Monse’s Pupuseria

In an alley behind the mainstreet of Old Colorado City in Colorado, between a parking lot and a back street, is a building that houses Monse’s Taste of El Salvador Pupusería. In a neighborhood where “old” is the “new” and intimate and diverse restaurants are taking off, Monse’s Pupusería fits in perfectly. The small restaurant has a fresh, urban feel, like many of the restaurants in the area, while adding a uniquely Salvadorean flavor.

One Saturday in February, my husband surprised me for a lunch date by driving into the parking lot behind the busy main shopping center of Old Colorado City and into the neighborhood street where Monse’s is located. We walked up to the restaurant through a large outdoor patio where patrons can dine with their dogs on a warm summer day. (Eating with your dog is a must for us dog-loving Coloradans!) As we opened the door, we immediately became the back of a line that almost stretched outside. But the little girl taking orders was fast and moved the customers through efficiently. We were soon looking over a menu and deciding what to order as customers continued to flow in.

We saw instantly that this is one of those places where customers go regularly and are treated like family. The owner’s daughter took orders and another girl her age ran back to the kitchen with the orders. When we sat down, we saw Monse, the owner and founder, talking with her regulars and getting to know her first-time customers. I wanted to stay all day sipping on the house-made horchata (a rice and cinnamon drink served over ice), chatting the time by.

My husband and I were first introduced to pupusas last summer when we were moving houses. We drove with a mattress bungee-corded to the roof of the truck we borrowed from my dad on our way to our first house to finish painting. It was a beautiful, warm day, and we were starving. We were getting to that point of hunger where patience is thin, and the hanger was starting to come out. It was then that I saw a food truck to the side of the road that read “Pupusas”. “Turn around!” I yelled to my husband, “I know what we’re having for lunch!” And those thick corn tortillas filled with beans, cheese, and loroco (a Central American edible flower) did not disappoint! We’ve been obsessed ever since.

But we never saw that food truck again and all but gave up hope until my husband surprised me and brought me to Monse’s.

We ordered the Chalchuapa Plate (named after Monse’s hometown in El Salvador), consisting of two sides and 5 pupusas. Of the eight varieties of pupusas, we had organic black beans and cheese, local green chili and cheese, and organic zucchini and cheese from the vegetarian menu. We also ordered the organic pinto beans with garlic and organic pinto beans with loroco from the vegan options. For sides we ordered beans and rice and the traditional Salvadorean coleslaw, curtido.

Whenever I go on a date with my husband, I always evaluate the success of a meal by how silent it was. If the food is good, we are too busy eating to talk to each other. (That’s what the drive back home is for, right?) When the pupusas arrived on a bed of banana leaves, the meal was silent, with the occasional “Mmmm” and “Oh, did you try this one? It’s even better than the last!” of course.

At one point my husband asked for hot sauce, and the waitress asked how hot: “Mild, medium, or hot?”

“Hot” was his answer, but she came back with two bottles.

“This one is hot,” she said, putting one bottle on the table. “And this one is Salvadorean hot.”
He soon learned what “Salvadorean hot” meant.

A few minutes later, she came back to check on the meal. “Wow! You are really working through those!” she exclaimed. No kidding there. We were already four pupusas down with half of one left. Crispy on the outside, while creamy and flavorful on the inside, it was too amazing to stop eating, but pupusas are filling. Even though I just took bites of the vegetarian ones to taste them, I still couldn’t finish my two vegan pupusas. Luckily, my husband doesn’t know the meaning of the word “full,” and he happily finished them off. The cool, vinegary curtido was the perfect accompaniment to the warm pupusas. Both my husband and I agreed, however, that the rice and beans stole the show. Such a humble side dish, but seasoned as perfectly as these were, we couldn’t put it down.

Monse’s all started in October 2011 with her dream of selling pupusas in the frozen aisle of local grocery stores around Colorado Springs. She created a logo and packaging with barcodes, and when she approached Whole Foods to carry her product, she was accepted the very same day! By June 2012, after mountains of paperwork and inspections, the pupusas were on the shelves of grocery stores all over the state of Colorado, including Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, Ranch Foods Direct, Mountain Mama’s, and others. In 2013, Monse signed a contract to sell 5,000 pupusas a month for the cafeteria at the University of Colorado in Boulder. This opened the door to selling pupusas to other colleges in the area. Now, Monse’s produces pupusas for multiple school districts in Colorado, the Children’s Hospital, and even a movie theater!

