Mrs. Potato Restaurant – Brazilian Potato House

Mrs. Potato a Brazilian potato house

To wander inside of Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian potato house tucked into Southwest Orlando, you’d never imagine from the modest decor and cozy atmosphere that this restaurant was showcased in an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives when Guy Fieri chose Orlando as his featured “Flavortown” in 2017.

carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese

Carne Seca

“I hope you’re hungry,” says chef-owner Rafaela Cabede as a carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese is placed in front of me, the server pausing briefly with a big smile to see my reaction to this ultimate comfort food. The rosti potato, Brazil’s version of the classic potato pancake, is Mrs. Potato’s signature dish, with filling options that not only represent the traditional Brazilian flavors that Rafaela grew up with, but also Philly cheesesteak, broccoli and cheese, and other flavors that remind Americans of home as well.

“I’m happy to share my culture, but I want to respect your culture as well,” says Rafaela as she politely watches me groan over the crispy, buttery potatoes and the saltiness of the meat. A creamy, house-made garlic sauce and a spicy Brazilian pepper sauce are served on the side for additional flavoring, but the rosti is heavenly in its own right.

The carne seca, or dried beef, rosti potato has a yellow star next to it on the Mrs. Potato menu, indicating that Guy Fieri sampled and put his restauranteur stamp of approval on it. It has become the most popular menu item since the episode aired, but while Rafaela says she was overjoyed to have been chosen for the TV show, she was also nervous for one main reason — she had no formal culinary or restaurant education.

Rafaela Cabede

Chef Rafaela with Carne Seca

“All I have is a passion for cooking. I have always cooked for my family and for my friends,” says Rafaela. “Some people go running, some go to the gym. I go to the kitchen. Cooking is my way of telling people ‘I love you.’

She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian potato houses are a mainstay of Brazilian comfort cuisine. It was in Rio where Rafaela’s mother met her stepfather, an American engineer from California who was in the country working on a project with his company. The two were married after a year and a half, and after her stepfather’s project was complete, the family moved to California when Rafaela was 11.

She stayed in the San Francisco Bay area for about three years, and when Rafaela was about 14, she and her family went back to Brazil, where she finished her education and ended up getting a professional degree in teaching. Rafaela enriched the lives of both children and adults during her career, but as the political situation in Brazil became more volatile, she knew she had to make a decision to secure a better future for her daughter, Bruna.

In 2010, when her daughter was 10 years old, Rafaela made the important decision to come back to the San Francisco/Bay area. With her teaching career left behind her in Brazil, Rafaela’s dream to open a potato house began to take the forefront.

“The concept of a Brazilian potato house is very common in Brazil. But when I told other people my dream that I wanted to open a Brazilian potato house, they would look at me and say, ‘What!?’” a Brazilian Potato House? she said. “Potatoes are international. I don’t know one culture that doesn’t have them. Like when you play cards and a wild card goes with anything, potatoes go well with anything.”

But Rafaela soon found that realizing her dream might not be possible in San Francisco.

“I couldn’t find quality Brazilian ingredients in California for my Brazilian potato house. It was like being an artist and having your brushes and tools taken away. I wasn’t feeling it,” she says.

The strong Brazilian culture and more accessible and diverse food markets of Orlando, Florida appealed to Rafaela, and shortly after, she relocated to The City Beautiful. But although her dream to open a potato house was just as alive and strong as ever, she knew she wasn’t ready yet.

“I didn’t know anything about restaurants. Everything I knew about it was what I had seen on TV,” she says, laughing.

Rafaela decided to begin her foray into the restaurant industry by starting at the beginning and applying at Brio Tuscan Grille at Orlando’s Millenia Mall. She did not yet have the necessary experience to be a server, so she began as a hostess and used the position as an opportunity to learn.

“Whenever I got the opportunity to go into the kitchen, I would ask them, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and I was probably the most annoying person but they would explain it to me and I learned about consistency, portion control, temperature control...I saw someone putting hot chicken into the refrigerator and asked why because my mom had always told me I would break the fridge if I put hot things in it,” she says. “They told me about getting the chicken down to a certain temperature in a certain amount of time to keep it safe from bacteria.”

