where I made everyone buy something. I looked at dozens of great paintings but decided just to buy one small one and some photo prints. 
Berta's first piece since having her baby
Oh, we also went to visit Jurgen where we all bought paintings albeit at a much higher price. Here is some of what we got. Jurgen’s wife had her baby and she is back painting.

Three of the paintings we bought from Jurgen.
I met up with Shana and Jose when our mutual friend, Ana Rosa the flamenco dancer, told me that she was in town. I got a lift from them in my old Nissan Sentra – my first car in Cuba which I donated to the dance company (the process only took 8 months! I needed to get the signatures of two Vice-Ministers, one in Foreign Investment and the other in Culture). A 1988 B-12 model, made in Japan, sold in Canada and still running! A bit smelly inside as they replaced the fuel injector with a carburetor. They couldn’t afford a good VW one so they bolted on an old Lada one so quite a strong gasoline smell inside.

25 years old and still going strong! Ana Rosa and Miguel posing in front of the mighty B-12.

Walking through Old Havana, we came through the Plaza de San Francisco and was amazed to see that my old office, the first place I worked in Cuba, had been converted into a luxury boutique hotel. This place used to be a dump! Lots of water and power outages, an unsafe rickety elevator that encouraged everyone to use the stairs, pretty dark and dirty. Now it is a couple of hundred dollars a night.

Lobby and reception desk in my old office building.
Hanoi took me to his favourite hole in the wall restaurant. A tiny tapas place in Old Havana called El Chanchuello. When I heard tapas, I figured small portions so I ordered 3 for us to share ... which we barely finished as the Cuban chef had a different notion of what a tapas was. Tiny place, two floors, great food with the plates being $4 or $5 each, rock music. 

Delicious Cuban tapas and it's all organic!
Oddly, there were a lot of tourists there since it was a bit out of the way and they could afford to spend a lot more. But I suppose it was high season so Old Havana was fulling of turistas. The table to my right had guys from Brazil and Australia and a woman from Japan. To my left was a German couple who had ordered their food before we sat down and then watched as we were served first (Hanoi knows the owner). We finished our huge dinner and they still had not received their food and they were getting angrier and angrier and got quite rude with the waiter. They finally slammed down their beers with a loud “scheisse” and stormed out.
Great vibe at Chanchuello
I can sympathize. One day, I had an hour free before my next meeting so I ran down to Barrio Chino where I knew I could get at least a caja on the spot. But I went to Tian Tan and asked the waitress and then the chef if they could get the food out to me in 20 minutes so that I could eat and then drive back to Vedado. They said yes ... and we waited ... 20 minutes ... 30 minutes ... 40 minutes and we finally got the food. I called in and found out that my meeting was cancelled so I was able to eat a relaxed meal.

The band at the bar.
Walking through Old Havana and I was out of cigars so we checked out some bodegas and found some 1 peso cigars. For 4 cents, you can get a decent cigar in Havana. Hanoi wanted to hear some music so we went to the Centro Cultural Asturania. I really like the third floor resturant, la Terraza, for their braised and grilled leg of lamb and the great guitar playing dudes. I never knew about the downstairs bar but what a coincidence that the place had some paintings by Jurgen and the late great Lorenzo was the interior designer. Elaborate cocktails for a few dollars each and we met the band and their manager outside in the lobby where we were sitting smoking cigars. It was an all girl band, all graduates of el ISA, with four mulattas on the instruments and a blanca lead singer. Very nice jazzy stuff and my friend fell for the tall skinny keyboardist so I suspect he will be dating her when I get back to Cuba in a few weeks. Great bar, great vibe, great music.

Also managed to get to the Asador del Rey where we had a whole roasted suckling pig. Oh, we went to El Palenque which used to have the best service in Havana. I was telling someone about the service and told them to time how long it took to get a coffee. I ordered it from a passing waiter and it was in front of me in 40 seconds! Unfortunately, the old manager got old and the people got lazy and the service became terrible. My friend got into a fight with the kid who takes orders at the big bbq pit so he refused to take his orders. Then he found out that I was friends with him and didn’t want to take my order! But there is a new younger manager there and the service is getting back to the past levels. They have a few private dining rooms that are amazing – linens, good china, lots of wine glasses, very good a/c, and a private washroom. I still have to ask for the bbq pork to be hot and cooked.

