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Vergel Casa De Campo
The City’s Only Bolivian Address Sings A New Note
By JARED COHEE
Dispatch from Woodside Avenue, Woodside:
When I spoke with Marco Calderón and Freddy Pinto, the new owners of Vergel Casa de Campo, at their restaurant recently, one quote stood out the most and made me believe in their mission to reinvent the place:
“We bought it so we could eat as much as we want, drink as much as we want and sing as much as we want.”
True to form, they kept the spirit of the restaurant’s previous Bolivian incarnations (formerly at this address were Cumbre and Renacer) alive with karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights and a menu full of dishes that Bolivians from across the northeastern United States come to enjoy. But they also saw it as an opportunity to make the place into something better. One late night while drinking and singing together, they set into motion the steps that would lead to their purchasing it from the previous owners. Rebranding centered around the casas de campo, or country homes, for which many Bolivians share a fondness. Vergel was born this past spring with a new chef and the aspirations of its new name, translating roughly to “heavenly” or “paradisiacal.”
A casa de campo is a rustic dwelling outside a city that connects people more with the land and nature and can always be relied on for finding the best meals. Both owners are from Cochabamba, well known in Bolivia for having some of the best foods and the most fertile lands in the country. For these reasons, Cochabamba’s two nicknames are “City of Eternal Spring” and “The Garden City.” Much of Bolivia is in harsh lowland-jungle regions of the north and east or high, arid altiplano (plateau) regions of the south and west. A small stretch of land in between these two is home to Cochabamba and many of the casas de campo of the new owners’ memories.
The third owner is Calderón’s Mexican wife Ileana Carrete, who now joins them as a firm believer in this lifestyle. On every occasion I was in the restaurant, she seemed to be the primary caretaker of the dining room, which is evolving into the rustic retreat the three are seeking to create.
Any feast here begins with salteñas, possibly the most famous food outside the country but beloved by Bolivians just the same. The country’s version of an empanada is almost a work of art—dough wrapped carefully around a juicy meat center that must be eaten with caution to prevent a mess. The type served here is a combination of recipes and takes two or three days to make. Calderón takes credit for the wrapper, while the La Paz-born head chef creates the chicken and beef fillings.
The meats are first slow cooked and then frozen. Once wrapped with the shell, they are put in the oven and baked at just the right temperature and duration so that the inside melts but does not boil and cause the skin to burst. Due to the increasing demand for salteñas, Vergel is now making more than 500 per week to fulfill the needs of both dinner and large bulk orders. Just as the most popular vendors back home might sell out well before noon, come here on the wrong day and you might find the restaurant out of salteñas as well.
A traveler in Bolivia will notice that most businesses close from around noon until 3 p.m. each day, allowing plenty of time for a large almuerzo, or lunch. This meal is the most important of the day, and usually incorporates starters with soups, a main and of course, dessert. At Vergel, lunchtime is fairly sleepy, but dinnertime is busy, providing the opportunity to combine many courses at a more Americanized time of day.
For the first round, make sure to combine salteñas with escabeche—a dish of pickled pigs feet and vegetables—and anticuchos, skewers of cow heart covered in peanut sauce that are very different from their Peruvian cousins. The most popular soup here and in Bolivia is of course sopa de mani, a peanut-based soup that is full of rice, peas, potatoes and some type of meat. If this slightly sweet bowl is not your thing, they also do nice chicken, beef or quinoa soups.
• New York City is home to a little less than 5,000 Bolivian immigrants.
• Bolivia is a landlocked nation that is more than twice the size of California, and borders Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
• The capital city of La Paz is almost 12,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest elevation for a capital city in
• Bolivia’s tallest mountain is Nevado Sajama, an impressive extinct stratovolcano that stands isolated in the middle of a plateau and shoots up to more than 21,000 feet in altitude.
Main courses in Bolivia almost always come with a large amount of meat and some accompanying vegetables like corn and beans. Favorites from both Cochabamba and La Paz are well represented here, the latter possibly in no better way than the plato paceño. (Paceño means from or of La Paz.) The dish is a large slab of carne asada (grilled meat) draped over both corn and beans, and topped with a good chunk of fried cheese. The Cochabamba-style carne asada dish is silpancho, breaded and fried steak served with roasted potatoes, fried eggs, rice and salad.
Pique macho is the ultimate drinking food, a mountain of meat, fries and frankfurters combined with a few sauteed vegetables and more cheese. For something a bit different but still meaty, try the charquekan, a plate of dried beef eaten with corn, boiled eggs and potatoes, and cheese.
Most Bolivian dishes use simple ingredients that speak for themselves and do not need much spicing. In the fertile regions, the meats and vegetables are so fresh that spicing is unnecessary, though it may be needed in higher elevations without access to these bounties. It is also uncommon for Bolivians to give much thought to plate arrangements or beauty, instead explaining that the taste and how it sticks to your ribs is what makes a real meal. To me this rings so true, especially when the eyes of homesick Bolivians light up when a plate is put in front of them here at Vergel.
Coffee is certainly an option after dessert here, but why not use the rest of those three hours of almuerzo to take a brief nap, just as you might find many doing under the shade of a tree in the City of Eternal Spring. Or if it happens to be a weekend, stay until 4 a.m. singing along with everyone else during karaoke nights, if you are able to wrestle the microphone away from Marco and Freddy.
Vergel Casa De Campo
67-03 Woodside Avenue,
Woodside NY 11377
Sun-Mon, Wed-Thu 11:00-21:00
Fri-Sat 11:00-04:00. Closed Tuesday.
Credit cards and cash.
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