Rafaela’s tenacity and determination earned her a place in Brio’s server course after just four months with the company, which was unheard of at the time. At the end of the course, she and three other potential servers were tested by having to serve the General Manager and other senior positions at the restaurant as though they were everyday customers, and Rafaela says it is the most difficult test she has ever taken to date.

“One of them would ask for water with no ice, one of them would ask for water with ice and lemon, and we had to memorize the ingredients for everything on the menu so one of them would claim to have an allergy and ask if a certain ingredient was in a dish,” she said.

Of the four people who took that final test, only three passed — and Rafaela was one of them. In the four years that she stayed with Brio, she quickly worked her way up from server to closer to team leader while continuing to ask questions from the experts around her and using every opportunity to learn.

“From customer service to cleaning to answering review, I’m so thankful for that. That was my big school,” she says.

Now ready to realize her dream, Rafaela opened the first location of Mrs. Potato in 2014, in a small kiosk on International Drive — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Orlando.

“We had four flavors on the menu when we first began,” she explains, “and everything we made was to pay the bills. What’s for dinner? Let’s have a potato. Every single day I would eat a potato because that’s what I could afford.”

As for the name Mrs. Potato, Rafaela says that was a result of sudden inspiration.

“I wanted a name that would speak for itself, and ‘Rafaela’s Potato House’ wouldn’t really do that. The drawer was drawing as I was speaking, and I thought ‘How about Mr. Potato?’ but realized that my husband can’t fry an egg and I’m the chef!”

happy-looking female potato character

Mrs. Potato was born, a happy-looking female potato character with one hand on her hip and the other holding a giant wooden spoon, ready to prepare your order in her chef’s hat and apron. Mrs. Potato has also become a nickname for Rafaela, and within just a year of opening the business, word had already spread about the new potato house in town and the little kiosk on International Drive was featured in Orlando Magazine.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

By 2016, Rafaela was able to move to her current location, which offered her the ability to upgrade from just a few outside picnic tables to a true restaurant experience. The popularity of her dishes continued to grow, and Mrs. Potato was soon visited by the local Fox 35 TV station.

But although her business was gaining traction, Rafaela’s daughter, Bruna, was getting closer to college age, and Rafaela was worried about being able to send her to her school of choice — the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

“How could I have the story of bringing her over here for a better life and then have to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to go to school?” she said.

Their lives changed when Guy Fieri came to town.

“He asked me where my daughter was, and I said, ‘She’s out front.’ He said, ‘I want to meet her’ so he went out there and he said to her, ‘We’re doing this for you.’”

Bruna is now 19 years old and attending the University of Florida for International Affairs, an achievement that Rafaela knows she could not have achieved without Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Although the Food Network recognition has not changed or defined Rafaela or Mrs. Potato, the success that the restaurant has experienced since the episode aired is a large part of their story.

“I never imagined this,” says Rafaela, speaking about the 300% increase in business that the restaurant has seen and the Yelp awards, magazine features and autographed Guy Fieri poster that adorn the dining room wall.

The staff at Mrs. Potato, Brazilian Potato House which started with just one person in addition to Rafaela, is now a team of 20.

“They’re not just 20 employees. These are 20 families and 20 immigrants who have the same dreams that I did,” she says. “I think the American dream is still possible for people who work hard and are decent and who respect the culture. I don’t want to impose my culture; I want to share it.”

Banana Crunchy Roll

Before I knew what was happening, Rafaela whispered a few words in Portuguese to one of her staff, and in a few minutes, a surprise dessert was put on the table — a cheesecake and banana crunchy roll, served with soft vanilla ice cream and homemade dulce de leche sauce.

When I revealed that I’d eaten the entire carne seca potato because I couldn’t have leftovers due to being on the keto diet, Rafaela laughed a deep, hearty belly laugh, and a single spoon was placed at the table for me, because I was her guest.

Visit:
Mrs. Potato
4550 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, Florida 32811
407-290-0991

Author: Becky Greiner 
Becky is based in Orlando, Florida, and jumps at any opportunity to combine writing, people, and food. She has been writing professionally for 16 years and can most often be found on her patio with a cup of strong coffee and a book with a weird title.