When she decided to expand and open her first restaurant, Monse asked her kitchen’s landlord how they could expand. Her landlord agreed to sell her the 3,000 square foot building, and Monse was able to open the restaurant alongside her kitchen. So far, the restaurant has been a huge hit. (How could it not be when Monse had tasty, all-natural and organic traditional pupusas to share with the world?)

Monse was born and raised in El Salvador in a town called Chalchuapa (also the name of the plate on her menu that serves 2-3). When I asked her if she had dreamed of opening a restaurant in El Salvador, she replied that opportunities like that just aren’t available there. Her passion was for marketing and sales. While she was going to school for economics, she participated in an exchange program in Germany. It was there that she met and married her husband. They moved to Colorado Springs in 2011, and while her husband was deployed in the army, Monse worked in childcare. She soon realized, however, that she wanted to be her own boss and, at the same time, be a mom to her two children. She dreamed of using her skills as a saleswoman while sharing traditional food from her home. She started making pupusas with another Salvadorean woman but soon needed more help. Through word of mouth, women heard about the opportunity to make traditional pupusas and began working for Monse.

Today, Monse’s employs eight women, all from El Salvador, with the exception of one woman from Guatemala. When I visited the kitchen during my time with Monse, I was able to meet four of these ladies while they prepared their most recent wholesale order of black bean and cheese pupusas.

Monse really never thought her vision would have taken off like it has, and she’s amazed with all the support people in Colorado have given to her: “The United States is where dreams come true,” she told me, “and Colorado has been open and supportive of me this entire time.”

But don’t take my word for it, come to Monse’s Taste of El Salvador Pupusería and try some pupusas for yourself!

Visit Monse’s Pupuseria at

115 S. 25th St

Colorado Springs, Colorado 80904

Phone: (719) 473-0877

 

About the Author

Raisa grew up in Colorado Springs and attended Pepperdine University in Southern California. She has lived abroad in Argentina, Spain, and Russia and traveled to 15 countries. She finds the best way to experience a culture different from her own is by gathering together and sharing a meal. Follow her on her Instagram account @food_forward.

Saigon Kitchen

Van Nguyen and Lanni Vu are a mother daughter restaurateur duo from Vietnam. Van, a widowed mother of seven children at the time, made the decision to immigrate to the United States a few days before the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The food they serve at their restaurant, Saigon Kitchen, in Glover Park Washington, D.C. is traditional Vietnamese family recipes to be shared with loved ones.

This is Mom’s cooking at its savory-est.

Journey to America

It is Saigon in 1975 and the communists are coming.  As the U.S. Embassy began to shut down – Van Nguyen realized it was time to gather her children and flee. With the clothes on their backs, Van and her seven children fled by plane to a camp in the Philippines and a few days later, Amarillo Texas, sponsored by a local church.

The first five years in America were extremely hard for Van and her family.  The language barrier and non-existent Vietnamese community in Texas made navigating their new environment difficult. It was at this point, however, that their extended family unit began to play a crucial role.

“Whoever wasn’t in school and could work, worked” explains Lanni, Van’s youngest daughter and official owner of Saigon Kitchen. Grandparents and older children helped raise the young– everyone did a little bit of everything.

Colorado

By 1980 Van and her family were back on their feet and decided to move to Denver, Colorado. Her family was so large they shared two apartments in the same complex. Van opened up her first Vietnamese restaurant and market, however, “business was extremely slow,” explained Van. No one was familiar with Vietnamese food or cooking and there were not enough Vietnamese in Colorado to support the niche market.

Lanni fondly remembers gathering on the weekends with the small Vietnamese community in Denver to watch American movies.

“We watched anything we could get our hands on,” says Lanni.

Business picked up for Van once a journalist came and ate at the restaurant.

Lanni recalls her Mom being suspicious of a man as he came in to eat by himself two days in a row. Business surprisingly picked up shortly after, and the mystery man approached Van and explained he was a journalist who had written about their restaurant in a local paper.

After that, people started coming in from out of town to eat at the restaurant.

Maryland

A marriage brought part of Van’s family over to the East coast, and being a tight knit family, Lanni and her mother were quick to follow. Lanni opened Saigon Kitchen’s sister restaurant, Rice Paddies Grill, in Bethesda, Maryland as their first restaurant endeavor on the East coast. This quaint eatery serves made to order traditional Vietnamese and fusion dishes, such as pho, at fast food speed. I may add that Rice Paddies Grill is the only restaurant serving pho in downtown Bethesda.

