"Tail on Fire" aka Cuban Oxtail Stew - Versailles. Culver City, CA.
Versailles. Culver City, CA.
There are so many great perks when you work in the entertainment industry – like getting free stuff, seeing free movies, gaining access to exclusive night clubs, partying with substance abusing celebrities and having a tax accountant who can write off your plasma television.
But my all time favorite perk, the one I reflect fondly on every time I catch a re-run of "Full House", is, of course, free oxtail stew!! And whom do I have to thank for this treat but the inimitable Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
Although my teen-age millionaire bosses were usually too busy to eat, the show's production staff (which I was a part of) made up for that in spades. (Some Olsen Twins fun trivia food facts: the girls love Henry's Tacos in Studio City and CPK. How do I know this? I got to pick up their lunches many, many times.)
Everyday as I cheerily toiled on the Olsen Twins’ latest situation comedy so little time, I couldn’t help but daydream about where the office would lunch that day. Let me restate that by saying FREE lunch. (Remember: the theme here is perks!) For convenience and time reasons, we would frequently go to City Walk at Universal City since our show was taped at Universal Studios, Stage 42.
Whoop! Whoop! Warning! Warning! Universal's City Walk is the epitome of controlled sensory overload and neon lunacy. It's NYC's Time Square meets Disney all over again. City Walk acts as town hall for teeny boppers, red state tourists and the bridge n' tunnel set. Therefore that bad feeling you might get when you're cruisin' for cuisine at City Walk is justified. That said, the saving grace about the restaurants at City Walk is that they tend to be of higher quality and to not offer the usual mondo entertainment complex slop. This may be because many entertainment industry folk fancy themselves as quasi or full-fledged foodies and City Walk accomodates this notion.
One of the respected establishments favored by this discerning crowd is Versailles Cuban Food. Versailles is a venerated LA ethnic chow station with several well-placed locations throughout the city. The strictly take-out, City Walk satellite division of Versailles was my introduction to Cuban food and also to my favorite Cuban dish, rabo encendido – translation: “tail on fire”, also known as spicy oxtail stew.
That was a couple of television seasons ago, and, sadly, I no longer power lunch with Mary-Kate or Ashley.
However, a few months ago, I heard an interesting tip on a public radio food show from two highly respected food critics regarding Cuban cuisine. The gourmand couple recommended a little Cuban hole-in-the-wall in Manhattan called Margon.
I happened to be going to New York on a business trip and was very excited to expand my Cuban repertoire by sampling Margon’s island delights. I was overjoyed to see oxtail stew on their buffeteria line. However my enthusiasm was swiftly brought down like a missile crisis when I saw the size of the oxtail. It was more like calf-tail – small and bony. I realize oxtail is of peasant food lineage but this was ridiculous. My only thought as I scavenged for any hidden morsel of meat left on the anorexic tail was Versailles back in Los Angeles. Hooray for Hollywood.
Versailles’ oxtail is something to behold. It's a whale of a tail, sailor! It will whip you upside the head if you dare sass it and leave a fat knot as your keepsake. It looks like it should be perched on Fred Flintstone’s car when he orders dinner at the drive-in thus causing his vehicle to topple over hysterically. Yabba dabba – Doh!! It is robust, substantial, hearty and crazy good.
The oxtail is super slow cooked in a very perky, tomato dominant, Creole foundation of ingredients.
When the oxtail is finally finished stewing – its flesh, fat, tendon, bone and marrow have gotten to know each other so intimately, their distinct flavors and qualities so intermingled – a new flavor has effectively been conceived.
It is sweet and spicy, tangy and salty. It is harmonious to the tongue. I hesitate to use the cliché but the meat is so unbelievably tender that it slips, falls and tumbles off of the bone. It also melts in your mouth. It’s creamy and moist.
The Versailles oxtail is so good I don’t even care if I horrify the other diners when they see me suck the marrow out of the bone and gnaw at the tendon bits. It may be Neanderthal but I just don’t want this dynamite dish to end. I suck it bone dry, my friends. It’s a frickin’ chalky fossil by the time I’m done.
Oh, as a bonus, I’m happy to report that the Versailles’ oxtail stew has been consistently good, then and now, and from location to location, e.g. Universal City to Culver City. But I’d be a big fat liar if I didn’t admit that the food was más deliciosa when someone else was picking up the check...like Mary-Kate and Ashley.