Pine Island Getaway Cafe

Pine Island Getaway Cafe 12

Take a Voyage Down Pine Island

The journey down Pine Island is a sunny scenic route, traversing bridges and palm tree-lined paths, one gets a highlight of Florida's best attributes. The island is a retreat from Florida's more urban regions. Reaching the bakery requires crossing an aquatic preserve filled with dense tropic mangroves and beaches which span the road to Pine Island Getaway café. The main road is lined with easy-going vacationers meandering in and out of pastel colored art shops. The cafe itself is tucked away from the main road of the island, situated next to a small lake. Offering a view the shop is a short distance off from the more tourist dense portions. In this location the cafe shares the same essence of the island - remaining a retreat without being remote.

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Stepping in, the cafe is lined with a counter seeped in sunshine, spanning the wall, windows face a small pine forest. Resort style chairs are arranged under quirky lightbulb lamps. The space is fresh and open despite the storefront being relatively small. But the space was needed to make way for an industrial sized kitchen, the whole place was built to suit the needs of the bakers. The bakery is brand new, opening its doors just over a month ago. "We opened on April, Friday the 13th, which is supposed to be an unlucky day. But it was not so unlucky for us. We had a line out the door."

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The Origins of Pine Island Getaway Cafe

Brothers Thomas and Florent Brunet, originally from the French/Dutch island of St. Martin, then purchased land on Pine Island and constructed a bakery to match their dream. As Thomas explains it, they could have selected a space more central and more costly with a view that didn't parallel what the lake provides. A glance outside makes it clear why this location was the better choice. To the back, a screened in porch offers cozy clusters of seating and the authentic vacation atmosphere that the region is known for.

Pine Island Getaway Cafe 3

The 'getaway' feeling is essential, "we don't like stress, we try to avoid it the most" jokes Florent commenting on the laid back attitude pervasive throughout the community. Originally a weekend trip destination, Florent fell in love. He came from Miami, where he had initially resided in the States while seeking to improve his English. Despite having lived in Miami for five years he found himself a place to anchor his dreams. "I never came back to Miami, I fell in love with it here, the beaches, the lakes, the nature" Florent gestures towards to the idyllic surroundings.

The business climate here is calm, but especially so when juxtaposed with the fierce competition of France. After turning eighteen Thomas left St. Martin and the Caribbean, and spent three years there studying pastry near Bordeaux. He gained exposure to a variety of cooking and management styles from over five bakeries. He describes the culinary work environment in France as harsh and high-strung. "I took the best of all and brought it here ”, cultivating recipes and techniques while abandoning the cutthroat attitude. "Here there are only a few places to compete with-- in France? There's a bakery on every corner. They're saturated.", remarks Florent. But there was a distinct absence of authentic French pastry and cuisine on the island. That fact drew him in, and led him to prompt Thomas to plant their cafe there.

But Pine Island wasn't always on the horizon. Thomas initially envisioned creating a bakery on an entirely different continent. While Florent had remained in St. Martin and then transferred to Miami, his brother moved from Europe to Asia.
Thomas (who appears to be drawn to a variety of islands) journeyed throughout southeastern Asia, where he spent a significant part of time in the Philippines. He originally got the idea to open a cafe while visiting the Pacific island. "The Philippines’ have no French bakeries," Thomas continues with the advantages, "We would have been the only one.".

Shunning stress doesn't signify lack of hard work, Thomas explains. "Some people think we come for vacations, that's not really the case because I'm in the kitchen for twelve hours a day, I go from six am to six pm." . Though the bakery remains a spot for patrons to get away, the Brunet brothers receive no breaks. "There are no vacations. If you come here to work, to make money, that's it. I cannot take holidays...just work, work, work."

Starting a business as an immigrant in the United States is taxing. Thomas recounts the biggest hurdle of opening the operation being obtaining his visa. Between acquiring permits for construction and negotiating with the US embassy there were no shortage of obstacles to getting the bakery off the ground. There is no guarantee that a business proposal will get approval of the embassy. Not having enough experience, not investing enough, or if the office doesn't believe in your project it can be denied. A foreigner working here has to be a creator of jobs and show clear contributions to the community. This adds pressure to do whatever it takes to support the business.