Saigon to Washington D.C.

After settling on the East coast and their first restaurant success in Bethesda, Maryland, Lanni decided to open Saigon Kitchen in Glover Park, Washington D.C. Aside from being home to a number of embassies and the Vice President’s mansion – Glover Park is just plain charming. Row houses from the 20’s and 30’s, tree lined streets and walk able ethnic restaurants make this Northwest D.C. neighborhood an easy place to visit, live or stroll through.

The restaurant boasts a spacious upstairs dining room with plenty of natural light, fresh flowers and a full service bar. Saigon Kitchen’s menu is more extensive than it’s sister restaurant, fully illustrating the wonderfully complex and flavorful palate of Vietnamese cuisine.  Elements of Chinese and French cuisine and cooking techniques create a rich and multifaceted menu of flavors – there is bound to be something for your taste buds to enjoy.

Lanni served me their Bun Bo Hue, a beef and lemongrass soup from their Pho menu. It is a new item and it is absolutely delicious! From the southern part of Veitnam, Bun Bo Hue has a rich beef broth with a delicate lemongrass flavor. In the typical Vietnamese fashion, the soup is garnished with fresh cabbage, pickled banana flower and a peppery mild Vietnamese herb.  I slurped rice noodles while Lanni explained she adds fresh lemongrass regularly to the broth to keep the flavor alive.

Following the soup, I sampled their crispy spring roll. Crispy on the outside and flavorful on the inside– their spring roll has chicken, crab and whole prawn shrimp, wrapped in a delicate sheet of netted rice paper. Full belly and completely satisfied, I asked what inspired them to overcome hardships faced during their journey as immigrants.

“It’s always been about family. Providing an education for my children, that’s really what it’s always been about.”

Family certainly seems to be a central theme to Saigon Kitchen and its’ sister restaurant, Rice Paddies Grill. Family recipes served family style over conversation – with you guessed it – family. Whether you are in the mood for something fresh, rich, simple or comforting like a warm bowl of Pho – the family recipes at Saigon Kitchen and Rice Paddies Grill will take your taste buds on a culinary journey to and from Vietnam.

Visit Saigon Kitchen

2412 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20007

(202) 733-4175

Grace McNally is a Washington, D.C native musician, writer and foodie. She particularly enjoys using her writing and music as a voice to the voiceless.

Visit The Author’s Website

Los Hermanos

Anyone who has lived in a foreign country understands the immense comfort and nostalgia evoked by delicious homecooked food from one’s native country. Walking off the DC streets and through the door of Los Hermanos, you could imagine yourself in a neighborhood comedor in Santo Domingo. The smell of Dominican sazón lingers in the air, bachata plays in the background and if you’re lucky, an intense game of dominoes will be in progress. Be prepared for the periodic slamming of the fichas and some heated, but friendly, debate. In front of you will be the steam table filled with an array of meats, stews and varieties of rice. You are likely to be greeted by one of the two hermanos, Aris or Raymond, after whom the restaurant is named. The (nearly) identical twins are now entirely running the business started by their parents more than 20 years ago.

Aris and Raymond Compres, the brothers behind Los Hermanos.

Ramon and Mercedes Compres grew up in neighboring towns in the fertile Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. Ramon’s brother and Mercedes’ sister began dating first but when the siblings Ramon and Mercedes met, there was also a spark. Both couples would eventually marry and have three children who were cousins two times over. Shortly after they married, Ramon and Mercedes moved from their small town to the capital of Santo Domingo in search of work. After a few years, Ramon’s sister, who had moved to Washington DC as a babysitter for an American expat family, petitioned to bring her siblings to the US as well. Though New York and Miami are the most popular destinations for newly arrived Dominicans, Mercedes didn’t like New York and wanted to be together with family, so they moved to Washington DC in 1980 and settled into Columbia Heights in NW DC which, at the time, was a predominantly Spanish speaking neighborhood.

