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KO KO: Bissonnette knocks us out (Boston)

Hitting KO Prime for the first time in a year, I came, I suspect, as close as I’ll ever come to celebrating the Saturnalia without actually traveling back in time to inhabit the body of a Roman slave, packing a week of howling, chest-pounding debauchery into an evening (that, granted, began around noon with lunch & cocktails at dante, continued with more cocktails at UpStairs on the Square & still more cocktails plus apps at Hungry Mother, & ended with a nightcap or two at No. 9 Park). As promised here—where the pics below of chef Jamie Bissonnette’s signature bone marrow & surely-soon-to-be-signature calves’ brains piperade (essentially a Basquaise sofrito, heavy on the peppers) 1st appeared—what follows is a montage that, I imagine, speaks for itself, albeit in a slur devolving into a series of grunts.

KOamuse

ceviche amuse

KOham

house-cured Bayonne ham, jamón ibérico & Cape Fear country ham with pickled lily stems & truffled aioli

KOmarrow

marrow strewn with pickled shallots over oxtail marmalade

KOseabass

pan-roasted sea bass over heirloom corn relish

KOtomatosalad

heirloom tomato salad with crottin (an aged goat cheese from Vermont) & a brushstroke of avocado

KObrains

delicious, creamy-as-pudding BRAINS sprinkled with fried capers

KOsteak

Kobe flatiron with grilled onions & romesco, professedly, though I remain confused by the profession; although almonds and stale bread are key in traditional recipes for the Spanish sauce, so are red peppers—sweet & dried chile—& tomato, & the color of the final product generally reflects as much.

KOsoup

lobster bisque with a touch of sauternes

KOdessert2

absolutely no recollection. cocoa-dusted cheesecake? semifreddo? with mint coulis?

KOdessert1

essentially a blueberry muffin top with chocolate gelato shaped like a daisy-sprouting egg. How adorably like the whole thing was transported in a time machine made out of a vinyl beanbag from the patchwork-filled kitchen of a free-love commune circa 1972 & not at all like something you could order in a postmillennial steakhouse & lounge is that? The sauce should spell out “war is not healthy for children & other living things.”

Dispatch: The Other Boston Marathon, continued

To pick up where we left off here: Actually, I wish they’d mixed crumbled bacon into the yolk mixture instead, though yumyum’s comment does endear them to me more. Otherwise they just seemed like fairly straightforward deviled eggs, not that that’s a bad thing. But the owners are cool, so I’m glad the place is beloved among people I belove, especially now that
I’ve read the justification for its goofy christening on the website. Next time I’ll have to have the warm tongue canapé.

But this time, I held that tongue, awaiting an imminent rendezvous with the reigning offal master: Jamie Bissonnette, chef at another of Oringer’s outposts, KO Prime. There we hit the variety-meat jackpot, tripe coiling into the coin return.

I’d never had bone marrow and it was really, really good. At least I remember these lovely bones standing end-up.

KOmarrow

Mostly, though, I remember that the bartender [the awesome Asher] reminded me of Andrew Novick, aka Karen Carpenter K-Sum, aka KC Kasum, and I spent probably way too much precious drinking time explaining the Warlock Pinchers to you.

Yes, thanks to your rambling, I know Novick now owns Denver Japanese novelty shop Gimme Gimme Pillow Toast—and speaking of toast, the marrow comes with some, atop dollops of oxtail marmalade.
Preposterously rich as that pairing may sound, marrow’s flavor’s always much
gentler, subtler than I’m expecting it to be—especially when it’s coming from
a big bad tattooed young gun who once told me he was just a redneck punk
rocker—but who’s in fact as thoughtful a chef as he is brazen, much like the
aforeworshipped Nevins. Mind you, this Bissonnette is a man who once served beef-heart
sliders to the swells at the grand opening of a jewelry store. We also had—among many, many other things (I’ll compose a photographic ode to this meal in a subsequent post)—the brains piperade, which tasted so like butter. Butter that was thinking. Butter that was thinking of iron flowers.

KObrains

So after KO Prime we tilted toward home and sleep. Immediately upon waking,
though, we wandered over to Scampo, which I think is in an old prison, no?

