La Pescaderia chef knows fish and chili
Updated 3:07 pm, Friday, December 1, 2017
Most of my friends think I don’t eat fish. The truth is I am so fussy about fish that I rarely order it at a restaurant and forgo it elsewhere unless I buy and make it myself.
I am especially picky about shrimp, which is how I first discovered La Pescaderia a year ago when it was a seafood market called Fish Tales. It was one of the few places where I bought things with fins and other ocean dwellers.
On a recent trip to New Canaan to buy a pound of my favorite cooked shrimp, I gasped when I saw that Fish Tales was now La Pescaderia Fish Market & Arepa. As I grasped the steering wheel, I imagined long months and years without my shrimp. I went inside to see if by any chance the plump pink crescent shaped beauties had survived the transition. They had. The fabled shrimp and all the other wonderful offerings I always bought are still here: the over-stuffed clams, the superbly made chowders and the glistening hunks of ready-to-cook fresh fish remain.
Best of all was seeing owner-chef Rafael Marin behind the counter. This is the man in charge of everything served here. La Pescaderia is Fish Tales reborn. Marin moved to Connecticut in 1988 from a small fishing village in Venezuela. He knew all about fish and after running a wonderful and successful fish store decided to expand the little place into a casual Venezuelan-style eatery. The star of the show are arepas.
Arepas are the cornerstone of Venezuelan food. They are as old as the history of that country, going back to the pre-Columbian age. Like many indigenous foods from that period (tortillas are an example), it is basically a dough cooked on a hot stone. Modern Venezuelans use more up-to-date methods than a rock, but the result is still the same, producing thick hamburger-sized buns made of corn flour. The discs of dough are stuffed with myriad fillings: shredded beef, roast pork, black beans and cheese, swordfish and shrimp, to name a few.
Arepas are a classic street food. Often sold from outdoor carts and at the beach, they are quite unique, tasting nothing at all like cornbread, tortillas or any cognates. I ordered the shredded beef and roast pork arepas. They were very filling and could make a good one-shot meal, but as I was not on the run I wanted to try some of La Pescaderia’s other foods.
I ordered a rice bowl. Here is the way a rice bowl works at La Pescaderia. First you select white or brown rice, then decide on the filling. I chose my favorite shrimp, but as with the arepas, you can get either roast pork, chicken, salmon, cod or lobster. On top of the filling I asked for a ladle full of sweet plaintains that had been carmelized through long, slow cooking. I asked for other toppings, as well: spicy pico de gallo, corn salsa, a tab of guacamole, black beans and shredded cheese. This was a “Super Bowl,” but only a grouch could resist all the options.
53 East Ave., New Canaan
If you want a more elaborate full meal, commandeer one of the small tables and place an order. Top of the list is the seafood paella, a glorious mash-up of shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels and chorizo sausage cooked in a savory yellow saffron rice. At $25 it is a splurge, but considering what you get, it is also a bargain. The dish contains top-of-the-line seafood cooked by a chef who knows what he is doing. At a fancy restaurant the paella would be twice the price and half as good.
One surprise was a new item Marin told me about: chili. First, I thought this was wildly out of place at a fish market, then I remembered Marin had spent three years cooking at the brilliant South West Cafe in Ridgefield, a longtime favorite for those of us who treasure Mexican food many steps up from Taco Bell.
I ordered the chili, asked for it topped with cheese and sour cream, and it exceeded my expectations. It was really remarkable for its intense beefy flavor, with a balance of chili pepper, cumin and a nice cinnabar color. With no shortage of chili served at local restaurants, I would vote this one a top choice. Enter it in any chili contest and it would blow away the competition.
One rather sad note I must mention is the dire situation in Venezuela. If you follow the news, you must know that this once beautiful country has fallen into a dark pit of poverty, political unrest and desperation. I have heard the lack of food available to the people is at famine level, and the notion of dining there on arepas is at the moment a far-off dream for most of the population.
Please enjoy the fact that Connecticut is home to many fine people who came here from Venezuela, and brought with them the best of their culture. La Pescaderia is a delicious example.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.