According to Aris and Raymond, Ramon’s plan was to stay in the US for just a few years to raise enough money to send back to Santo Domingo to open a “pica pollo” or a type of casual fried chicken stand very popular throughout the island. He figured the pica pollo would produce a stable income for his family and he could then return to the life he knew in the DR. But things didn’t go quite as planned. Ramon had been trained as an electrician in the DR. He helped to build many of the exclusive resorts around the tourist area of Punta Cana. He got a job doing electrical work here in the States, but not knowing English was a challenge. Aris recounts one job where his father installed a new electrical panel. The job cost the customer $500, but Ramon was only paid $50 by the contractor he worked for even though he did all the work. Ramon decided then that he would one day work for himself. Mercedes worked hard cleaning houses and they were eventually able to save enough money to buy a modest house in the neighborhood.

La Isla – the map of Hispaniola proudly displayed.

Once Ramon and Mercedes had saved up some extra money again, Ramon went down to the DC Office of Planning and noticed that there were plans for a metro to be built underneath 14th Street in Columbia Heights. So in 1995, he bought two abandoned and rundown rowhouses along what was then a drug and gang-filled street called Park Road. He combined the two homes and opened up the space to create a “colmado” or a small neighborhood grocery store ubiquitous in the DR and many Central and South American countries. The store was patronized by the large Latino population in the area, particularly fellow Dominicans and their Caribbean cousins, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

The twins were 10 years old when their family opened the store. It was open from 8am until 10pm at night, so the family spent most of their day there. On weekends and after school, the boys would help out stocking shelves and learning to use the cash register. Because the hours were so long, Mercedes set up a makeshift cooktop in the back corner of the store so she could feed her family homemade meals while they worked. But once customers smelled the familiar scents of homemade food, they started asking to try some. In the DR, food is meant to be shared and somehow there always seems to be enough for one more person, so Mercedes was happy to share her food with customers. It wasn’t long before they came back for more and the family realized that this was a business opportunity. They set up a steam table in the back of the grocery store where they offered a few different takeout dishes cooked by Mercedes every morning and soon they had a colmado with a carry out.

Since the business was stable and even growing, Ramon decided it was time to go back to Santo Domingo. He left his sister to run the business in his absence, and he brought his children back to his native country. Since they had been born in the US and primarily spoke English, he especially wanted them to learn Spanish. Life was easier in the DR. They didn’t have to work the long hours. The family earned enough money from both the pica pollo business and the colmado in the US that Mercedes didn’t have to work outside of the home. Their money stretched further.

But after a few years, Ramon realized that his colmado in the US wouldn’t continue to be successful unless he was present to run it. So, with some reluctance they returned to Washington. Ramon knew that there was opportunity in the colmado and he sacrificed his plan to help it grow. During this same time, Columbia Heights was dramatically changing around them. In 1999, those plans for a metro stop were realized. Many of the surrounding business were actually forced to close because of the metro construction. The arrival of public transportation kicked off the gentrification of the neighborhood, but the biggest changes would come with the arrival of superstore Target in 2008 just adjacent to the road where Los Hermanos was located. There were pros and cons to all the development for Los Hermanos. The DC government had negotiated with the developer that the businesses along Park Road must remain in place and receive grant funding to renovate their facades. In Raymond’s own words, up until that point Los Hermanos was a bit of a dingy hole-in-the-wall. The newly improved exterior attracted more foot traffic.

On the down side, the family noticed that the big box retailers like nearby Giant and Target, which included a full-scale grocery store, were impacting the sales in their colmado. They were losing business and trying to figure out what to do to keep afloat. The brothers also noticed that the demographics of the area were changing as more young, white American customers starting coming in. Some of whom came in off the street and stopped short before the long steam table, not sure of how to order or what to do, and sometimes even turned around and left. Ramon and Mercedes relied on Aris and Raymond to greet these new customers and connect with them, instructing them how the restaurant worked and explaining each of the dishes. Finally, the brothers convinced their parents to ditch the grocery store altogether and set up some tables and chairs to create a true Dominican comedor.

They spruced the place up a bit to make it more inviting, but they never strayed from the true spirit of the restaurant, a casual neighborhood spot with delicious home cooked food, steeped in Dominican culture. They succeeded in catering to both the new customers and the tried and true regulars. In fact, they remain intent on not alienating their regular customers as they grow and change. One way they do that is to keep prices affordable, particularly considering the amount of food piled on the plate! They want this to be the kind of place where everyone can afford to eat on a regular basis. As the neighborhood continued to gentrify, the majority of Latinos who once lived in the area left. But by then, Los Hermanos was one of only a handful of Dominican restaurants in the DC area and unanimously recognized as the best. Dominicans will drive from far and wide to go back to Los Hermanos. As much as for the food as for the sense of community. Aris and Raymond are not only kind, but genuine and humble. They still do it all; take orders, work the cash register, wipe down tables and greet and interact with customers, which they clearly enjoy. They also don’t forget a face. Once you have visited Los Hermanos a few times, they will remember you and greet you like an old friend.

