I’ve been spending my lunch hour in Venezuela.
Or, rather, as close to Venezuela as one can get without leaving the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which is where Conflict Kitchen has set up shop. You can find Conflict Kitchen on scenic Schenley Plaza, right in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus.
Judging by the lunchtime crowds (there were 14 people ahead of me in a fast-moving line on Friday, including four of my coworkers) and a recent Pittsburgh Magazine blog post naming it one of The 8 Best (Not) Restaurants in Pittsburgh, I’m not alone in my love for this place.
The concept is fantastic: Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Each Conflict Kitchen iteration is augmented by events, performances, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. The restaurant rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events. (From the Conflict Kitchen “About” page on its website.)
This week was a spectacular one weather-wise in Pittsburgh: mid-70s most days, a light breeze, no humidity, just absolutely perfect. Truly, it doesn’t get better than this, in July or otherwise. Feeling adventurous, I checked out the menu online and decided to take a short stroll across Schenley Plaza for lunch.
I was undecided between the tequenos (crispy -fried pastry wrapped queso blanco served with guasacaca, a fresh avocado salsa); the cheese empanada, the ceviche salad, or the arepas domino. I settled on the domino.
It’s a griddled corn cake (two patties) stuffed with queso cheese and black beans.
Trust me on this: you cannot get lunch in the “Burgh for the likes of $3.50. And this works just fine for me as lunch when I haven’t brown-bagged my own. If I was especially hungry, I might add a second domino to my order or perhaps a tequeno (assuming I can get my hands on one, that is; they’ve been sold out of the damn things almost every day this week when I’ve gotten there).
I’m completely sold on Conflict Kitchen now. (‘m a bit late to the party, as usual; friends have said that the Cuban and Afghan incarnations were very good, too.) The service is pleasant and efficient; on the day when 14 of us were in line, a gentleman came out and took our orders, brought them back to the kitchen, and they were in progress before we got to the front. Conflict Kitchen knows their clientele is mostly a working crowd on their lunch hour – mixed in with the Pitt and CMU students, of course – and does a good job catering to both.
Venezuelan food is nowhere in my culinary repertoire – I’m pretty certain I’d never eaten anything from there until Tuesday – and Venezuela’s politics and why we’re in conflict with them did not even enter into my mind until this week. I mean, it simply didn’t. I like to think of myself as a fairly educated person, but the reality is I’m a suburban wife and mom of two kids who works full-time. Not that that’s an excuse – it’s not meant to be – it’s just not where my day-to-day focus is.
But for a few minutes in line at lunch, while reading Conflict Kitchen’s handout accompanying my arepas, I can learn something I didn’t know about the Venezuelan people and their culture, their perception of Americans and our government, the influence of oil, and the internal polarization of their country.
And come September, spend my lunch hour in another country doing the same thing.
Note: This post was NOT solicited, sponsored, endorsed, or affiliated in any way by Conflict Kitchen. It represents only my thoughts and opinions. All arepas consumed were paid for out of my and The Husband’s paychecks.
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