Café Azul

Café Azul

When I imagine the life of a restaurant owner I envision daily slogs of hard work and very little personal or family time. Many chefs and industry workers lament how hard it can be to achieve a healthy work/life balance working in restaurants. But Monica Serrano and Mickey Torrealba have successfully figured out a formula that puts family first. Their restaurant, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer, located in the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District, is a true multigenerational, family run business. Their success can be attributed to many factors; timing, location and business model, expert industry knowledge, but above all, delicious homemade Venezuelan food.

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer: In the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District

Monica Serrano was born and raised in the Washington DC area and went to college at the nearby University of Maryland in College Park. Her father grew up in Alicante, Spain and her mother in Colombia. Her husband, Mickey Torrealba, is Venezuelan but like so many of his compatriots, he left his troubled home country and Monica and Mickey ended up meeting and falling in love in Puerto Rico. But without family close by, Monica knew that she wanted to come back to her hometown to put down roots. She figured that a college town with a constant supply of hungry customers would be a great place to open a restaurant. Plus, she recognized that the area was still a largely untapped treasure.

Located just over the border of Washington DC, the communities along the Route 1 corridor in Maryland like Hyattsville and College Park are vibrant communities in their own right but also conveniently located to downtown DC.  They offer the comradery and charm of a small town but with the walkability, diversity and vibrancy of a city. Add a relatively affordable housing stock, large detached homes with big yards and a commercial retail center, and this area has all the right ingredients for growth. Today, the steady influx of new residents and the thriving small business and restaurant scene are evidence that Hyattsville is booming.

When Monica was a child, her father successfully ran two high-end Spanish eateries in nearby Bethesda, MD. She saw first-hand how hard running a restaurant can be and what it took to be successful. She applied the lessons from her father’s success to Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer. Mickey and Monica prefer not to have a space that’s too large. Larger restaurants need more customers and staff to serve them. Plus, preparing larger amounts of food is harder to control for quality and consistency. Although they wanted a cozy spot where people feel welcome to sit down and savor their food, the couple knew that offering table service would increase overhead expenses significantly. Instead, patrons order their food at the counter. They also wisely keep the menu small and manageable, allowing them to deliver only the freshest and highest quality food.

Café Azul

A cozy interior where patrons can enjoy their food

Café Azul

Venezuelan Pride on Display

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is unique in that the café is located just below Monica and Mickey’s home in one of the first new development projects to spur growth in Hyattsville. Live/work units were once common small business models, particularly in urban areas, but they fell out of favor in the US with the rise of the suburbs. They can still be found more frequently in cities throughout Latin America and Europe, but they are starting to pop up in the US again in conjunction with the urban revitalization happening all across the country. When the Arts District development in Hyattsville was built in 2007, it included a handful of these units with storefront retail space facing the busy, commuter artery of Route 1 and two levels of living space above. Some owners lease out their commercial spaces but others took the opportunity to open their own small businesses right where they live.

There are a few benefits to this model. First, it allows families to work with their children by their side instead of having to commute to a separate place of business and pay for childcare. It’s more cost effective as housing and business costs are bundled together. It also means that since Monica and Mickey own their building instead of lease it, their business costs don’t go up. In fact, they are accruing equity. Since they opened the restaurant in 2009, the cost of real estate has increased steadily in Hyattsville. In a rapidly gentrifying metropolitan area like DC, rising rent is one of the most common reasons why restaurants close their doors but for Monica and Mickey, this isn’t a concern.

In addition to urbanization, the current fast-casual dining trend is another social factor that is working in the family’s favor. Americans want food that is affordable and quick, but still healthy, fresh and delicious. Particularly in the DC area, we also want our restaurants to be as diverse as our population. Monica and her father acknowledge that the fancy, sit-down Spanish restaurants they once owned, and that were so popular two decades ago, might not be as easy to keep afloat today. But Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer has timed the trend of casual dining just right and Hyattsville is the kind of laid back community that welcomes a diversity of cuisine in a casual setting.

