“Once upon a time…” The Journey Begins
The story of our journey to the Hibernian Cafe in Drexel Hill began way back in 2008 in Australia. That was when Mark first tasted Vegemite.
Mark worked in Melbourne for six months, which was more than enough time for him to develop an affinity for this strong-flavored and distinctive concoction. Vegemite is not popular in the USA and so, he has not been able to feed the occasional craving since his return. A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, we did an internet search for local sources.
We found an obscure blog comment which mentioned that Marmite could be purchased at the Hibernian Cafe. Marmite is the progenitor of Vegemite and is consumed more prevalently in the UK, whereas Vegemite is eaten in Australia. Both are made from the yeast by-product of beer production and are similar in flavor, but by no means identical. It seemed that Marmite was going to be as close as Mark was going to get. Destiny was set in motion. Fueled by the draw of Marmite and the growing taste for a bit of Ireland, off we ventured to Garrett Road in the heart of Drexel Hill.
The Destination: The Hibernian Cafe
The Hibernian Cafe is easy to find. The stuccoed front of their row-style building is pained turquoise-green. On-street, metered parking is convenient in front. Inside the entrance of the store is the Irish market. The market consists of a few shelving units, stocked to the hilt with an orderly array of canned, boxed and jarred foods imported from the British Isles, (including the elusive Marmite!), and a refrigerator.
Behind the market is a long, narrow room, enclosing a row of booth tables. On the brightly painted walls are hung photos of interesting destinations around Ireland, complete with typed descriptions and historical information.
The menu includes, as expected, Irish/British items; both breakfast and lunch/dinner. There is a respectable array of American fare; hoagies, burgers, steak sandwiches, etc. But most surprisingly of all, there is a selection of Mexican dishes (more on this later)!
Our tastebuds were primed for the taste of the Eire, so we perused the Irish items. Mark chose bangers and colcannon and I chose the fish and chips platter with Irish peas.
The star of the bangers and colcannon was definitely the colcannon. Colcannon is a traditional Irish potato dish composed of potatoes mashed with either cabbage or kale, (in this case it was cabbage). Many recipes call for spring onions, leaks and/or onions. The greens may be cooked or raw when added to the potatoes. The potatoes are lightened with butter and/or cream. Although in this version, I thought there was a hint of sour cream, or perhaps, creme fraiche. It was perfectly seasoned; rich and very comforting to eat. The colcannon reminded us of another mashed potato based dish we ate in Amsterdam called stamppot. In the case of stamppot, you might find cabbage, kale, fennel, carrots or even fruit.
The fish of the fish and chips was a thickly battered cod. It was crispy, golden brown on the outside and fresh and flaky on the inside. The potatoes were beautiful to look at due to having been irregularly hand cut and fried to a light golden brown.
The most fascinating part of the plate for me however, was the Irish peas. They were served simply boiled. The peas were larger and sweeter than I expected. According to Wikipedia, Irish peas are marrowfat peas which are “green mature peas that have been allowed to dry out naturally in the field, rather than be harvested whilst still young like the normal garden pea….Marrowfat is a traditional, starchy, large-seeded variety of pea, (Pisum sativum var. medullare.)”. I can’t wait to purchase some of these to cook for myself. They are available in cans in the market at the front of the cafe (Batchelors brand).
The Magic Elixer
Another new discovery for me was the malt vinegar that was served as a the traditional condiment for the fish and chips platter. Tarter sauce and ketchup are of course available if you prefer.
A quick survey of the internet about malt vinegar turned up this page on wisegeek.com. The page describes the process of malting barley as the base for this vinegar. Essentially, malt vinegar is vinegar made from beer instead of wine, and therefore can be termed alegar instead. It has a subtly nutty flavor and its acidity is a perfect foil for the fried fish and potatoes. I also liked it on the peas and was excited to add an alternative condiment to my repertoire.
The Story Within the Story
Probably the most delightful aspect of our visit to the Hibernian Cafe was our conversation with the front half of the proprietor team, Andrea Garcia. Smiling warmly, she came to our table in response to our request for answers about these fascinating and tasty new foods. She welcomed our questions and patiently gave explanations until we were satisfied.
We were curious about the origins of the cafe and also about the presence of the Mexican items on the menu. In part, the answer could be found in Ms. Garcia’s name. She and her husband, who cooks the food, are Mexican immigrants. She told us that they had lived in Brooklyn, New York where her husband had worked in an Irish pub. There he learned to make the Irish specialties.
When they became pregnant with triplets, the Garcias decided that it was too expensive and difficult to raise children in New York. Mr. Garcia had visited friends in Drexel Hill and thought it would be a nice place to raise his family. So, they picked up their lives, moved to Pennsylvania and started their new lives.
The Hibernian Cafe became popular and successful in the 11 years since the Garcias arrived. Increasingly, patrons would ask for Mexican dishes. Within the last year, these items were added to the menu. Ms. Garcia explained that they keep the Mexican menu limited because the Cafe’s mainstay is the Irish food. Also, some of the Mexican foods are more complex to prepare and so, it is not as efficient to serve them regularly.
Truthfully, there are a number of good Mexican restaurants in the surrounding towns, but not so many Irish cafes. We can’t wait to return to try out other offerings and to partake of the warm and welcoming atmosphere.
The Moral of the Story
You never know where your craving for Vegemite, or some other such unique and rare food can lead. It might just lead you to the wonderful new world right around the corner from your own familiar neighborhood.