That feeling of belonging has a lot to do with the success of Los Hermanos, but of course, at the end of the day, folks are coming for the food. In the beginning, Mercedes did all the cooking but as they grew they had to bring on more kitchen staff. Mercedes trained the new cooks in order to maintain the quality and consistency of the food. Most Dominican dishes are stew like and so they lend themselves very well to sitting and simmering all day long, hence the steam table. The sauces only become richer and the meat more tender as the day goes on.

Dominicans eat rice every day. Aris and Raymond say that for them not having rice is like a caffeine addict not having coffee. They just don’t feel right. So, rice is a huge part of the Dominican culinary tradition. There are three basic ways that Dominicans eat rice. Most common is plain white rice with pinto beans served on the side. This is the famous “arroz con habichuelas”. Then there is also a “moro” which is when the rice, beans and seasoning are mixed up and cooked together. The most popular version is moro de “guandules” or green pigeon peas, usually with some coconut milk added for richness. Then there is also “locrio” which is when seasoned meat, usually chicken, is cooked with the rice but there are no beans.

There are a variety of meats and sides at Los Hermanos to accompany the rice. Braised chicken, oxtail, beef with peppers and onions, seared pork chops, goat, tripe, fried whole snapper with coconut milk and more. Though each dish has its own distinct seasoning, the one common ingredient is oregano. Surprisingly, Dominican oregano is one of the most difficult ingredients for the family to find. The type of oregano used in the DR is different from the Italian variety mostly used in the US. But they finally did find a distributor of Dominican oregano in New York. Another hard to find ingredient is bitter orange. Bitter oranges are one of the fruits we just don’t have here in the US, probably because as their name suggests, they are not for juicing or eating, but used to marinade and tenderize tougher, gamier meats like goat or even pork.

Most of the food offerings remain on a daily rotation but they do offer special dishes on the weekends. On most weekends (or the coldest of winter days), they feature a special Dominican dish called sancocho which is a hearty stew filled with different kinds of meats and root vegetables. Sancocho is a special occasion meal in the DR. It’s also known as the stew of the seven meats. The number of different meats in the stew is a bragging right (makes sense when in many poor Dominican communities, meat can be scarce) and generally coincides with the importance of the occasion. It can also include green plantains, green bananas, yuca and other types of root vegetables of which there is a surprisingly large variety in the DR. Every Dominican doña has a slightly different version of sancocho and every family claims that their recipe is the best. Sancocho is the ultimate form of comfort food and the Compres family knows that during the tough winter months here in the States, their compatriots need as much comfort as possible.

Beef with Tostones

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Los Hermanos only serves what is on the steam table. Not all Dominican dishes lend themselves to long and slow cooking. One of the most popular Dominican side dishes is tostones or twice fried, smashed green plantains. They are best served hot, straight out of the fry pan and they can be made to order at Los Hermanos anytime as long as you know to ask. Another Dominican staple is the highly caloric and gut bursting breakfast of the “tres golpes”. The base of the dish is mangu or green plantain that is boiled and mashed with butter. A mountain of mangu is accompanied by the three hits of fried egg, fried salami and fried cheese. This is a dish that most certainly evolved from a time when most people performed hard physical labor and needed such a dense and filling meal to get them through the day. If you’re not headed to work in the fields though, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to crawl back into bed for a nap.

Dominican breakfast – Los Tres Golpes

If you’re looking for something lighter, there are empanadas or coconetes which are a cross between a coconut and a gingerbread cookie. Every Caribbean country has a version of a coconete. Los Hermanos also prides itself on its fresh juices and smoothies. Like any tropical country, there’s a huge variety of delicious fresh fruit in the DR that is juiced or served as a smoothie blended with sweetened condensed milk and ice. Many of the fruits popular in the DR are difficult to find in the US. Aris and Raymond recognize that canned or jarred versions just won’t cut it and they go to great lengths to find the freshest fruit possible. One of these fruits is the guanabana or soursop which is large with a spiky green skin and meaty white pulp often compared in texture to lobster. Guanabana is slightly musky and related in flavor (but not texture) to a pineapple. It makes delicious juice but it has to be fresh. After looking far and wide, they found a distributor in Colombia where they get freshly jarred guanabana meat for juice and smoothies. Similarly, their chinola or passionfruit juice contains flecks of the little black seeds which, along with the fantastic flavor, is a sure sign that the pulp is fresh.