Um,
actually, after KO Prime we had a nightcap at No. 9 Park, where you killed some more people and painted their corpses. But then, yes, Scampo’s in the Liberty Hotel, which
was once the Charles Street Jail—hence the names of the bars on the premises, Alibi
and Clink. What a clever inside joke to make ex-cons feel welcome.

Well, they’d have felt comfortable with the service, all “here, we’ll throw you this tomato soup but you can’t have a spoon.” The burrata BLT was pretty damn good though;

Scampoblt1

I’d actually forgotten “wicked awesome” was a useful descriptor until speaking with the bartender.

Useful or just used? She meant well though, in fact we got a kick out of her snark, & the sandwich was lovely, as was my basil oil–speckled salade Niçoise—all I could stomach at this point. After all, we’re just offering the tiniest taste of all we tasted, a drop of what we sipped. Here’s a complete list:

Best Little Restaurant: the remainder of 3 family-style dishes plus our very own order of squab, 2–3 glasses of wine
Avenue One: 2 drinks each
Neptune Oyster: 2 glasses of wine each, 8 oysters split, 1 entree each. Oh, & a bowl of oyster crackers
banQ: 1 cocktail each, 2 appetizers split
Toro: 1 cocktail each, 1 small plate split
Kingston Station: 2 cocktails each, 1 sandwich each
dante: 4 cocktails each, 5 if you count the granitas (of which there were 3 to an order, so I guess that’s really 7);

Dantegranitas

3 entrees split


UpStairs on the Square
: 5 cocktails split. Had to show the Director the interior wackiness that is this Harvard Square fixture:

UpStairs1

UpStairs2

Hungry Mother: 1 cocktail each, 2 appetizers & 1 entree split. Oh, & those terrific little preacher cookies that come with the check—uncooked cubes of cocoa, oatmeal & ¡peanut butter!:

HMcookies

KO Prime: X drinks, X dishes—we lost count. Suffice it to say my original post title was a conservative estimate. (What’s more, I completely forgot until this moment that we were there 2 nights in a row, the 1st just for 1 cocktail each)
No. 9 Park: 1 cocktail each
Scampo: 1 cocktail each, 1 entree each
Then we went to that wedding where the barbecue was piled high & the booze flowed, followed by a send-off brunch. None of this counted in the estimate

& then there was Legal Sea Foods.

As a Bostonian, I could take or leave this sprawling local chain. It didn’t suck, in fact it had its merits—including a way-better-than-it-had-to-be wine list, thanks to its beverage czar, Wine Master Sandy Block—but it never felt special like my funky indie seafod faves. As a nostalgic Denverite, however, I found myself sheepishly thrilled to belly, oh so painfully literally, up to the Legal bar in Terminal B at Logan & order 1 last glass of wine (okay, 3)—

a lovely way to slant our way out of town

& 1 more kettle of fish, namely the really rather refreshing seafood antipasto with grilled shrimp & calamari, marinated clams & mussels, rolled slices of provolone & greens in a tomato vinaigrette. Does anyone ever describe tomato vinaigrette as anything but zesty? Not this one, I bet, & that’s a compliment.

Legalsalad

& that’s a wrap. Thanks to all who kept us going—9lives, yumyum, gini, niblet, MichaelB, heathermb, lissy, striperguy, Alcachofa, Francine, Honor, Kimberly, Tamara & Brock, Scott et al.

Dispatch: 3 days, 14 restaurants, 28 dishes, 32 cocktails, precious little memory (Boston)

Since neither of us remember much of our whirlwind tour through my old hometown, we’re knocking our heads together to shake out the bits & pieces. Meet, finally, the Director.

Ooof.

A man of few words but much insight. Unless he’s too drunk to see straight. Last night I woke up splayed, fully clothed in a silk sheath, across a hotel bed in Providence (the original purpose of our visit was the Rhode Island wedding of a dear friend & awesome mag editor) & looked around to find the Director conked out completely naked & upright in an armchair, remote control in hand.

Yes, well, that’s because I left Denveater for a tad to go tobacco hunting downtown and ended up wandering for a while around some late-night festival where the locals light the river that runs through town on fire. Eventually I got back to the room and knocked…and knocked…and knocked until the door opened, but not our door, the neighbors’ door, with a sleepy/cranky/crazy woman telling me to shut up, so I had to go back down to the reception desk and convince the clerks to give me another key to the room. When D says “across a hotel bed” what she really means is “leaving no room for the Director in bed who therefore must sleep in a chair.”

