Ana Hernandez Blackstad: Fried cheese can’t be rubbery – it can’t be a hockey puck

Ana Hernandez Blackstad, photo: Ian Willoughby

Under the name Las Saboritas, Ana Hernandez Blackstad and Alison Maciejewski have done over 300 Twitter reviews of Prague restaurants in recent years. Earlier in 2020 the pair’s activities were temporarily curtailed by the closure of all eateries and cafés during the lockdown – and when I met Hernandez Blackstad much of the conversation focused on how the coronavirus situation is impacting the city’s dining scene.

What led you and Alison, who unfortunately can’t be with us today, to start doing reviews of Prague restaurants?

“We both have a love of food and we became friends over Twitter, actually.

“We would Whatsapp each other as we were dining out and say, This pho restaurant is serving lemon instead of lime.

“We just realised we both had a kind of similar view on food and we just thought, Why don’t we share our observations about all of the places where we’re dining with other English speakers?

“Because we couldn’t really find that much content, other than a few Twitter accounts that we followed.”

“The first restaurant we went to after the restrictions were lifted was Field, which has a Michelin star. Pre-lockdown we never could have afforded to eat there.”

“So we thought, Let’s just try it and see if anybody else is interested in our reviews.

“That was in the fall of 2018 and now we’re almost at 600 Twitter followers and we’re writing for Expats.cz.

“So I think that people are starting to hear about us. I think the expat community wants that kind of content in English.”

Also I guess in a way the fact that you’re always going to new places must force you to get out of your neighbourhood and go to different parts of the city?

“Definitely, yes. I rarely go to some place twice. Because of the Las Saboritas Twitter account, it forces us to try new places, to get out of our comfort zone, to check new restaurants and new neighbourhoods.”

Why are you called Las Saboritas?

“Alison and I are both have a Latina background and in Spanish ‘sabor’ means flavour or taste. And ‘ita’ is the feminine ending to a word, like ‘chiquita’, which you may have heard.

“So we just added ‘ita’ to ‘sabor’ and we became Las Saboritas.”

You’ve reviewed close to 300 spots. Generally how do you view the standard of dining in Prague?

“We’ve actually at over 320 now.

“Alison and I have both had the opportunity to travel internationally so we can compare Prague restaurants with those in other cities, and I would say that there are some restaurants that are doing amazing things and there some that are doing kind of what it takes to get by – and I feel like they could be doing better.”

If you give somebody a negative review, do they ever contact you or try to make amends or anything like that?

“So far no. And I think that probably a lot of restaurants don’t know that we’re out there.

“I’ve had a few quite passionate supporters of restaurants defend their favourites, which is great because that means that people are taking the time to be interested in food.

“They’ve said, Maybe you should go back and try again, or go to a different location and see if the experience is different.”

I’m sure a lot of people listening to this will be wondering, Do they like Czech cuisine?

“[Laughs] Yes, actually we do like Czech cuisine.

“What we’ve developed in the time that we’ve been here is an appreciation for the nuances of Czech cuisine.

“One restaurant’s pork knuckle is not the same as another. Same with guláš, same with svíčková and all of the other specialties.

“I think what we’ve realised is that there’s a lot more nuance and flavour and expertise when you go to a Czech restaurant that does Czech food really well.

“And it doesn’t have to be a fancy one in Old Town. It could be your local neighbourhood place – but if they take care and do it properly, I think Czech food can be wonderful.”

Have you got a favourite dish?

Smažený sýr, photo: Dezidor / CC BY 3.0

“I’m a big fan of smažený sýr. I know a lot of people consider it nursery food but, oh my gosh, friend cheese – what’s not to like about fried cheese [laughs]?”

I love it, but once a year, maybe twice a year.

“Yes. But you know, we love our mozzarella sticks in the States, and that to me is kind of the closest thing.

“So it’s not an everyday thing, but when it’s done right it can be a real treat.”

It has to ooze – it can’t just sit there.

“It has to ooze. It can’t be rubbery. It can’t be a hockey puck.”

As well as doing individual reviews of places, you do round-ups of different types of restaurants. Have any of those pieces of yours had a particularly strong response?

“Yes, the Mexican food article. There’s something about Mexican food – people love it and have their favourites.

“So that one got the most traffic and the most discussion on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.”

I read that some time ago, but I forget where you recommended as being a relatively good Mexican place.

“We definitely like Los Alebrijes, which is just off Újezd. We recently discovered Chile y Limón and La Patrona.

“You can’t throw a stone in Prague without finding a restaurant that has the duck breast, the pork knee, the svíčková, the guláš.”

“So the good news is that there’s competition, which I think helps to elevate the overall quality of Mexican food in Prague.”

If a new place opens, will you want to go there immediately? Or will you wait for a while? Or does that matter to you at all?

“On one hand, I like to break news of new places and be in on the ground floor, so to speak, and help promote, especially if it’s a really new concept or a great story behind the team that’s opening this place.

“But on the other hand, what I think you’re getting at, it might be a little uneven at the beginning as they’re getting their legs under them, so there may be some growing pains.

“From time to time we do go back to places and check and see if it’s different from the first time.”