Mouth Watering Menu Options

Spend a little time in the restaurant and it becomes clear that the focus on family is the main priority for Mickey and Monica. They have three children ranging in age from 9- to 4-years-old who bustle in and out of the restaurant. It’s clear that they feel as if the café is an extension of their home. The kids might help out by taking a few orders and cleaning some tables, but then they can run upstairs to finish their homework. Monica’s mother and father also regularly stay with them and help out with both the kids and the restaurant. They benefit from her father’s years of experience in the restaurant industry, plus he loves to chat with the customers.

After putting in many long hours upon first opening the café, Monica and Mickey made the decision to close two days a week so they can rest and have quality time with their children, family, and friends. They also close for a month in the summer. Since they believe in teaching their children through experiences, they are committed to making time for them to travel, play and explore. Monica took her daughter to Spain last year to experience where her grandfather grew up. She already has plans to take her to Colombia this summer. Unfortunately, the family won’t be able to visit their father’s homeland anytime soon given the current political unrest. It makes Monica sad to think that they might never see the country where their father was born, where they have roots and where some of their family members are still living. But the restaurant helps to keep their connection to Venezuela strong.

Café Azul

Images of Caracas

Café Azul

Dancing Devil Mask from a Venezuelan religious festival

Monica and Mickey are also very close to the large, robust Catholic community in Hyattsville. They both grew up within the Church attending private Catholic schools and wanted to raise their children in that same tradition. Monica and Mickey’s family attend St. Jerome’s Catholic Church and their children go to St. Jerome’s private Catholic school. St. Jerome’s is a top-rated Catholic school and it is walkable from their home. Their church and school community have supported them during challenging times, and Monica and Mickey show their appreciation by giving back. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer donates meals to new moms who have just given birth in their community. They donate a meal a week, on average. The personal connection with their community and the loyal support they offer keeps the business thriving.

Mickey and Monica bought in a great location; in the heart of the community that is synonymous with home and belonging for them. They bought at a great time; when the area was just starting to be recognized as a destination. Their restaurant industry experience led them to make wise choices in organizing the café. But none of that would matter if the food were not delicious. That is what keeps people coming back. Mickey is the chef and he clearly takes pride and care in preparing the food from his home country. Venezuelan food has become more common in the DC area over the years. Arguably the most well-known dish is the arepa. And arepas are front and center at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer.

Chicken and Avocado Arepa

Café Azul

Arepas are like thick, corn tortillas that are made with cornmeal and cooked on a skillet. They can be stuffed with all kinds of delicious things. Most of the fillings offered at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the most popular found in Venezuela. Arepas can be filled with shredded beef, chicken or pork as well as beans, cheese, vegetables, and plantains. One of my personal favorites is chicken with avocado. The chicken is prepared as a cold chicken salad with mayonnaise and creamy avocado stuffed inside a warm, crispy corn arepa. It is decadent. Arepas are traditionally made with butter but Mickey will make them without for customers who are dairy free. The secret to getting the arepas crispy on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside is to make sure that the cornmeal is well mixed and the skillet is properly heated. When I asked Monica if there is a filling that is popular in Venezuela but that might not go over well here for Americans, she suggested fish. Indeed, I haven’t come across a fish-filled arepa in the DC area yet, but I would definitely give it a try if I did. And a tip if you’re trying an arepa for the first time; you might be given a knife and fork, but you should really just dive into it like you’re eating a hamburger.

Sweet and briny cheese cachapa

As mouthwatering as the arepas are, it was the cachapa that I couldn’t stop thinking about. A cachapa is a corn pancake made with only fresh corn and a little flour, no corn meal like the arepa. The sweet corn goodness of this pancake is then balanced out with the slightly salty Venezuelan queso de mano or homemade cheese. Venezuelan queso de mano is a soft cheese similar to fresh mozzarella but more complex in flavor. Queso de mano is brinier, reminiscent of the sea. Cheese is the difference between a good cachapa and a fantastic one, so Monica and Mickey knew they would have to go to great lengths to find traditional queso de mano. When they first opened, there were no distributors that they knew of making Venezuelan cheese here in the States. But they eventually found one in Miami and so they regularly have fresh queso de mano brought up from Florida.