Whatever. So you’ve already gotten a small taste of Best Little Restaurant (ex-Ho Yuen Ting) the eve we arrived & a bigger taste of Neptune Oyster the morning after. Between the 2 were cocktails at Avenue One, a hotel bar boasting rather attractive arrangements of foliage—bamboo stalks & something that looked like a broccoli-Chia Pet hybrid & so on—but the opposite-of-boasting an enclosed patio that gini had heard might be kinda private, & was, insofar as “private” can be a euphemism for “no one wants to come here because it’s some chairs surrounded by cement.” Anyway, after that, the 1st place we hit was the unfortunately named but gorgeously appointed banQ in the South End (the Boston equivalent of the Highlands).

Let the debauchery begin. We had been told the night before not to expect too much, but I really liked this place, from the beautifully curved ceilings to the beautifully curved company. There was food, too.

Banq

Baby! It’s true, I have a mesmerizing parabola of a gut. Anyway, the eats were surprisingly fine, among them an appetizer from the seasonal Spice Menu, any order off of which is accompanied by take-home packets of spices. Delicately fried squash blossoms were stuffed with scallop mousse & perched atop cylinders of sundried-tomato pesto spiked with miso & cumin that, for all its punchiness, didn’t upstage the starring item; neither did dollops of sambal paste.

Banqsquash

From here we moved on to Toro, which I’m told is one of the favorites in the Ken Oringer empire. It’s a small-plates place with a not-small wait, unless you’re willing to shove yourself into a corner and fight the bar crowd.

Sadly, the absence of the freakishly talented former chef de cuisine John Critchley was palpable; these chicken wings, supposedly finished with rosemary brown butter, seemed mostly just smothered in duck sauce mixed with catsup or something. It was partly my fault, as I wanted to try something new instead of introducing the Director to neoclassics like the salt-cod fritters with fried lemon rings & grilled corn with squiggled aioli & crumbled cojita.

Torowings

They were the low point of the trip, I’ll admit. All the better reason to head on over to Kingston Station for a drink I’d never had.

That drink would be absinthe, done right with a sugar cube & a water back.

KSabsinthe

Yeah, and it was good, but I liked it more for the processes involved than the taste: lighting the sugar on fire and waiting for it to melt into the drink, slowly pouring water over the remaining sugar and ice until the drink turns a cloudy, pale green. I was really hoping that I’d go instantly crazy and kill someone or paint something cool but neither happened so I switched to scotch.

Actually, you did both. You painted the corpse of the sucker you blasted while I picked at my tuna burger, underseasoned & hence, even despite a smear of wasabi mayo, unfortunately lost between the halves of its oversized bun like one of those skinny fellows getting squeezed between 2 fat ladies in red dresses & hats with daisies sticking up until his spectacles pop off in an old cartoon.

KStuna

Good, crispy, salty hand-cut chips though. Anyway, you came to the next day over lunch at the lovely dante,

Dante

where we had a steak the size & shape of a Sasquatch footprint.

Dantesteak

Ah, yes, but before that arrived we had alcoholic slushies and no fewer than four cocktails. Per person. Four.

So we did. (Which reminds me, in case anyone’s wondering how that diet I mentioned a few weeks back is going—not so well.) The steak was proper, charred on the surface & pink within, but the best part was the veggies it came with—spinach and chanterelles sauteed to a golden-green shimmer in olive oil and accompanied by gorgonzola cream, so you could mix and match all these earthy flavors and textures.

Dantemushrooms

At this point things started to get fuzzy for me, which was bad because it was only about 1:30 in the afternoon. We next headed to a place called Hungry Mother whose deviled eggs I had heard about and desperately wanted. They were delish, with little sails of bacon poking up in the middle. I could have eaten a dozen (the Whistler understands). “Sails” is the menu’s description, not mine. I didn’t think it looked like a sail at all, just like bacon sticking up.

HMeggs

Bacon sticking up always makes for a good stopping place.

***TO BE CONTINUED***

Topping the roster: Neptune Oyster (Boston)

Melancholy descended before we did. Though Denver is not yet my home, one glimpse of the skyline from the plane window confirmed that Boston no longer can be.

