At-Home Chef: Go Mofongo Go!
By Kimberly StolzPublished June 1, 2012
The smell hits you before you even finish parking the car. Faintly spicy, deeply woody, and pushing all sorts of caveman instinctual hunger buttons, the just-out-the-back-door smoker at the Explorers Club is like a siren call to meat lovers everywhere.
When Chef Dan Varga opens the door and smoky aromas tease your taste buds, you know the dinner bell is ringin’.
Any other joint might serve up the red-ringed meat with a barbeque sauce or pulled and stuffed between a white-bread bun. Not the Explorers Club. Check your pronunciation, ’cuz the mofongo sandwich is just as much fun to eat as it is to say.
Surrounded by a wall of fresh ciabatta bread on one side and the stove on the other, Varga finds space for the hulk of smoked pork butt. As slices fall away, Varga speaks about his passion for simple food from all over the world. “I’d like to explore different regions, have special theme nights,” he explained. “Mofongo is a Puerto Rican sandwich; it’s like Puerto Rican comfort food.”
While original Explorers Club chef Ricky Barnes is off on new adventures, collecting culinary wisdom to share with the Explorers Club management group, Varga has stepped up to the plate, literally, to lead the kitchen. About the size of a large Bonnaroo tent, the tiny food space quickly fills with Varga’s enthusiasm and vision. “I have a big sense of pride here,” he said, smiling. “I keep it fresh and, since I’m making it, I know it’s good.”
Dropping the pork and plantains into the deep fryer, Chef noted that they’re done when “GBD” – golden brown and delicious. Sure enough, a few minutes later, GBD morsels pop rock around in the oil and Chef scoops ’em out.
Mashing up the pork and plantains, Varga points out that it’s important for the home chef to pick out plantains that are yellow with dark spots – as those are the soft ones that peel like a banana. “Our recipe is the city version of mofongo,” he said. “We put the chicharones on top … I just like the crunch, it’s an unexpected surprise.” Chicharones can be picked up at any Mexican grocery in town, or just grab a bag of pork rinds at the corner joint.
The jalapeño slaw adds texture and heat. Unfortunately, the recipe for this signature side is a closely guarded secret. Not even the threat of death by deep fryer can dislodge the particulars, so go with your own and add some fresh peppers to the mix.
If you smoke your own pork, just be prepared for neighbors to start dropping by, crazy-eyed meat zombies, drawn by the telltale plume of gray and the piquant aroma on the wind.
1 lb. smoked pork butt
1 lb. fried plantains
5 cloves roasted garlic
¼ c. lime juice
¼ c. chopped cilantro
Find a high-sided pot and fill it halfway with vegetable oil. Heat on high heat until the oil is ready for frying, around 350 degrees. While the oil is heating, chop the pork into bite-sized pieces. Slice the plantains into small pieces as well. Fry the pork and plantains for about three to four minutes, until they are GBD (golden brown and delicious). Remove from oil and place on a paper-towel-lined plate to soak up the excess. Put the pork, plantains, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro into a large mixing bowl and mash with a potato masher until thoroughly combined. Toast the ciabatta buns. Place mofongo on the bottom half of the bun and top with chicharones and jalapeño coleslaw. Serve with fresh cut fries.
A note on smoking your own pork butt: The art of smoking meat is intricate and deep. This space is too small for that tutorial. There is no “quick and dirty” way to accomplish this feat; however, the interwebs are rife with tips, tricks, treatises and to-dos on this task. Do some recon and by all means, give it a go. You can also get smoked pork from local joints such as Thurn’s Specialty Meats.
Meet the Chef
Dan Varga started cooking to get girls. “Yup, that’s how I figured out I could cook,” he grinned. It certainly helped that, as a young ‘un, he hung out in the kitchen with his mom and grandmother. Coming from a strong Hungarian background, the wee Varga was schooled in all sorts of cooking arts – from sausage making to snout-to-tail family dinners.
Sitting in a high booth at Explorers Club, Varga talks about his mom, who recently passed away. “I got her recipes and her wooden spoon,” he says humbly. “The one she always used ... it’s in my kitchen now.” He also recalls stories of his great-grandmother back in Budapest, who had a smoke house, used to slaughter pigs herself, and was an all-around badass cook.
This attitude trickled down through the generations and found its full expression in Varga, who never likes to eat the same thing. “I want to make everything new and better,” he explained. “Take the grilled macaroni and cheese sandwich with bacon tomato jam …”
“I get hungry late at night after work and, after a couple beers, start making stuff,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
A first-generation American, Varga’s dad came to the U.S. from Germany in 1955, eventually landing with his family in Columbus to work the Statehouse beat for The Plain Dealer. With ethnic ties to Germany, Hungary, and Transylvania, the sausage vein runs deep in the young chef. “Soon, I’m going to be making my own kielbasa, brats, smoked meats, bacon,” Varga rhapsodized, hands gesticulating as if he’s conducting an imaginary sausage symphony.
Varga learned his craft in kitchens around the city, ranging from late great Gloria Café to G. Michael's Bistro & Bar. As with many chefs, Varga is hooked on the pace and excitement of the kitchen life. “It’s such a rush, pumping out good food, dealing with curve balls,” he said.
Varga practically winces when recalling one memorable gaffe. While working at Oscar’s of Dublin, the young line cook was tasked with turning down the flame on a huge vat of stock before closing. Well, Varga forgot. “The next morning, the owner came into a restaurant filled with black smoke,” he cringed. “The bottom of the metal pan had melted through and was stuck to the stove top.” When he showed up for shift at 3 p.m., Varga was called into the office. His first question to the owner, “What’s that smell?” He stayed on at the gig for two more years.
“I love cooking for people,” he said simply. “I want them to come back into the kitchen and say 'Hi.' I want this to be a nice neighborhood restaurant.”