Café Azul
Café Azul

Traditional Venezuelan Tamal or Hallaca

Another notable offering at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan version of a tamal. Hallacas are filled with a cornmeal dough or masa and chicken, pork, beef or a combination of all three. They also have raisins and capers and olives for that irresistible mix of sweet and salty. They are then wrapped in plantain leaves instead of corn husks like Mexican or Central American tamales. But like Mexican and Central American tamales, they are traditionally eaten around Christmas time. In fact, because of the demand for hallacas at Christmas, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer stays open on Sundays in December. Thankfully though, hallacas are available all year round at the cafe. And since they make them fresh but don’t cook them right away, you can always take them home and freeze them. Once they defrost and you steam them, it’s just like eating a fresh tamal.

Given the diverse background of the family, the menu also inevitably includes treats that are popular in other parts of South and Central America as well. Delicious homemade empanadas are fan favorites and almost always available, as are tequeños which are cigar-shaped, cheese-filled pastries that are very popular with kids. They also do a mean Cubano sandwich at the café. And if you’re not too stuffed for a sweet treat, they even make a delicious tres (and cuatro!) leches cake.

The Beloved Empanada

Café Azul

For ten years the Hyattsville community has been able to enjoy the offerings of Venezuelan food that Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer shares. That’s a lifetime in restaurant years. And there’s no sign that we won’t continue to be able to enjoy Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer for many more years to come. A variety of factors have led up the longevity and success of this local, family owned business where the kids might ring up your food order and their grandfather might deliver your food to the table and chat you up about his recent travels through Central America. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is a local treasure and as a nearby resident who is lucky enough to enjoy the lovingly prepared, delicious food and welcoming ambiance of this very special place, I can safely say that the communities they serve are very grateful that they’re here.

Visit:

Café Azul
4423 Longfellow Street,
Hyattsville, MD 20781
Phone: 301-209-0049

Laura Pimentel is a Washington, DC based foodie who likes to explore her world one bite at a time.

Shibam Restaurant

Shibam Restaurant

Mayfair’s Shibam Restaurant is an Oasis for Near-East and Middle-East Chicago

The Yemeni city of Shibam is called the Chicago of the Desert, a reference to its impressive skyline of mud brick skyscrapers. Shibam rises as a metropolitan oasis on the Southern Arabian plateau, where it was once an important way station for caravans of spice traders, who left their mark on Yemeni cuisine.

Reyad Ajour

Located on a busy corner of Chicago’s northside Mayfair neighborhood, Shibam Restaurant is an oasis all its own, a place where Persian Gulf emigres can find those Spice Route flavors of cumin and coriander, turmeric and ginger, fenugreek and aniseed blended into soups and stews and rice dishes that simply taste like home. (A sister restaurant, Shibaum South, just opened in Bridgeview.)

Shibam Restaurant

Of course, there are countless Chicago restaurants that sell more well-known, often times Americanized Middle East staples like falafel, shawarma, and hummus, said Reyad Ajour, the manager of Shibam, who is from the Giza area of Palestine. But there is no other restaurant in the city serving the slow-simmering and instantly addictive fahsa curry, served in a bubbling clay pot or agda, a hearty vegetable and meat stew whose grandmotherly warmth settles around you like a hug. I’ve loved Middle Eastern food since high school and I’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years. I cry for all the lost meals.

Its food is a product of Ottoman influences from the north and Indian influences to the south, Ajour explains, taking me on a tour of the lavish spread of foods that have begun to appear on the table of our large, plush booth. The dishes move from the pickup window to our table at an alarming pace.