Not that melancholy isn’t its own form of joy. Especially under the spectacular circumstances: the Director & I shot straight from Logan into Chinatown & The Best Little Restaurant, where we caught the tail end of a raucous party of dear old friends from chowhound.com, who plied us with leftovers—unbelieveable fried squab (is a pigeon just 1 big liver? Something of that rich iron savor seems to suffuse every inch of its flesh), eaten with squeezes of lemon & sprinkles of salt & pepper from a finger bowl; braised duck; deep-fried garlic spare ribs—& whom we plied in turn with booze until the movements of at least 1 of us began to resemble those of some sort of cross between a squid & a corpse. & I’m relieved to say for once it wasn’t me. As far as I recall.

From there we hit the poshest sack I ever did hit: the apartment of 1 said hound, whose terrace affords (definitely the right word for it) a nonpareil view of much of Boston proper & its landmarks—the Pru & the Citgo sign beyond the Common to the west, the capitol dome & the brownstones of Beacon Hill to the north—

Capitol

Boston

while the couch afforded an even more stunning view of Sam, landmark of his own domain, totally as wide as he is tall:

Sam

Next morning, after coffee on his freakin’ great yacht, moored at Commercial Wharf on the harbor, the same hound showed us his lobster traps

Trap

which were however filled with crabs, apparently too small for good eating, so he stabs them with a nail & makes bait of them. This one made a break for it to no avail. Hypocrite that I am as an insatiable carnivore, I couldn’t watch but I think the Director couldn’t not.

Crab2

& then it was time to meet yumyum for lunch at the eatery that I will forever hold dear above all others: Neptune Oyster.

The moment I crossed the threshold of Jeff Nace’s wee seafooder in the North End 3 years ago, all of a block & a half from my then-apartment, I knew it would be my place—clean & well-lighted indeed, from the pressed-tin ceilings & the subway tiles to the etched glass & the mirrors lettered with the names of the oysters of the day—

NO1

NO2

which are also listed, complete with the most charmingly precise tasting notes (Katama Bay, MA: “briny, buttered popcorn finish”; Kumamoto, WA: “plump, creamy, hints of cucumber”) on the slips of paper on which they record your order—& the Director & I record our memories of each visit:

Photo 20

What I didn’t yet know is that my place, low-key & laidback as it appeared, would introduce to me a chef whose culinary style was so startlingly bold & intelligent as well as just plain fun as to be, I dare say, absolutely original in a field where most so-called creations are really just reactions, variations. David Nevins has made many of the best dishes I’ve had in my life: a salad of salt cod & crispy lamb with parsnip puree; smoked salmon mousse with roe, kiwano melon & horseradish croutons; above all those unforgettable fried oysters with pickled beef tongue, gruyère, sauerkraut & Russian dressing—which, for me, truly expanded the horizon of a single plate—& on & on.

4 of the last 5 meals I had before moving to Denver were at Neptune; so genuinely broken up was I about saying goodbye that it wasn’t until I heard Nevins had left to open his own place—Osetra in Norwalk, CT—that I could genuinely say I’d done the right thing by moving halfway across the country to be with the love of my life. Sure, the Director’s my soulmate, but Nevins was my soulchef.

I trusted, however, Nace’s savvy, & imagined he’d hire someone who’d follow in Nevins’ footsteps—however wildly, wonderfully all over the place they may be.

& so he has, though I can’t say from 1 meal this Nate Nagy fellow is quite Nevins’ equal.

NObass2

On the flavor spectrum, the Director’s pan-seared bass with succotash & a mussel vinaigrette (they were out of the razor clams they usually use) ranged from bright to brighter.

NOoctopus

Octopus salad with fennel, green apple & citrus sparkled too; still, I couldn’t help but dream of how Nevins’ version might have looked (especially given that the menu at his new place boasts a braise of octopus with chicken, of all things. Another dish combines caviar & bone marrow. The mind boggles).

NOtrout

Cornmeal-crusted fried trout & crab hush puppies with blueberry brown butter & parsnip puree was the most like it, veering from sweet to salty & back again.

As always, we were treated with tender care by servers highly seasoned for their youth; complimentary welcome-back glasses of brachetto d’acqui ended the meal, & we knew they wouldn’t be the last. Neptune will always be my first Boston stop, if never again my home away from home.