The Kitchen 

During the conversation rapid French interjections emerge from the kitchen, the brothers communicate through the walls to continue work. Despite being closed on Monday production doesn't cease. Making fresh pastries from scratch takes time. On top of that, the particular type of pastries themselves are quite labor intensive. French pastry, being known for its layers and complex flavors, require a lot of effort. Croissants, a popular French classic, take at least two days to prepare. Thomas reveals two lumps of dough on their second day, proofing in massive chillers that keep the butter intact despite the Florida heat.

Pine Island Getaway Cafe 4

But the brothers are no strangers to heat, St. Martin's proximity to the equator make Florida seem moderate in comparison. "Here it can be cold and you see palm trees.", Thomas has fond memories of the warmth of his birthplace. He recalls the joy of the beaches, to which he testifies the Dutch half of the island has more fun. Growing up in the French section provided their introduction into the world of baking.

But baking French recipes with American ingredients can be hazardous. They lament over the horrors of bleached flour and its acrid effects. "You can taste the quality of the ingredients, it shows through. Florent states that his biggest challenge is sourcing ingredients that provide the level of flavor they seek. Not everything is American, with great pride they show off French butter, recently imported. On another counter Dutch chocolate rests, waiting to be incorporated into pain au chocolate. The butter and chocolate are both used in these batches of croissants.

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The pair is quite capable of multitasking, they work together, but separately. Florent prepares two plates as he discusses the best places to source items. Thomas contributes as he whips up meringue for the dessert.

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The Food

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Make no mistake, much more than pastry can be found in Pine Island Getaway Cafe. The focus of the cafe is directed equally towards the meals and the pastry. The pastries rotate with a variety of French treats. Serving unfamiliar tarts, chocolate éclairs, flan, and mille feuille has posed some challenges. But the use of samples quickly puts any qualms to rest.

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I am beyond eager to see what has been prepared for me. To ensure that we would have time for the interview I've been invited to dine on a Monday, when the cafe is closed. Periodically throughout our visit, potential customers approach the door. Thomas greets each one of them apologizing for the inconvenience, they reassure him they will be returning. He even sends one particularly passionate woman off with a few goodies.

Because they are closed they offered to make a special meal and dessert, asking my preferences. Having a deep love for all French food after my own experiences of working in a bakery and limited preferences I tell them to surprise me.

We make our selections from an array of high quality coffee drinks, as well as a variety of beverages such as juice. Florent prepares an iced latte, offering: almond milk, soy milk, and whipped cream as options. Returning to the front of house, Thomas brings out our meal, which he informs us is the Vol Au Vent Forestier.

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The plate consists of two main elements. There was a simple salad with mixed organic greens, sliced tomatoes, freshly shaved cheese and an olive oil based dressing. It was light and paired perfectly with the Vol au Vent. The Vol Au Vent Forestier had a perfectly crisped flaky puff pastry base topped by chicken and mushrooms prepared in a crème white wine sauce. The texture of the pastry is a result of a dough folded with no shortcuts, each paper-thin layer present. The richness of the sauce, the butter of the pastry, and the chicken, is elevated by the simplicity of the salad. The freshness speaks to the European ideals of high quality local ingredients. A portion that appeared moderate was very filling, but so deeply satisfying that one would forget they had another round of food coming. After cleaning and clearing our plates we advance to dessert.

 

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We're presented two toasted meringue swans sitting atop a glossy pool of lemon custard. These avian-esque edibles are their lemon tarts. The swans are made of a decadent marshmallow-y Italian meringue. The custard is smooth, full of citrus flavor and encased within a firm buttery crust. Every bite is consumed and we're left feeling full and content.

Bienvenue
Pine Island Getaway Cafe is the culmination of cross continental influences. It is the result of adventitious events guided by a vision and dedication. The brothers' roots in St. Martin, time in France, and inspiration found in the Philippines come together, expanding the palate of the community. The Brunet brothers welcome a challenge, they are aware continuing will not be a simple task. They await, earnest to serve and share with their new neighbors.