Another great trip to Cuba.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The new year in El Salvador

This is almost like the blog that doesn’t exist! Anyways, back in sunny San Salvador after almost a month in Canada over the holidays. Ah, nothing beats a consumer society in the first world when you want to talk about Christmas holiday excess. Lots of parties, dinners out, great sushi (thanks Sushimoto for all the freebies and the birthday desert and present for my son Elliot).

Elliot and Diana enjoying the food and bev at Sushimoto
But this is a blog about  El Salvador! Well, the place is still here. The city is fine and pretty calm. The new Romero highway from Autopista Sur Bulevar de Proceres is fantastic. I jump on right past the Presidential Office and I can drive 80 mph on a brand new concrete highway all the way to Los Chorros highway which snakes down the hill towards Santa Ana and Sonsonate. Unfortunately, Los Chorros is under construction for a several more months and is down to one lane so the 15 minutes you save on Romero is easily eaten up. Going up the hill? Horrible as you can only drive as fast as the slowest car – usually a 30 year old pick up with a top up hill speed of 20 mph.

Golfers are buzzing about the Dye designed El Encanto golf club that may open up 6 holes for use in a few months. They have apparently sold 100 of the 600 lots with 50 going to golfers. They are still trying to get people to spend $25,000 to become equity members but no one thinks it is worth it. They have a presentation at Campestre to the richest golfers in the country and no one thought it would be worth more than $10,000 for a membership. Rather an interesting conundrum for them when there are only about 250 regular golfers spread out at three existing golf courses. They are going to have to cannibalize the other clubs to make any money to cover their expenses. A comparable golf course, designed by the Dye group, in Antigua Guatemala cost $80M to build and was getting only 10 rounds a day!

As a knowledgeable businessman friend of mine said, it is not easy making money in El Salvador.

At my course, I am paying $75 a month (when I am here) and has 9 holes in very good shape – except that 7 holes have OB making it very frustrating at times. I spoke to one of the manager who said that they would waive the initiation fee and charge $60 a month if your prepay 6 months. Can you imagine that? $60 for unlimited golf for one month.  The poor golfers down from Canada staying at the adjacent resort are paying $57 a round plus $20 for the cart. And unlike the other two clubs, caddies are not mandatory (although it is a nice policy to keep these caddies employed).

Awesome bar at the Bennigan's at the Torre Futuro. Best view of the city.

I have joined a group of old guys who get together twice a week for beers and cigars. One time is at the Torre Futuro site where that pathetically non-Irish American chain Bennigan’s grabbed a primo spot with an incredible view of the city. What kind of Irish pub doesn’t serve Guinness? But the food isn’t bad (actually, the tempura shrimp are pretty good) and it is cheap. Around the corner is the new Ruth’s Chris steakhouse. Haven’t had the chance to eat there (i.e. an expensable meal) but hope to soon. They stole the three great old waiters from Paradise where there has been a notable drop in quality. I spoke to an employee there and they said that they are doing 50 covers a day. Seems high but then again, that is a very low number for a place like that. Hope they have the deep pockets to gut out a year and I wouldn’t mind if they lowered their prices. You can get a plenty good steak at Pampa Argentinas or Hacienda Real for a lot less. Or go to the churrascaria at the Intercontinental for unlimited sushi, shrimps, seviche, carpacchio, and several kinds of grilled meat.

Working out at the Zone Fitness gym. Well located for me just down the road and the people are nice but they don’t have one cardio machine that isn’t broken or has a problem. Far contrast from the Y in Owen Sound where I was visiting and their new $40M complex with probably 50 brand new machines all working perfectly.

Back again writing after a few months. Updates, the Chorros highway was closed this past weekend to put the finishing touches and should be open next Sunday! Quite excited as I am getting really tired of driving around the back way of the volcano, or the twisting single lane of the coastal highway, or sitting in a huge slow chain of cars to get out to the golf course and a friend’s beach house.

Have also been to Ruth’s Chris and have a mixed impression. Turns out that the owner is also the owner of Paradise/Tony Roma’s and is part of the Pyramid Group that owns all the Pizza Huts, Wendy’s and KFC’s. I think he wanted to have a high-end place in his stable of restaurants so brought in the Ruth’s Chris franchise. Good thing he has deep pockets because it is going to be a challenge to make money there. The restaurant is beautiful and has several dining areas and must seat about 250 people. Furnishings and fixtures are all high end. Staff is great and they pulled the best waiters out of Paradise (which caused a terrible drop in the quality of service at that place). The only problem? There were only about 14 people eating in the restaurant during the dinner service!