As if all of this weren’t enough, Los Hermanos also offers homemade sweet treats and catering services as well. Mercedes may no longer be cooking all the savory food, but she is still the head baker. She makes the popular Dominican sponge cake with fruit filling and a stiff egg white icing. She also makes Latin American classics like rice pudding and dulce de leche. Desserts can be ordered for special occasions or enjoyed individually at the restaurant. The brothers also cater events like weddings or parties. Aris and Raymond singlehandedly handle the pricing and ordering of the food for events, as well as the delivering and serving. A few years back, they were approached by the Nationals baseball team to provide food for visiting teams playing away games here in DC. Initially just a few times a season, they now cater every away game because the many Caribbean players on the teams can’t get enough of the familiar comfort food. When Nationals baseball players come into the restaurant, the dish they most often request is the simple daily staple called the Dominican Bandera – braised chicken, white rice and red pinto beans. The food from their childhood. The dish that exemplifies Dominican cuisine in its rustic simplicity.

Considering the longevity and success of Los Hermanos, I asked Aris and Raymond what makes them the most proud about what their family has built. Raymond mentions the fact that when he told people about wanting to create a Dominican comedor, many told him that there was no way that a restaurant of only Dominican food would be successful. He’s proud to have proven the naysayers wrong. Aris is proud of the reputation they have built as the best Dominican restaurant in the entire Washington DC region. So good, in fact, that many famous DC residents have become customers including a few DC mayors and politicians and recently, Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

So what is next for the brothers Compres? They have plans to open a second location on the edge of the city with easy access to neighboring Maryland towns and even Baltimore, where many of the Dominicans who once lived in Columbia Heights have gone. The family’s success began with irresistible food, but they have grown and prospered because they have skillfully adapted to changes and challenges. And in typical Dominican fashion, they have welcomed everyone into their restaurant and made us all feel part of something very special.

Visit Los Hermanos

1428 Park Rd NW, Washington, DC 20010
(202) 483-8235

About the author: Laura Pimentel is a Washington, DC based foodie who likes to explore her world one bite at a time.  Visit The Author’s Website

All Photos By Nicole Harkin

Carnival Restaurant

 

Even as one stands in the parking lot out front of Carnival, a medium-sized Lebanese American restaurant located just on the outskirts of Hollywood’s buzz, it’s possible to feel the community bustling around the restaurant. Early morning exercisers entering Pilates class weave around food service workers on their cigarette breaks, combining into a morning bustle that takes on a community of its own in this sunny parking lot.

Enter Nabeel Halaby, owner of Carnival. As we sit in his office talking about the restaurant, hardly five minutes pass without the head of a friend or worker popping into view through the door frame to inquire about this or that. “How’s the family?” is met with an affirming nod and shrug of the shoulders, more enthusiasm than the follow-up question about whether the bus boy has made it in yet. Only the inquiry of “Who took your usual parking spot?” elicits a strong reaction, at which time I learn all about the perpetual frustration of parking spot thievery on the lot, which is shared amongst the clientele of no less than seven separate businesses.

“This is a Hands-On Business.”

But at last the conversation turns to the subject of interest: Nabeel himself. Pensively smoking a cigarette, Nabeel recounts the story of leaving Lebanon as a teenager for the far-away soils of Los Angeles. After spending childhood in his family home in the Lebanese capital Beirut, Nabeel left the country in 1977 during the early stages of the Lebanese Civil War to join his sister, cousins, and other extended family in Los Angeles. Nabeel speaks in casual terms about this stark transition. “It was a good experience,” he reminisces. “I expected a lot of dramatic change, and did very well because of this. I had to adapt to the circumstances, and do whatever needed to be done. And when you’re sixteen, you adjust fast.”

Nabeel arrived in the US armed with years of English lessons—but was woefully unprepared for the American speaking pace. “Some people talked so fast, blahblahblahblah,” he chuckles. “I had to put up my hand and say ‘talk to me slow, I’m rusty’. But after a while, I understood everyone.” Picking up with schooling in the United States was no easy process: although Nabeel had already completed high school in Lebanon, he had brought no diploma with him on his journey. “No diploma, no nothing. My mom and dad basically told me ‘get the heck out of here, get away from this war’. I had to take a year of ESL to get any certification.” With this degree under his belt, Nabeel completed a year and a half of college before transitioning to full-time employment to support his family.