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Visit

Pine Island Getaway Cafe
Address: 5281 Doug Taylor Circle.
Saint James City, FL
Phone: 239.283.3602

 

From the Author:

"Some of the biggest elements that comprise my identity are my passion for politics and activism. That focus stems from my position as a queer, biracial, first-generation American. I am interested in exposing disparity within our food systems and developing sustainable solutions to food scarcity. Captured by the concept of 'critical eating', I explore an intersection of anthropology and economics. This delves into the relationship between agriculture and food production. Part of my approach consists on educating consumers on the mechanics of how we provide for ourselves. My intentions are to improve conditions and cultivate an appreciation for those who feed us. I hope contributions to Uncle Sam's will help towards the goal of uniting communities around a common table."

Authors Blog

Yemen Kitchen

Meet the Restaurateur

Abdul Al Rammah, Owner of Yemen Kitchen

The irresistible fragrance of sizzling onions and garlic perfumes the small kitchen where Abdul Al Rammah stands at his stove, deftly stirring several pans at once. The Yemeni-born chef adds ground beef and creamy fava beans to one, chunks of fish and vegetables to another.

He works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, making homemade dishes from his native country in his tiny restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The care he puts into each dish, the subtle spicing and the classic combinations appeal to those who remember this food from their childhoods far away and those who have never been there.

Al Rammah opened Yemen Kitchen in June 2015, it’s the culmination of a life working in food service but it’s not his first venture into restaurants. Pretty impressive for a man who admits that growing up in the town of Albeda with his parents and 7 siblings, he couldn’t even make tea. In keeping with the traditional family structure, his mother and sisters took care of all the cooking for the men. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I do,” he says smiling.

NEW YORK

In 1986, at the age of 22, while working as a clerk in an electric utility office in Yemen, Al Rammah took a vacation to visit his brother, who was attending college in New Mexico. After two months there, he ventured on to New York City to visit friends and they convinced him to stay on in “the land of opportunities.” In an always-busy Manhattan deli he began learning about American culture by working 12 hours a day, making sandwiches from 7pm -7am. Then from 8am until noon, he attended English classes. After a meal, a few hours sleep and a shower, he would head back to the deli. It was a grueling schedule for a little pay. “But I enjoyed making food and I never got bored,” says Al Rammah. He stayed New York for one year.

MICHIGAN

One day, a man from the sizable Yemeni community near Detroit, Michigan contacted him. Al Rammah had achieved renown as a star soccer player on a successful team when he lived in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The man knew him by reputation and invited him to come to Michigan to join their team in the Michigan-Ontario league. This was in 1987, before soccer was “discovered” by the American public in 1994, when the US first hosted the FIFA World Cup.

Al Rammah was happy to accept the offer. “Soccer was in my blood,” he says. “It was good team with a lot of nationalities, including members from Italy, Albania, Lebanon and Iraq.”  He also coached the Yemen youth club (ages 19-21).  “But you can’t play soccer all day,” he says. “So I started working at the restaurant owned by the head of the Yemeni community. We served American food, burgers and omelets. I learned a lot from the experience. Work in the mornings, soccer in the afternoons.”

He loved Michigan and lived there almost 20 years. He put down roots, got married, got his papers and because he loved cooking and saw it as a career path, attended the culinary arts program at Macomb Community College in 1995. The next year, he opened his first restaurant, Al-Rasheed, in Hamtramck, and with a partner followed up with three more in the next few years.

SET UP NEW RESTAURANTS

Al Rammah realized that what he really enjoyed, and was quite good at, was the process of starting a new restaurant project from scratch. From installing a ventilation system, figuring out the menu, printing business cards and flyers, to getting the word of mouth out to attract new customers. “Sometimes I worked very hard for two or three months doing all the preparations, before I ever got paid.” In one five year-period, he was on the move. He helped out a friend who had a Middle Eastern restaurant in Indiana for a year and returned to work with a restaurant in Detroit. Then he opened “Sana’a Restaurant” in Brooklyn, but after three years sold his share, and helped out at a friend’s restaurant in Port Huron, Michigan.