Shibam Restaurant
Chicken Rice

The centerpiece, the dish ordered more than any other here, is mandi lamb, slow-simmered on the bone and served atop fragrant and colorful basmati rice. A butterflied Whole Greek fish arrives next, painted in a crimson sauce more fiery in color than flavor and perfectly broiled, with crispy edges and a moist interior. But is the chicken fahsa I can’t seem to stop eating, dunking my bread repeatedly into the bubbling tomato-onion-and-spice juices in its clay pot. I stare with longing at the golden brown mutapaq pastry, stuffed with chicken moistened with tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro, and manage to stop eating the fahsa long enough to try it. It’s flaky and flavorful and totally worth the carbs.

Yemen is larger than California in area but smaller than Texas and strategically situated in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country has been embroiled in a civil war since 2015, with a host of external actors, including the US, playing roles. As many as 80,000 combatants and civilians are believed to have died since 2016 in Yemen, and the country is facing a desperate humanitarian crisis, with some 20 million reportedly hungry or facing famine.

That’s why for some of its Yemeni patrons, Shibam has become a place to not only share food but to share their stories, and their worries.

As a percentage of Shibam’s clientele, though, Yemenis are in the distinct minority. Some 70 percent of my fellow diners are from India or Pakistan, Reyour tells me. One Indian man I spoke with on the Sunday morning of my second visit said he had just made the 40-minute round trip from Devon Ave., Chicago’s row of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, grocery stores and shops, just so he could pick up lunch from Shibam. The ingredients and the food preparation methods are the same, he tells me, but the spices are different enough, or their combinations novel enough anyway, to make eating it feel like “a change of pace.”

The Zurbian lamb, no doubt, is a clear cousin to biryani; a cucumber yogurt sauce clearly a relative to raita. Both cuisines rely heavily on rice, and hot flatbreads, with Shibam’s version arriving as pizza-size circles perfectly charred and folded into fourths and nestled in a basket. I tear piece after piece of it off, spooning on a housemade medium-hot salsa called sahawegg before adding a morsel of fish or a torn shred of the lamb mandi for a tiny, juicy sandwich.

There are also things on the Shibam menu, like the funugreek redolent stew, fahsa, that make me wish I’d experienced it sooner. Another one is a layered dessert called arika, which has mashed dates and bits of wheat on the bottom and is topped with a layer of butter and a kind of clotted cream, sprinkled with black seeds and drizzled with honey. It’s the perfect dessert to let the diner control the sweetness, which is very mild from the dates mash but can be dialed up with honey as desired.

Shibam’s interior is fast-casual inviting and comfortable, with the tables spaced far enough apart that no one feels crowded. In the basement is another large dining room, with two private, reservable rooms furnished with colorful cushions and poufs for floor seating. In Arabic countries, the midday meal is the largest, and on weekends the restaurant is hopping from lunch late into the night. It serves no alcohol, and it never closes.

Moving to Chicago from the Middle East was a challenge for Ajour, who arrived mid-winter without so much as a coat to get him started. Yemeni cook Majed Gunid, who hails from Ibb, said for him the adjustment to the chilly upper midwest was easier than learning the language or getting the hang of the educational system at the age of 15. For starters, Gunid said, he had been used to spending the full day in the same classroom, with one teacher for all subjects. Suddenly, he was expected to pack up and move every hour on the hour, and not speaking a word of English, he found it hard to ask directions.

For both of them, Shibam has been a source of familiarity and warmth, an oasis in a city that can sometimes register as chilly to outsiders. Gunid said he works there 50-plus hours a week, but on his time off there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“Between the people who work here, and who come here and the food,” he said, “this is where I feel the most at home.”

Visit:

SHIBAM RESTAURANT (Chicago North)
4807 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60630
(773) 977-7272

SHIBAM RESTAURANT (Chicago South)
9052 S Harlem Ave, Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 599-1112

About the author:

Carrie Miller is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who writes about, food, travel, and culture. Her blog, ExpatCook.com is about cooking American Southern recipes for strangers abroad.

