by Alex DiBlasi and Chelsea Herman
Turning the corner onto Mott Street, I said to Chelsea that this had to be the place. With its electric green and blue façade standing out among an array of Chinese restaurants and massage parlors, The Pan American is a vibrant addition to the Nolita neighborhood. Fashioned with a studded wall design illuminated by color-oscillating LED lights, Pan American caters to the modern and relaxed customer. Featuring a large open window facing the street, the atmosphere is almost soothing with a constant flow of fresh outdoor air. White leather-padded benches line the wall with colored button-cushioned seats. On looks alone, Pan American is a perfect date spot.
We were enticed by the wonderfully named cocktails as we sat down: Chelsea had a Rosey Palmer while I decided on the Jack Handey. The Rosey Palmer was a delicious mix of Absolut Wild Tea vodka, a hibiscus cordial, and lemon juice; its subtle sweetness is good for pre-meal palate cleansing. The Jack Handey contained Calvados (a French apple-based brandy,) grenadine, lime, and pomegranate juice, a punchy concoction that is begging to be consumed on a warm starry night.
Our waitress insisted we try their fresh-made guacamole as an appetizer. Every ingredient – the avocados, the tomatoes, the cilantro, the onions, the peppers – are all freshly sliced, chopped, or minced, and it shows. They insist on not using lime in this recipe as a way to show that it’s freshly made, as the citric acid in limes acts as a natural preservative. Needless to say, what we had in front of us was packed with flavor and served as nature intended, avocado chunks and all.
The appetizer helped set the tone for the rest of our evening, as the chef and manager both informed us that the big focus at their restaurant is using local and organically-grown ingredients, yet another outstanding example of the impact of thinking green in the food business. Focusing on local ingredients means they will have a seasonal rotation of entrees and appetizers.
There is also a selection of vegetarian and vegan items, helping to cater to all niches of the public. I tend to side with Anthony Bourdain’s condemnation of modern first-world vegetarianism, making exceptions for Indian and Thai cuisine (and of course, for any religious values that disavow consuming meat,) but I was blown away by one particular vegan item we were served: kale chips. Rolled in a paste of cashews, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds, they are packed with a lovely, earthy flavor. They’re also fairly light, so you can consume them without any sense of guilt. We also enjoyed two excellent salads. The first was their avocado salad, which is essentially a deconstructed serving of guacamole. We also enjoyed a duck and beet salad, combining salty, savory, and sweet in one elegant dish.
Pan American also boasts a great assortment of hot appetizers; as the restaurant’s name suggests, the cuisine is strongly influenced by Old World American food, with a lot of emphasis on Central and South American treats. The pork taquitos were excellent, perfectly nailing the balance of shell to meat. The scene-stealer was the oxtail empanada. Oxtail is a local favorite throughout the West Indies, featuring a very tender meat. Having never had it before, I can only say I want more of it.
Another must-have on their hot appetizer menu is the stuffed jalapeno. Rolled in a blue corn batter and stuffed with farmer’s cheese, this will make you forget all about the jalapeno poppers you can get in the frozen foods section of the grocery store. The jalapeno, when its seeds (the source of capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers hot) are removed, has a great natural flavor. No jalapeno is alike in terms of heat – some retain a trace of its bite even when de-seeded, but it was a magnificent dish, served with sweet berry syrup for dipping.
As much as I enjoy summertime, autumn is my favorite season: better fashion, Halloween, and the fall harvest. Due to the seasonal nature of Pan American’s menu, we got to enjoy a very autumnal pair of entrees, featuring some of my favorite flavors, colors, and textures. Our first entrée was seared duck breast and crispy duck leg; the breast was cooked with an amazing pineapple-gooseberry glaze. On the side of the duck meat was a good helping of amaranth, an incredibly healthy (but dramatically underused and mostly unknown) grain prized by both the Aztecs and the Incas, along with diced sweet potato. It was a great autumn meal, and I would even go so far as to say it is a duck dish for people who don’t normally eat duck. It’s that good.
The second entrée was an incredible serving of wild salmon, garnished with tender lobster knuckles, sweet corn grits, kale, and andouille sausage – you see now why I could never go meatless – making for a succulent dish that was also light. When we finished our entrees, we were full, but not bloated, happy rather than on the verge of a food coma. Serving up satisfying meals that will neither bust your pocketbook or your belt seems to be Pan American’s specialty, and they do a great job of it.
Rounding out our meal, this amateur connoisseur was delighted to receive a glass of something special: ice wine. The distinctive characteristic of ice wine, as its name implies, is that it is made from grapes that have frozen while on the vine, concentrating the flavor into a delightful dessert wine. This particular wine, from Canada, had notes of caramel, Concord grapes, and citrus. For dessert, we enjoyed a gluten-free caramel-chocolate flan cake as well as a slice of peach bread, served with a tart raspberry sauce. It was a satisfying end to a remarkable meal.
What makes Pan American brilliant is its usage of familiar ingredients, freshly-prepared and packed with flavor. For foodies in a hurry, the appetizers make for delicious bar food; coupled with their great cocktail menu, this venue could function just as well as a neighborhood bar. For those with a little more time on their hands, it’s worth sticking around for the entrées before a night on the town.
Photos by Chelsea Herman