The first job Nabeel held in Los Angeles was as a municipal maintenance worker, beautifying the railroad tracks in the North San Fernando Valley. “We cleaned up the whole area, putting plants and flowers along the tracks. It was ugly, and so we planted from Sylmar all the way down the pass towards Sunland. The track was long, and it took the entire crew three months of non-stop gardening, digging, and planting all summer long. Gardening is my passion, by the way,” he adds, smiling ironically. “You know… with all the spare time I have.” Here he chuckles and takes a long sip of coffee. “My garden at home is one of my greatest pleasures during my time off.” But to hear Nabeel tell it, the life of a restaurant owner is not one of leisure.

As he got older, Nabeel got into the business of construction. It was far from an easy job—as the long hours and physical demands took their toll, he began to struggle with back and shoulder pains. When his crew and partner moved out of the San Fernando Valley, Nabeel took it as a cue to change industries. “After all, it’s tough to go back to square one when you have a family to support”, he says. “Meanwhile, my brother Fouad and my two cousins had started a business, Carnival Restaurant, and when Fouad decided to retire he passed the business to me. It was always important that the restaurant stayed within the family, and so I stepped in to take on ownership responsibility.”

Nabeel makes no pretenses about his profession. “I’ve been on duty for five weeks straight,” he states flatly. “That means no breaks—ten o’clock in the morning until midnight each day.” From his home in Granada Hills, Nabeel makes the 15-mile trek each morning, an hour-long journey in weekday LA traffic, to the restaurant on which he has staked his livelihood. “Have you heard of house arrest?”, he asks, with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, I’m on restaurant arrest.” (Later on, while sampling arguably the most smoky and delicate baba ghanoush in Los Angeles, I’m left openly questioning the prison metaphor). As Carnival’s owner, whatever job needs doing becomes Nabeel’s responsibility, whether it be cleaning dishes, investigating parking lot drama, or keeping the books of an establishment that serves between two and four hundred daily patrons from brunch until late-night dinner.

“Once you have family, you always have family.”

As tempting as it may be to imagine that this thirty-four-year-old establishment is secure from the perils of bankruptcy, Nabeel’s guard never falters. He is keenly aware of the challenges of running a restaurant, and keeps counsel with a host of restaurant-owners around the San Fernando Valley to inform his management perspective. Asked about the possibility of the restaurant’s expansion, the response is a signature shrug of the shoulders. “Yes, lots of people want me to open new restaurants here and there, everywhere. But… it’s a sensitive business.” When asked to elaborate, he indulges: “restaurant owners on Ventura Boulevard [the bustling commercial strip nearby], they’re suffering. We get together and ask each other, how was your month? I always reply ‘I’m ok, I’m steady’. And in return, I hear we’re down, we’re down, we’re down across the board. Then owners have to let people go…”. He takes another drag of his cigarette and sighs. “I see this struggle a lot. You can go pfft”—he lets his right hand free fall through the air like a stone— “very fast.”

But Nabeel’s business philosophy has earned him and his partners solid success through the years. To hear him tell it: “In general, potential customers look at the price first. And if they can afford the menu, then it’s all about the quality. And if they would like to have both… well, they come to Carnival.” He smiles, and one senses the pride behind these words. It is a sentiment echoed by the kitchen and wait staff, each of whom gushes without hesitation about the community atmosphere that exists between staff and clientele. “We have our regulars, everybody knows each other… it’s a family,” concludes Najwa, a waitress who has worked at Carnival for 28 years and counting. “When it comes to work, I could never do four walls and a computer. It’s only here that I feel free.”

From start to finish, Carnival Restaurant centers on family. Between describing the activities of his five sons and showing me pictures of his newest granddaughter, Nabeel articulates the mission of the restaurant: “this restaurant is a family thing, and we want to keep it that way. We can’t have it losing its form, going into dysfunction…. Once you have family, you always have family.” These values are evident when one peruses the menu, which boasts Mama’s Traditional Ashtalia Pudding (a traditional Arabic recipe made with milk, sugar, and orange blossom water and topped with pistachios) and Mama’s Homemade Baklava (a syrup-doused dessert pastry made up of layers of filo and filled with chopped nuts) among its many temptations.

“Say Hi to Your Falafel.”

