On The Range: Ropa Vieja

On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

"Arnold Layne had a strange hobby/Collecting clothes/Moonshine, washing line/They suit him fine"

OK, so what in the name of Pink Floyd does a song about a dirty old Brit have to do with a Canary Islands standard of shredded pork or flank steak in a tomato-based sauce?

Quite a bit, actually.

Ropa Vieja means "old clothes" in Spanish, and as usual, there is a delightful legend as to how the dish acquired its name. Seems a poor gentlemen learned that his family was coming over to his house for dinner, and he had nothing in the larder to feed them. In desperation, he gathered some old clothes from his closet, and proceeded to shred and cook the tattered rags.

Miraculously, they turned into a wonderful stew-like concoction thanks to his great faith in family. It's the Pinocchio story...or have there been other such transformations?

OK, so the song was a bit of a stretch. But since Spanish ships carried the dish to other parts of the New World, Ropa vieja has actually found a home in many Latin cuisines, always with local variations.

In the Canary Islands, the variation features potatoes and garbanzo beans along with the meat. In the mountains of Southern Argentina, lamb and young goats (kids) are cooked in place of beef or pork, and as Elisabeth Luard notes in her book The Latin American Kitchen, "Mountain lamb is sinewy and tough compared to the soft-living, valley-reared lamb. Chop the

meat thoroughly unless you intend to subject it to long cooking."

In Brazil, even the name is slightly altered to "Roupa Velha," though flank steak once again takes center stage, according to Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz and the recipe included in her work The Book of Latin American Cooking. Food writer Christopher Minister allows that Ropa Vieja is a particular favorite in Cuba, served with sofrito, a sauteed sauce made from onions, garlic, peppers, oregano, and tomatoes fried in olive oil.

Presumably, the sofrito is meant to hide the detergent taste...sorry.

Despite its Mexican name, Tijuana Latin Grill in Frisco actually features dishes from a number of Hispanic cultures, including Cuba, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and even Spain. Here, you can get Ropa Vieja, minus the sofrito, as filling in a number of dishes, including tortas, burritos, and tacos (the latter can and should be ordered three at a time, the better to try the excellent lengua and barbacoa versions along with the ropa).

Tijuana Grill's beef is shredded Cuban-style and fire-roasted salsa stands in for the sofrito. Served with long-grained, herb-infused Cuban rice and smoky black beans, this version is a solid starting point.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Meesey

Latest Stories