SkyIce Restaurant

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

My nose is frozen. Blustery winds tell me to turn around, go back into the subway. Passing through the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn on an unforgiving February day, you see SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream and think to yourself, Thai ice cream? How do they do it? Selling ice cream works in the summer, but what about the winters? Well, not only are they doing it, but they’ve been absolutely crushing it for the past eight years. The secret? Follow the warm, spicy aroma and your adventurous spirit inside to find out.

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

 

Meet the Owners

Sutheera Denprapa and her husband, Jonathan Bayer, are the remarkable owners of SkyIce: Thai Food & Ice Cream. I don’t use the term remarkable lightly. As I sat and spoke with them (for actual hours that seemed like minutes), I began to realize their depth of spirit. Owners of a flourishing 8-year-old business in one of the pickiest neighborhoods in the country, actively involved in their community, constantly challenging flavor norms in their restaurant dishes, and last but not least, the dedicated parents to a 10-year-old.

Note: Each of those things is a full-time occupation on its own! How else can you describe two people who are successfully juggling so many massive endeavors, as anything but remarkable?

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

Thailand

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

Both Sutheera and the seedling idea of SkyIce were born in Bangkok, Thailand. She fondly remembers her family home, in the business district of Sathorn all the way at the end of the street. Chickens and goats comfortably wandered around papaya and mango trees in the yard behind her house. Sutheera recounts to me a funny story of playing with the chickens in the morning, only to find out later it was in the pot for dinner. “I just fed them yesterday!” She laughs. Maybe that’s why she believes high quality, natural ingredients are the best for the menu at SkyIce.

She tells me that the city of Bangkok is different now than it was when she grew up: There’s a Four Seasons dominating the view; like many neighborhoods in Bangkok, small homes and beautiful fruit trees have been torn down to make room for large buildings. The air is smoggy and the river behind her home that was once so clear her dad used to jump in it, is now polluted and unsafe to even dip a finger.

Thailand to NYC

Sutheera was 27 when she decided it was time to go exploring. She was on her lunch break from work one day when she decided to go apply for an American visa. She returned to work and reported to her boss that she quit. And so, the adventure began. She came over to the U.S. to study English for a year and then decided to stay.

She nurtured her hunger for design while going to Pratt and eventually starting a small fashion line when she began to revisit a tiny dream from her childhood. “I never thought that I would have a restaurant. But I knew when I was young: Please, my parents, can we own an ice cream shop?” They never acquiesced, but the dream wasn’t forgotten...

Time went on, Sutheera married Jonathan and they had their daughter, Yassy. Sutheera spent many nights, eating pints of chocolate ice cream, endlessly designing, dreaming and wondering: Why doesn’t anyone make Thai Tea flavored ice cream? Durian? Miso? Her love of ice cream combined with her longing for flavors from Thailand and memories of her childhood finally became an undeniable calling. If she was going to get those flavors, she had to make it herself.

The Inspiration

Although SkyIce was conceived in the spirit of ice cream, it must be known that it is a far cry from any old ice cream shop. SkyIce is a fully functional Thai restaurant serving up the works: appetizers, mains, sides, and dessert, of course.

The menu was created to be different. Sutheera and Jonathan recounted feeling that so many of the Thai restaurants opening up were copies of the last. Dishing out the same basic, pale, dimly flavored Pad Thai and soggy pineapple fried rice. New Thai restaurants were starting to resemble fast food: average, quick, forgettable. SkyIce was going to be what Thailand is: colorful, energized, flavors that make you feel something. So once again, they wanted to eat real Thai food and since they couldn’t find it, they had to make it.

