Holiday Hallacas at Pica Pica
In the gray north, we grow up baking puffy reindeer cut-outs with our moms, but in Venezuela, mothers and grandmas construct hallacas, a taste of Christmas as ubiquitous there as flatscreen images of A Charlie Brown Christmas are here. Like any dish that's embedded in a nation's culture, origin stories for the hallaca range from the murky to the dubious, but the outlines of a celebratory dish with indigenous bones and a Spanish heart is unmistakable. A mashup of the empanada and the tamale, basically, hallacas wrap a relatively thin layer of corn masa around a three-meat filling seasoned and studded with capers, almonds, raisins, and olives, tied up in a banana leaf and steamed.
Mission arepa joint Pica Pica is offering hallacas as a daily special for the holidays. The one I tasted yesterday was certainly delicate (its masa layer was surprisingly thin), with a finely minced filling in which pork, chicken, and beef came together to form a single brown meat. It was suffused with a kind of tobacco-y lushness, thanks to the alchemy of raisins and banana leaf, while pimiento-stuffed green olives and capers shot off vinegary high notes. But like all restaurant versions of dishes in the domain of grannies, Pica Pica's hallaca was ultimately semi-satisfying (the filling, a tad dry; the masa, a bit too brittle). Still, not bad for exile.
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen:401 Valencia (at 15th St.), 400-5453.