SAN FRANCISCO

In July 2011, the owner of a struggling Yemeni restaurant in San Francisco heard about Al Rammah and called him in Port Huron to come help with his restaurant. “I didn’t know him, but he offered to pay my flight,” says Al Rammah. “So I said sure, I’ll check it out. I came straight from the airport to his restaurant and never went back.”

The good weather and the mix of friendly people from everywhere appealed to Al Rammah. He became a chef at Yemeni Restaurant. “After six months, the owner insisted I become a partner. He needed my experience and wanted to keep me, so he made me a ¼ partner. But after two years, I found I was doing most of the work and sold my share.” Then he worked for two years as a chef at Café Med in the Financial District.

“I have a bad habit,” Al Rammah says with a laugh, “I always want to open another restaurant, so I looked around for a space.” He found his present space, a former Brooklyn Pizza spot, on Jones Street (which also spent time as a Mexican Yucatan eatery).

It still sports the red and white Brooklyn Sign outside. “I haven’t had time to change it but I painted over where it said  “Pizza” it now says “Halal” with my name in Arabic writing,” explains Alrammah. (It also sports the ever-meaningful image of a soccer ball.)

Yemen Kitchen’s cozy space has three tables and three stools. The walls are sparsely decorated with an oud (a pear-shaped lute), a sword, traditional Arabic cloth, plus framed photos of his old soccer teams in Yemen. “Some people come in and recognize me,” Al Rammah admits, “we were that well known.”

The afternoons can find a mix of regular customers (from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan as well as Yemen) who appreciate the homemade food and sweet, cinnamon spiced tea. They catch up and chat about news, politics and life. When it first opened, Yemen Kitchen had 80% Yemeni customers, some, who in their excitement, came several times a day. But nowadays, thanks to good reviews on Yelp and a small article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the balance of American customers outweighs the Yemenis. Take-out orders are popular too.

Yemen Kitchen is open 10am-10pm, and Al Rammah cooks all the meals himself. Besides the regular lunch and dinner customers, two to three times a week, he cooks extra servings for catering gigs. Customers pick up food for 30-50 people in schools, offices or social gatherings and once in a while Al Rammah prepares enough for several hundred guests at a Yemeni wedding.

The dishes are listed on two menus: his original faded blackboard with only Arabic lettering, flowers and of course, a soccer ball and a typical folding menu with English.  Al Rammah confides that both menus contain the same “inside jokes.” A handful of dishes are named after famous Yemeni personalities, actors and comedians. For example, Dihbashy (beans and eggs) is actually the name of a famous Yemeni actor. “My Yemeni customers see that and laugh,” adds Al Rammah.

EAT WITH HANDS

In Yemen, like many neighboring countries, food is eaten with the hands (specifically the right hand), by tearing off a piece of bread and using it to scoop up the meat and sauce. “Here is like a little Yemen, and it feels like home, so of course customers eat with the hands here too.” He points to the back. “We have a hand-washing sink, with soap and paper towels. ” Sometimes Americans see other diners eating with their hands and they want to see what it’s like.  “Sure, Al Rammah says, “I encourage them. You’ll taste more with your hands than a spoon and fork. Try it, you will like it.”

THE CUISINE

Yemeni cuisine is unique, and although there are influences from Turkish and Indian cultures, I was unprepared for how distinct it would be from the Middle Eastern cuisine of its neighbors.  Going into the restaurant, my pre-conceived expectation was that it would be very similar to what I call generic Arabic cuisine: simple and flavorful, but bland compared to Indian or Thai food.  Wrong!

We ordered chicken kabsah, roast lamb, hummus and tawah bread.  The hummus was extremely creamy and was amazing with the tawah, a griddled whole-wheat flatbread, similar to the Indian paratha.  The roast lamb featured succulent chunks of marinated lamb, roasted to perfection and served with basmati rice and a vegetable stew. The accompanying sahawiq, tomatoes, green chili peppers, garlic and cilantro blended together to a salsa-like consistency, allowed one to ‘kick it up a notch’, should they prefer a little more heat.  No such augmentation was called for with the kabsah, a meat and rice dish similar to an Indian biryani or Arab mandi, but distinct from both.  It was a spicy blend of chicken and basmati rice, redolent with chopped Serrano peppers and delicious.

