Updated: Jan 21, 2019
Author: Cipora Cohon
I have always been an indecisive person. When, at age 7, I was faced with the choice of a hamburger or chicken nuggets at McDonald’s on a road trip, I burst into tears and got nothing. The decision was just too much for me. Ten years later, I was faced with a similar decision between a tantalizing pork jowl (brined and then smoked) and braised Australian Goat Arepas. Rather than bursting into tears this time, I struck a deal with my similarly adventurous brother. I ordered one, he the other, and we shared. And it easily became one of my favorite meals of all time.
Agustín Kitchen, also called AK, is located in the recently-refurbished Mercado San Agustín, southwest of the downtown area in Tucson. The restaurant itself boasts “a twist on new American food,” but delivers Latin-influenced dishes with sustainably-sourced protein and locally-sourced accoutrement. And while I consider myself an adventurous eater, there was a lot on this menu I’d never thought to try, until now.
The meal began with two types of oysters. Growing up in a Jewish household, shellfish was entirely off-limits, so this was my chance. My brother and I also ordered four oysters and slurped them down. He wasn’t entirely a fan, and although I found myself slightly uncomfortable with the concept, I truly enjoyed the experience. While I am no oyster connoisseur, these were plump and fresh.
Our main dishes were the true highlight of the night and the muses of this ode. Up first, pork jowls. The cheeks themselves were cushioned by a thick layer of fat that, when cut into, practically melted away, as did the meat itself. I would be happy to munch just on those cheeks, which were buttery, soft and brilliantly spiced. The white beans, kale and radicchio seemed at first like an afterthought, but once paired with the slightly broken beet beurre rouge, it all made sense. Despite being broken, the sauce made all the difference. Its tart sweetness balanced the bitterness of the raw kale and radicchio, elevated the beans and revealed the jowls’ depth of flavor.
I’m sure I’m terribly annoying to eat dinner with. As soon as I get my food, I either photograph it or begin analyzing it, and sometimes both. However, this was a dish that I didn’t even pause to take a picture of (although I wish I had; it was plated beautifully).
My brother and I swapped plates, and I came face-to-face with goat meat for the first time. Braised and then served atop an arepa (a Latin American corn cake) with swiss chard, radish, pamplemousse (grapefruit) and candied ginger rind, this was a dish packed with flavor. My first taste was of the goat meat, loaded up like a sloppy joe, which caught me off-guard. Goat is often compared to venison in its gamey flavors, which I totally agree with, but I wasn’t prepared for the sweetness of the meat, accented with a hint of fennel. It’s unclear whether the fennel was added to the meat or was the meat’s own flavor, but nevertheless, it was present, and it was lovely. The meat itself felt at home in a slop on top of an arepa, and would’ve felt even better around a busy and loud countertop at home, eaten in a hurry but made with love, yet wasn’t out of place in AK’s upscale space.
Dinner ended with a peek at the dessert menu, which was a slight disappointment with typical American offerings (pot de creme and cobbler) after a dinner of intrigue and influence.
As promised, here’s the ode you’ve all been waiting for:
When faced with an impossible decision, do not deny it,
Get both if you can, and be sure to try it.
Goat meat, pork cheeks, or oysters,
It may just become your favorite order.
Photos courtesy of Augustin Kitchen.