Proceeding into the restaurant, one is immediately greeted by the sounds of family. Moms spoon hummus into the eager mouths of infants. Seniors tuck into the spreads set before them without concern for anything beyond their lentil soup (and since the menu points it out as the house specialty, one can hardly blame them). Forks clatter, men tell jokes and laugh loudly, and Arabic coffee flows as the wait staff hurriedly attend the wants of the hungry masses. Sunday is always a big day at Carnival, Nabeel observes, thanks to the restaurant’s loyal church-goer following. All told, it’s a day of feast for young and old, Lebanese and American and all in between.


Before sitting down to dine, we make a run through the frantic kitchen—passing the slow-rotating shawarma grills with marinated racks of lamb and beef, on through the rush of cooks roasting eggplants to prepare the palate-tempting baba ghanoush, with a stop by the falafel fryer, currently preparing three falafels for my consumption. “How often do you get to say hello to your own falafel as it fries?” laughs Nabeel, pausing to allow a hasty photo before ushering me onwards to the serving area. Every corner of the kitchen cries out for the camera’s attention, with colors and smells practically incapacitating all but the most seasoned cook (which, in this kitchen, is everyone). Passing through the back of the house this way also allows me to appreciate each dish’s journey from whole ingredients to final product—I spot heads of lettuce, boxes of potatoes, soaking chickpeas, and a barrel of house-pickled pepperocinis, each waiting its turn to become the next day’s meal. Finally, though, the time comes to sit down and indulge an ever-more impatient appetite.




“You’ve Gotta Try the Fūl.”

One by one, each dish impresses in its own right, and together the meal becomes what can only be described as a sumptuous feast. Steam curls into the air off the fūl mudammas (spelled “fool” on the menu for easy pronunciation), which acts as the eye-catching centerpiece of this vegetarian’s table. Nabeel explains the intricacy of this dish, which is a staple food in many Arab, Middle Eastern, and African cultures. It is made from fava beans cooked with cumin, garlic, onion, lemon juice, and other herbs, and dressed with olive oil and a sprig of mint just before being served. Alongside the fūl comes a tray of smoothly textured hummus paired with smoky baba ghanoush, a spread made from fire-grilled eggplants pureed with tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. The two dishes share plate space with a generous helping of tabbouleh, a finely chopped salad made of tomatoes, parsley, mint, onions, and bulgur wheat, flavored with olive oil and lemon.


Nabeel instructs on the proper method of eating, tearing off a piece of piping hot pita bread to scoop a bite of fūl into his mouth. “Make a little scooper, and… scoop!” he says enthusiastically, demonstrating polished tactic. Although my scooping seems uncoordinated after this expert performance, somehow or other all the food arrives at its intended destination.

Meanwhile, the restaurant floor has reached a throbbing hum as guests arrive and are seated in the ornately decorated dining room. Nabeel walks among it all, greeting regulars, playing peek-a-boo with babies, and clapping old friends on the back as he arrives at their tables. When asked if he’d like to take a picture in front of the restaurant, Nabeel voices his incredulity. “Why would I want to take a picture outside?” he asks. “Come on, let’s take one with Barbara,” at which point he gestures across the restaurant at an elderly couple who sits quietly eating their shawarma plates, apparently well-accustomed to the melee. Barbara looks up and introduces herself with a warm handshake, telling me she and her husband have been coming here since their daughter was born thirty-one years ago. “Nabeel, he’s like my other husband,” she says, smiling wide. “It’s a family here, and the food is the best part.”

Having appeased my appetite and then some, the arrival of an Arabic coffee cuts a refreshing break in the parade of mouthwatering richness. Slowly sipping the coffee also provides an opportunity to take in the holistic Carnival experience, where high energy and community thrall conjure an atmosphere reminiscent of the restaurant’s namesake. Through the highs and lows of the chaos, Nabeel maintains a composure one seldom sees amongst those daring enough to make their living in an industry rife with unpredictable clientele, modest profit margins, and long hours. All told, Carnival Restaurant’s food, staff, and community make for a unique experience that leaves a feeling of nourished satisfaction reaching beyond the stomach, up all the way to the heart.

 

Visit Carnival

 4536 Woodman Avenue

Sherman Oaks, CA 94123

818-784-3469

 

About Suzanne 

Suzanne Caflisch is an avid writer, eater, activist, and art enthusiast. She attained a bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and now works in the public health research field in her native city of Los Angeles.