Our second visit we decided to begin with the national dish of Yemen, saltah.  The base is a stew of meat and vegetables or maraq to which is added sahawiq, and the piece the resistance, holba or whipped fenugreek puree.  The stew is served piping hot in a stone bowl and is best eaten with one’s fingers using pieces of tawah or pita as utensils.  This was my favorite dish by far, with the holba providing an herbaceous counterpoint to the unctuous lamb. We also ordered zanbakah, a fragrant stew of ground beef and pureed fava beans topped with chopped onions, chili peppers and cilantro, again eaten with pieces of tawah. The roast chicken platter comes with a generous portion of bone-in marinated chicken roasted till the skin is browned and crispy and served with turmeric scented basmati rice and vegetables.

Unfortunately, we did not get to try any of the breakfast dishes or desserts.  That is for next time- and, yes, I am more than willing to repeatedly venture forth into the nether recesses of the Tenderloin for more.  Go ahead, don’t let the rather colorful neighborhood put you off- I promise you the food, and Al Rammah’s hospitality will be well worth the effort!

SITUATION NOW IN YEMEN

One can’t talk about Yemeni food without acknowledging the famine, malnutrition, lack of clean water and cholera epidemic that has hit the country hard since the political crisis that began in 2011 and civil war that started in 2015. It is presently the poorest country in the Middle East.

Although, some of his siblings are still in Yemen, he has not been able to visit since 2010 “it’s not safe to go there anymore.” He is thankful that his family members are all right for now, and explains, “It’s worse for the poor people who don’t live in big cities and have no relatives to turn to. There is basically no government, no social system in place to help them. The government is just corrupt and doesn’t take care of its people.”

Yemen is an ancient land in the Middle East with settlements in its green hills and mountains, going back at least 5,000 years, to before King Solomon’s time. It is the land where the Queen of Sheba is said to have lived. Its long seacoast borders The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Several centuries before Islam, Yemen was renowned for its painting, temples, palaces and irrigation system.

Al Rammah describes one of its most beautiful spots, the famous mud brick “skyscrapers” in Shibam, Hadramaut. Most of the buildings in this walled city, with seven-story tower dwellings rising dramatically out of a cliff, date back to the 16th century, some even hundreds of years earlier. It is recognized on the UN World Heritage list.

Al Rammah would like to employ Yemeni cooks to help out in the kitchen since they know the cuisine well, but they are not that easy to find, so he takes on and trains others, at present, one cook is from India, the other from Tennessee. Both of them are eager to learn to cook the delicious, classic Yemeni dishes Al Rammah seemingly effortlessly turns out. Meanwhile they chop endless onions, plate and serve the meals, bus and wash dishes. For now, Al Rammah cooks his special dishes everyday for whoever comes in his restaurant, enjoying feeding friends and strangers alike. “I can’t take a vacation, “he says. “It’s good I only live a block away; this restaurant is like my second home.” Then he adds thoughtfully, “But I am thinking that I might just open another restaurant too.”

Visit Abdul Al Rammah:

Yemen Kitchen

219 Jones Street • San Francisco, CA 94102

415.214.3575

 

Bini’s Kitchen 

Himalaya view, Mustang region, Nepal.  Photo: Patricia Sauer

 

The repetitive motion is almost dizzying. A table-full of hands pinch and fold, pinch and fold the endless circles of dough that hug morsels of meat or vegetable filling. These pleated pouches with their distinctive little well in the center will become juicy Nepalese momos. Every day, Binita Pradhan (known affectionately as Bini) and her crew assemble thousands of stuffed momo dumplings, plus an array of other foods, to share her love of her native Nepalese cuisine. It seems to be working, as Bini’s Kitchen sells about 15,000 momos a week in locations such as a kiosk near the Montgomery BART station, the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market, Fort Mason’s Off the Grid, plus markets and street festivals around the city.