Dispatch: Albuquerqueating

Besides the swanky, spanking-new Second Home I just found out about, I have an old, ramshackle second home: Albuquerque. The whole town’s a bit of an adobe-covered dive, sprawling and haphazard, aglow in Route 66 neon—and eating here is at its best gritty, grubby, greasy. At least it has always seemed that way from my admittedly non-native perspective; while I’m sure a fancy capital-E establishment or 2’s in operation somewhere in the city at any given time, it’s the holes, the joints, the mom-&-pop kitchens that for me define the dining scene.

My first stop is almost always Charlie’s Front Door or Back Door, in a strip mall with a great old better-living-through-chemistry-era sign reading HOFFMANTOWN SHOPPING CENTER in turquoise letters. The Front Door’s got that deep-orange aura all post-mid-twentieth century eateries have, mysteriously, I think, since it’s not actually lined with those sort of wrought-iron-&-amber-bulbed lighting concoctions I remember from, like, der Dutchman & such. The Back Door looks like this:

Blackinterior

Charlie’s has mighty fine calabacitas—kind of like Mexican succotash—and something I’ve never seen anywhere else, a sort of red-chile egg-drop soup, that once didn’t just clear my decidedly English friend Bob’s sinuses but I think ripped his nose hairs out by the roots before banging his head against the table over & over. While most places charge, Charlie’s delivers baskets of hot, bubble-crusted, oddly light sopaipillas free with the purchase of entrees. We were too lazy to take pictures in ABQ—that’s right, we couldn’t be bothered to point & click; sometimes I don’t know where we get the energy to lift forks all the way to our mouths—but thanks to Gil Garduño & his undoubtedly copyrighted website (which actually is quite informative & makes me think he’s surely a stand-up guy who’ll forgive my pic theft as long as I give him full credit & undying thanks), I can still give you a little eye-taste:

Charlie05

But you’d do yourself a disservice to go to Charlie’s & not get the signature sour-cream enchiladas with chicken & green chile, just like me & Gil (sure hope all this talk about Gil doesn’t make the Director jealous—but then, that would be pretty hypocritical seeing as how he’s got this hot thing going with Florence):

Charlie04

The green chile’s got killer instincts, but the sour cream & shredded lettuce help it keep its cool.

Then there’s Garcia’s Kitchen downtown,

Garcias2

where the tortillas are thick as pancakes & the carnitas are nice & saucy, even if the owner appears to be more a Jersey mobster complete with gold chains & white loafers than an honest old huarache-shod caballero.

Welcomelogo

And finally (for now) there’s everybody’s beloved Frontier:

Frontier

The yellow-roofed, three-crammed-roomed, eyeball-bleeding-oil-painting-filled terror of all things holy to anyone over the age of 24 &/or past the irony phase of postmillennial human development is nonetheless a must, if for nothing other than the shockingly fresh & buttery sticky buns (pic swiped from here):

Frontierstickybun

There’ll be more where this came from next time we head down to Sandialand, unless we get even super-luckier & the Director’s brother’s fiancee’s brother has us over for a pig roast, a thought that gets me all flushed pink & squealy every time I think it, which I hope won’t confuse anybody come time to load the spit over the fire.

Dispatch: But this Chola hangs with Martha Stewart (NYC)

So it turns out Gwen Stefani isn’t the only rich & famous white chick with a chola fixation; Martha Stewart’s down too. Only in her case the chola’s not so much a Latina gangbanger as an Indian restaurant on E. 58th named for a centuries-old Tamil dynasty. Not so much this as this. I was turned off by the ass-kissy frequency with which the website drops her name, but when we couldn’t find this Afghani place we were looking for & realized we were in the neighborhood we stopped in.

An hour later we crawled out, as stuffed as we’ve ever been, our bones creaking like antique armchairs obese people have just plopped down on, because that’s essentially what they were for the nonce. Our own bodies couldn’t hold our weight—not after these amazingly crispy-gooey eggplant spears batter-fried with chilies and onions,

Cholaeggplant

& this garlic naan, which could’ve been more garlicky but couldn’t have been more strikingly accompanied by something like spiced apple butter,

Cholanaan

Chola on Urbanspoon

& this roti canai—the flatbread the exact likeness of an open sopaipilla, the chicken curry uncommonly light, fresh & redolent of cilantro & mustard seed,

