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Mexican Food, Moldovan Style

Good salsa, spicy food hard to find in Eastern Europe

The Arizona Republic – February 21, 2006

CHISINAU, Moldova – It was my first Saturday night in Moldova and already I was starting to feel a bit homesick. I needed something to remind me of home.

The U.S. Embassy had given me a welcome packet when I arrived, which included a list of recommended restaurants. A place on the list called “Cactus Saloon” caught my eye. “Mexican food, Moldovan style,” the description read.

Ask for salsa in Eastern Europe and you’re likely to get a bowl of ketchup topped with pepper.

It was in the low 20s outside and the icy sidewalks and dimly lit streets made the 20-minute walk to 41 Armeneasca St. a bit dicey. But I wanted a taste of home – preferably in the form of chips and salsa followed by a bean burrito or chicken fajitas.

I arrived at the Cactus Saloon and immediately was impressed by two things. The place was packed, always a good sign. I grabbed the last empty table. And the decor truly looked like a Mexican restaurant, with pictures of the Old West and Mexico and even one of those swinging saloon-doors. A mariachi band wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

Eastern European cuisine is notoriously bland (I often pack a small bottle of Tabasco sauce with me on trips to Eastern Europe and bring it with me into restaurants so give the food a much-needed kick) but I had high hopes. Did the Serrano family have a distant cousin living in Chisinau?

Packing for Eastern Europe — can’t forget the Tabasco sauce!

My waiter, Nicolai, brought me a menu. Every dish was listed in three languages – Romanian (the dominant language in Moldova), Russian and English. But it might as well have been in Greek, because nothing looked remotely familiar to me, with the exception of Corona beer (priced three times higher than the local beer).

No tacos, tostados or tortillas. They had all sorts of chicken, meat and fish dishes, even soy meat, but all prepared in ways that seemed to be anything but Mexican.

I called Nicolai over to the table. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you have anything spicy?” He mentioned some sort of “balsamic” sauce they had prepared and a dish involving chicken and almonds. I knew that wouldn’t satisfy my craving.

“Don’t you even have any salsa?” I asked.

Nicolai gave me a blank look. It was clear he didn’t understand. “Salsa,” I repeated more loudly, thinking he hadn’t heard me over the music blaring from the restaurant’s sound system.

“Oh yes, salsa,” he said. “I will check in the back.”

While I waited for him to return, I remembered the time I had asked for salsa at a “Mexican” restaurant in Latvia, another country in Eastern Europe. They ended up bringing me a bowl of ketchup with pepper poured on top of it. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut.

“I am sorry,” Nicolai said after returning from the back. “No salsa. We only play rock ‘n roll and maybe a little jazz.”

There would be no salsa for me this night.

Traditional Moldovan soup called zeama — with a glob of cream on top.

As it turned out, though, the meal was quite good. I had chicken in some sort of mystery sauce with potatoes and a roll on the side. It just wasn’t what I had expected.

That’s the key to enjoying a Moldovan dining experience. Leave your pre-conceived expectations at the door, because you never quite know what you’re going to get. You do know it’s going to be different than back home, and that’s part of the fun.

My very first day in Moldova, still jetlagged from the 24-hour journey, I ordered something that I thought would be harmless comfort food – a vegetarian pizza. Then they brought it out. It was drenched in mayonnaise.

Indeed, Moldovans, like most other Eastern Europeans, love cream sauces, cheese, mayonnaise and other dairy products.  Order a bowl of chicken soup — including a Moldovan specialty called zeama — and chances are it will come with a big glob of cream floating at the top. Cardiologists here never have to worry about running out of patients.

Eastern Europeans like to put mayonnaise on pizza.  

But I’ve had some meals that were wonderful. And you can’t beat the prices. Most meals out cost between $5 and $10, and that includes a glass of Moldovan wine, which is quite good.

When I truly long for the taste of home, there’s always McDonald’s. Chisinau has three of them. A Big Mac is a Big Mac, wherever you go.

As for my quest for salsa, I finally found it. Believe it or not, Chisinau actually has two Mexican restaurants. The second one I visited – called “El Paso” – was much more authentic. They even brought chips and salsa to my table as I was seated.

I’ve also learned to be more careful when I order. From now on, I specify “no cream” when ordering soup. At a pizza place, I ask for pepperoni and black olives.

And please, hold the mayo.

Stefan cel Mare Boulevard in downtown Chisinau, Moldova.  

© 2008 Dan Fellner


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