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

The entire menu is inspired by the regions of Thailand. They make “Provincial Thai Home Cooking” because Thai flavor profiles vary depending on which part of Thailand you happen to be in. Northern Thailand features more of the herbaceous cilantro flavors, minced meats, and sticky rice many of us are familiar with, like their “Kang Hung Lay Beef”. The Isan region of Thailand displays more simple, spicy flavors and fermented fish. The popular Somtum (Papaya) Salad is evidence of the simplicity of this region. Southern Thai dishes are generally where we see lots of spice and all of those beautiful rich coconut based curries, to which SkyIce has devoted a whole section of its menu. Finally, there is Central Thailand. The region Sutheera is from. The hub of Thailand, bustling with markets and ingredients from all over the country and imports from China. Dishes like “Grilled Mahi Mahi in Banana Leaf,” “Basil Fried Rice,” and “Pad See Yue” draw their flavors from here.

The Must-Order Food

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

Massman Curry. One of my favorites that my mother (also from Bangkok) makes, I had high expectations. SkyIce did not disappoint. Creamy coconut milk curry, tangy acidic notes, and just a little spicy on the finish, just the way I remember it. You can pick your protein but I usually go with tofu when it’s offered. It’s just as filling, makes me feel a little bit healthy and it’s usually lighter on my wallet, such was the case here. Potato, onion, broccoli, green beans and peanuts round out the stew and you can choose to have Jasmine Rice or Roti to accompany your delicious Massman. I chose Roti for fun. I could write a whole article on their Roti alone, but I’ll save your Screen Time app from shaming you. The Roti is flaky and layered with happiness, please order it! Even if it’s a side order, because I totally get it if you need your rice.

Pad Thai Woon Sen. For the experimental type, this is different than the Pad Thai you might be familiar with for a couple reasons, but firstly, because the Woon Sen noodle is thin and clear. The next thing you’ll notice is the distinct red-orange color of the noodle. The SkyIce kitchen does something special here, the sauce is tamarind based and very distinct. Running on three main gears of taste: sweet, savory, and acidic, this isn’t the run of the mill, McPadThai over here. This is a highly crafted transformation on a plate. Like most of the mains, you have a number of proteins to choose from ranging from tofu and “mock duck” all the way to mahi mahi or beef sirloin.

SkyIce Palette. You should try every ice cream flavor available. But that’s a lot. Especially if you just ate a giant meal. So to save you from on-the-spot anxiety, or worse, the dreaded “can I taste-” a hundred times, SkyIce has created an easy way for you to take comfort in your indecision. The SkyIce Palette is twelve mini scoops of whichever flavors you choose. This is both exciting and practical for a place churning out over a dozen innovative seasonal specialties.

Here are some of my favorites:

Durian: Funky and Fruity.
Miso Almond: Compact flavor, salty miso complements the almond.
Black Sesame Seaweed: One of their most famous flavors, roasty & nutty.
Raspberry Cilantro: Tangy Raspberry dissolves into a cool Cilantro finish.
Cucumber Sorbet: Fresh and Cleansing.
Honey Ginger: Warm and spicy sweetness.
Belgian Chocolate: Rich and powerful chocolate flavor, packs a punch.
*Fig: Seasonal special, one of the most honest fig flavors you can get.

Achieving Success

So what is the secret to crushing the restaurant game in a competitive neighborhood like Park Slope, Brooklyn? Being adaptable to the food demands of an area? Giving people something they can’t find anywhere else? Sure, those are key pieces of the puzzle. But when I asked Sutheera what advice she would give to another immigrant thinking of owning a business, she thought for half of a second. Her message: “Follow your dreams. Discipline is very important too, and persistence.”

Visit

SkyIce
63 5th Avenue · Brooklyn, NY 11217 718-230-0910
Bergen Street

Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center

SkyIce Thai Food & Ice Cream

About the Author

Allie is a food and travel blogger and former pastry chef. As a first generation Asian-American, she is constantly inspired to bring cultures together through cuisine. She reviews restaurants and produces short video recipe tutorials on her YouTube channel Thainybites.

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