I love street food. In New York, the halal cart and the dude with the enormous block of ice that he keeps under a rag and shaves into paper cups and adds colored sugar water to are almost as important as any pizza spot or deli or fine restaurant. And I always make it a point to try as much street food as I can when I’m in a new place, even though that’s often the best way to arrive at, to put it lightly, shit city.
And I have to be honest: I’m scared of it this time around. Maybe it’s because I know how little it takes to send your intestines into a tailspin. Maybe it’s because I’m older and I’m more aware of the fact that serious medical issues require serious money to fix. Maybe I’m still too afraid to approach people with my imperfect Spanish and ask about things that are unfamiliar, only to get a response that I don’t understand.
All of those fears are stupid except for maybe the intestinal distress factor, which is not a joke; then again, no trip to South America by a gringo would be complete without it. So it’s more a matter of “when” then “if,” once I get my courage and Spanish up.
But there is one street food I have seen, asked for, received and consumed without issue, and it is the grilled plantain. And it is glorious.
In general, grilled fruit is great. I want to say it’s “the new” something-0r-other but I have a feeling people have known about this for awhile, it’s just new to me. I was grilling peaches a lot in Atlanta and have heard good things about grilled watermelon as well. So grilled plantains are a similar concept.
Hot sweetness. Like a crust-less pie. Something about the heat brings out a new layer of taste that you’d never expect.
You can find grilled plantains on countless shabby grills around the city, usually lorded over by a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned woman with a quiet voice who seems surprised that you approached her. As with many things in Quito, in Ecuador, in South America, there are way fewer regulations for this kind of thing than in the United States. (As many Republicans might say, “It’s the free market taking care of itself. Why should the government get involved in this woman heating up some fruit and selling it to me? Who’s to say what is sufficiently clean? Remove the red tape so this woman can hire more help. Also, fuck gay people and women.”) So there’s just the simple grill, loaded up with peeled plantains showcasing varying degrees of charred flesh.
To purchase one, you simply approach the grill and clumsily ask how much one “of those” (pointing to the plantain of your choice) costs. Then she tells you it’s $0.50, or a little more if you want cheese with that. Because you are trying to minimize the variables that might cause your bowels to explode and because you have a 50 cent piece in your hand already, you say “sin queso, por favor” in an awkward gringo accent and she’ll wrap your plantain up for you in wax paper and you’ll be on your way.
It makes for the perfect snack. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it’s delicious, it’s healthy and it theoretically is a safe choice. You can feel like a local, you can feel adventurous and you can be satisfied with the grilled plantain. You are in Quito and eating hot fruit and walking down the street breathing in the smell of chicken (sometimes, this smell is rancid and horrifying) and bus fumes and possibly stale piss emanating from that statue of Simon Bolivar. People are looking at you because you’re a gringo, and the sky is clouding over because a storm is about to hit, and you don’t have an umbrella, just this log of blackened yellow fruit and an appetite.
Simply put, you are living. There are few greater joys.