After the lockdown began, after this country was hit by the coronavirus crisis, I read some pieces about how in future, when there wouldn’t be tourists, a lot of Czech high-end restaurants would have to refocus and try to attract Czech diners and maybe have cheaper meals. Is that actually happening?

“That’s happening at some places. Actually the first restaurant that Alison and I went to after the restrictions were lifted was Field, which has a Michelin star.

“Pre-lockdown we never could have afforded to eat there [laughs], but after lockdown they introduced a new lunch menu with a special price and we were able to go and experience that level of fine dining, which was great.

Svíčková, photo: JOtruba CC BY 3.0

“Less tourists means that some restaurants are going to have to focus more on repeat customers, and not on the ones who just come once and leave. Because word will start to get around about the quality of the food or the overall experience.

“The other thing that I would be concerned with if I were a restaurant owner in Prague is duplication of offerings.

“Because you can’t throw a stone in Prague without finding a restaurant that has the duck breast, the pork knee, the svíčková, the guláš.

“So I think those restaurants that are able to differentiate themselves from the competition are going to have a leg up – not just during a lockdown or when tourists are limited but any time.

“Because people are looking for new dining experiences that they can’t have back home.”

Also during the lockdown one very familiar sight was food delivery guys from Wolt and other companies. People said at that time that delivery was kind of here to stay. But with delivery you’re basically missing out on going to a restaurant, which of course is part of the whole deal. Do you think delivery is here to stay in a big way? Or will it fade away as people again get the confidence to go back to restaurants?

“I think delivery is here to stay. The reason I say that is I think this virus is going to be with us for a while. So there are going to be periods of increased precaution and periods of less precaution.

“I think people still want to have those food experiences, even if it’s not in a restaurant.

“I think this because some of the partnerships that I’m seeing with grocery delivery companies. So restaurants that were never on Wolt or Dáme Jídlo before, or you’d never see them on Rohlík, are there now, offering their food.

“I think delivery is here to stay. The reason I say that is I think this virus is going to be with us for a while.”

“I think all the restaurants are ways to diversify and I think delivery is a natural for that.

“At first I think people were really worried about having food brought in from the outside but I think as we experienced it more and more people became really comfortable with it and now I think it’s just a daily part of life.

“One thing I noticed on Rohlík was that Eska, which is of course a very famous restaurant here in Prague, is offering their šunkofleky pasta, egg and ham dish for CZK 279 per portion – but you don’t have the experience of being at Eska.

“I’d just be curious to know how that’s going. Are people actually spending that much for one portion of food, without having everything else that goes with it?”

That’s my attitude to all of these places doing takeout. Even if it’s just a burger, I like going to the place. I like leaving my home and going to a nice place where I get treated nicely, ideally.

“Yes. And in some ways ordering in is more expensive.

“Depending on which service you’re using, they might add on a delivery fee. Some have an ‘out of the local neighbourhood’ fee. You’re tipping, etcetera.

“So in some ways it can be even more expensive than going in person.

Ana Hernandez Blackstad, photo: Ian Willoughby

“And some food doesn’t travel all that well. So when it arrives at your place it doesn’t resemble what you would see if you were actually there in person [laughs].

“So I think people are either finding the convenience to be worth it or they’re watching their favourite show or their favourite movie while they’re eating.

“Or they don’t have to pay for a babysitter.

“I’m not really sure what all the reasons are, but in my household a lot of it is convenience.

“They’re bringing it to me, I don’t have to go out, I don’t have to ride the tram or whatever, and I get to control the experience a little bit more.”

We’re at Café Slavia, which I’ve never seen so empty. Recently I went to a restaurant and we were the only people in it on a Saturday night. Are places still really quiet?

“I think it really varies depending on the neighbourhood and the time of day.

“Any place that has a garden or a terrace – those places are full.

“People are wanting to eat outside. I think it’s because that’s part of summer in Prague, but also maybe because of increased fears about the virus.

“So I think any place that has outdoor dining has a big advantage.

“But yes, I do wonder how those restaurants are going to stay in business in the long run if they’re not bringing in repeat business.

“And it is sad to see a fully-staffed restaurant with one or two diners there.”

Many things are uncertain but, if you could speculate, how do you think the Prague dining scene will look in, I don’t know, a year from now?

“I would say that those restaurants that are in groups, like the Ambiente group or some of the other ones, that can help out some of the struggling places will continue to do well.

“It is sad to see a fully-staffed restaurant with one or two diners there.”

“I think, though, that the mom and pop, one-off restaurants, if they don’t have a pretty sizable bank account, will have a hard time weathering the uncertainties.

“At the last lockdown, we had reservations for brunch on Saturday and on Friday, I think, the restrictions came out and said, No more dining in restaurants.

“So it’s so unpredictable. But I would hope that diners would continue to patronize their favourites.”

My final question is, what is your favourite restaurant in Prague?

“Oh God, that’s a tough one. That’s like naming my favourite child – good thing I don’t have children.

“A big favourite of mine is QQ Asian Kitchen. I think they have fantastic food. The owners are warm and friendly and you feel special eating there. The service is wonderful and I think you get amazing value for your money.

“That one is always really high on my list. They do fantastic Asian food and it’s not gimmicky – it’s just delicious.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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