Cholaroti

& this more typical—heavier & more pungent—curry of broccoli, cauliflower, what appeared to be grey squash, bell pepper & potato,

Cholaveggies

which was a complimentary complement to this biryani with paneer, which was only heavy on the rice; it needed more of the stuff that makes biryani biryani—caramelized onions, raisins, cashews—as well as the stuff that makes biryani with paneer biryani with paneer, namely paneer,

Cholabiryani

& these lamb patties with mint, tamarind & tomato chutneys, the almost marinara-like latter of which

Cholalamb

along with the thickest, tangiest raita I’ve ever tasted

Cholaraita

really made said patties, otherwise rather dry. Still, more hits than misses here, as opposed to here,

Cholatablecloth

on my side of the table, where the path from plate to mouth was apparently pretty treacherous.

Dispatch: Sweetlacoche! Hell’s Kitchen (NYC)

We’re on holiday in New York, where a few paces in any direction lead to the doorsteps of restaurants Ukrainian & Uzbeki, Tunisian & Burmese, Swiss & Scottish & Singaporean. If there were a country with a population of 2, 1 of them would be here running a restaurant. The most obscure, exotic, anthropologically fascinating cuisines are all around for the sampling—& where’s the first place we fly in from Tacolorado to go? An upscale Mexican joint called Hell’s Kitchen.

Scoff though you understandably might, it turned out to serve up one hell of a meal indeed.

What made this savory if stock guacamole special were the chips, all thick & addictively tricked out in guajillo chile powder.

Hkguac

Seems someone in the kitchen was in fact a bit masamaniacal, a bit cuckoo for corn doughs, which showed up almost everywhere in one form or another, mostly another. The amuse bouche (what’s that in Spanish? Diverte boca? Let’s say boca haha) that was this intriguingly sweet black bean dip—spiked, I’d swear, with cinnamon sugar—came with crisped wedges of cornbread,

Hkbeandip

Hell's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

while unusually tender venison graced this sope—in itself a sort of corny naan or fry bread but as a whole essentially a grilled tostada:

Hkvenison

And then there were the huitlacoche crepes.

Hkcrepe

Needless to say, supple though they were, the starchy parts were not the stars. Their role was complex but supporting—to simultaneously cover up & reveal corn’s own dark side,* to allow it to unfold before our tastebuds while remaining thankfully folded before our eyes, sparing our corneas the deep & lasting scratches more than brief glimpses of this stuff could cause.

For those who need to bone up on their smut: huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn. I have always wanted the opportunity to try it, which is not the same as wanting to try it, ever since I first read about it some years ago over at The Sneeze. Steve, Don’t Eat It! is a tear-jerkingly, jerk-tearingly (I don’t know what that means, but it sounds right) brilliant occasional series of posts detailing the author’s experiences with foods those of us who grew up stateside ingesting the likes of say this or this might super-ironically find gross: natto, pickled pork rinds, etc. According to Steve, I could expect huitlacoche to look like “imported sludge,” smell like “corn that forgot to wipe” & “burst in [my] mouth like a black pus-filled blister.”

True all that—& yet, & yet. Per the static head-space analysis—Jesus, does that mean smelling? I think it means they smelled it—3 scientists did on it, huitlacoche’s main aroma compounds are sotolon & vanillin, which per Wikipedia respectively evoke caramel & vanilla. Sure enough, there’s enough sweetness softening the earthiness to make you glad you’re consuming what the dictionary defines as “something that impairs growth, withers hopes & ambitions, or impedes progress & prosperity.”

In that sense, the mascarpone-drenched dish was par for the course; everything here, as the Director put it, “edges toward sweetness” even as it sidles spiciness’s way. Here the heat doesn’t creep up on you so much as shadow you from a safe distance. The heat basically wears a trenchcoat & fedora to hang around these pork taquitos, for instance,

Hkporktaquitos

whose smokiness contrasted with a whole sweet-&-sour spectrum of garnishes, from tamarind sauce to cranberry-jicama relish. As for perch steamed in banana leaf,

Hkperch

I can say only this: no glass of wine at Hell’s Kitchen is over $10. As far as I could see straight, the fish was still swimming. You get my drift.

*In the movie version, huitlacoche would be played by Marlon Brando, who, after all, really knew how to act like a Mexican. &, obviously, like a fungus.