The maitre’ d was our old favourite server and he made sure we got everything we needed. Our waiter seemed a bit inexperienced and had some problems getting the food and drinks served properly but he was trying. The food itself was pretty good but I was expecting something more. I ordered the biggest rib-eye on the menu and ... it was just okay. Mind you, I have never been a big fan of RC’s signature melted butter on the steak (I prefer the jus at Morton’s). But spending double of any other steak in the country, I expected something better. Also, Dan had the big filet and the lobster tails ... the latter were so tiny that each was consumed in two bites. What a waste of melted garlic butter! The manager came out and explained that they were having problems with their suppliers so that is why they put two on the plate. I have seen bigger shrimps in this country.

So all in all, the place is very lux but very overpriced for the market. Even the valet parking is ridiculous at $15 when the place gives you 3 hours of free parking and then charges $1 an hour. I should mention that the prices are the same as in North America or maybe even cheaper but when you have a dinner for over $100 for two people without wine, it seems excessive in a country where that will feed a family of four for two weeks.

I should really get to the subject of beer. I have been lamenting the lack of good draft beer in this country. Hanging out with the old retired guys here, I have learned the joy of drinking the local draft. When served very cold and cheap, Pilsener is a fine beer. My instructors have been a Brit who loves his bitter and a German from Munchen who, in his prime, could drink 10 large steins of beer. Now competing against  them are two micro-breweries.
Drunk guys at the beach! But they were very cool.

One is started by the San Francisco couple who opened up a small place in Tunco and serve 3 fine beers. Actually, they are excellent, tasty and creative ... but very expensive. They have three flavours and I tried each one a few times. 

New beer at Brasilea
At Brasilea, I think it is $5 a bottle which makes it the most expensive beer, more than any European import. I spoke with Andy the owner down in Tunco and he said that the taxes are huge and that is why he has to price it that way. He has a Belgian style wheat beer flavoured with maracuay (a local fruit) and pineapple. Very nice fruity flavour and a change from the orange flavour often found in wheat beers. He has an IPA with a local panela fruit and a very tasty black ale with coffee. They each have their own personality and I couldn’t say which I liked the most but probaby the black ale since darker beers are hard to get here. That reminds me that the giant Constancia brewery here used to brew Guinness as one of their three main beers! Some friends of mine went down to Tunco for the day and we had a great seafood lunch on the platform overlooking the beach. 

Lindsey and Egle showing off their giant seafood lunches at Tunco.

Then we went for a stroll to look at some of the boutique hotels and stopped by Brew Revolution for some beers. Met some funny guys from town along with their very inebriated cousin from Mexico. Had a long conversation with them capped by a salsa dancing exhibition by the Mexican cousin and my friend visiting from Toronto. All this fuelled by many beers and the hot sun.
Lindsey and her new friend showing off their salsa moves.

Competing against him is this Salvadoran guy who I met through his wife who runs the Expat Facebook group here. He is brewing two beers and has called it El Cadejo. Fatima said that was a great name for the beer and I Googled the name and found out that it is a regional legend about a large dog-like animal, a white one that protects travellers and a black one who tries to kill them. There is also a belief that the good Cadejo protects drunks! Naturally the beer comes in a light and a dark.

The pale beer is called WAPA which means Wheat American Pale Ale and seems to be a take off of “guapa” or cute in Spanish. Funny name since it doesn’t look or taste like an Ale but it is very tasty and has a nice hoppy finish. The darker is a red ale made from 4 German malts and 3 British and American hops which results in a very full and almost bitter beer. The Wapa seems more popular at bars but again, the price is a bit high. Republik has a pint for $4.00 and Bennigan’s for around $5.00. At the latter, you can get a 12 oz glass for $1.50. The last time I went to Paradise, they were offering two 20 oz mugs of Pilsener for $3.00.

I am not sure how successful these guys are going to be at this price point. Salvadorans love beer and love good beer but I am not sure if they are going to pay more 2 to 3 times the price of the local beers. It is quite sad as I know that the unit cost of materials for a pint of good beer is about 25 cents but this country has very high taxes and very high electricity costs so it is hard to produce cheaply.

Okay, going to post this before I get busy with something else.

Next blog posting will be about my trip to Bogota.