Making momos by the tray

 

But there is a deeper reason behind Bini’s determination to succeed. It stems from the night that changed her life. After suffering for nine years in an abusive relationship, she finally couldn’t take the pain any longer, so she took her 4 year old son and found her way to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Now, after years of support from her family, friends and the people at La Cocina (San Francisco’s incubator kitchen that cultivates low income food entrepreneurs), Bini wants to return the favor. Her ultimate goal is to use her success to help other immigrant women, who find themselves in a similarly painful predicament.

Bini with her addictive momos and chutney

 

Memories of Kathmandu

Food memories inevitably lead back to childhood. Bini fondly recalls, “huge family gatherings where we sat in the kitchen, making our own dough and then all making momos together. We would make a batch, eat them, and make another batch. Back home, the boys could eat 65 of them at one sitting.” Dumplings, which are eaten in various forms around the world, are believed to have originated in China 1,800 years ago. They were already popular in Kathmandu in the 17th Century, having been introduced to the country by Nepalese travelers from Tibet. Typical fillings on the streets of Kathmandu are water buffalo (termed buff on most menus), lamb and mixed vegetables. Bini sells lamb, turkey and vegetarian versions at her outlets.

Bini and her crew

 

In Nepalese culture, as is common in Indian, African and Arab cultures, food is eaten with the hand. The etiquette for eating momos, Bini explains, is to avoid breaking them. “Grandmothers would say: God has given you five fingers so you grab it with your five fingers and put the whole thing in your mouth and that means you are saying thank you to God. Back home, mothers still feed their children with their hand and the food becomes a connection between them.”

Bini and her mother share a very strong connection. Before cooking for her family full time, Bini’s mother worked as a chef for the royal family in Kathmandu. But Bini remembers spending lots of time at home in the kitchen with family members, all enjoying her mom’s cooking. In her mother’s kitchen, Bini recalls, “It was never a small pot. It was a big pot to share with whoever came over. Cooking was always in my blood. I’m grateful I was raised that way. Back home we wore saris, and I would hold on to my mom’s sari to see what she was doing. Ahh, she’s putting in spices. The spice blends I make are from her, they are my mom’s creation.”

Spices are the key to Nepalese cuisine

Spice blends are an essential element to create the unique flavors of Nepalese foods. The tangy tomato cilantro sauce that accompanies Bini’s momos contains timur, which is similar to black peppercorns but grows exclusively in Nepal. Only the real thing will make her sauce taste right, so Bini imports the spice from her home country, where villagers must climb Nepal’s famed mountains to obtain it. “Timur comes in male or female varieties,” explains Bini, “and I use only the Queen; I want the female, because the female is stronger, powerful and potent.”

Other spices that go into her complex blends, such as black cardamom, green cardamom, whole nutmeg, cinnamon and bay leaves, Bini roasts and hand-grinds. She makes a point of distinguishing Nepalese food from the cuisine of its bigger neighbor, India. “In the Bay Area,” she says, “there are many restaurants that claim to serve Nepalese food but it’s really just Indian food. Our Nepalese food is very different – India doesn’t have momos or gurkha chicken.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that over the last decade, momo stands have proliferated all over India and they have now become one of the most popular street-foods there. So India does have momos, albeit slightly altered for the local palate.

Bini’s colorful kiosk on Market Street, San Francisco

 

Sonu, the manager at the kiosk…. Mango lassi, anyone?

 

Nepal which may be best known for Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, is a landlocked country the size of the state of Illinois, situated between India and the Tibet region of China. The Himalayas not only provide dramatic backdrops, they are home to eight of the world’s ten highest peaks. Nepal is a crossroads of cultures with numerous sacred temples and monuments. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries, a bad situation made worse in 2015 when a series of massive earthquakes killed almost 9,000 people and destroyed 600 years of history in a few seconds, reducing many famous temples to rubble, which was followed by a devastating monsoon in 2017.

Life journey

Born and brought up in Kathmandu, Bini moved to Mumbai, India to attend culinary school, then returned to work in Nepal. She moved to San Francisco in 2004, when her sister was here and having a baby. She is enthusiastic in her love of the Bay Area and its people. The feeling is mutual. Her food is so appreciated by locals that Bini’s Kitchen is quickly expanding. It’s hard to believe she only started cooking as a business in 2013, after a very rough period in her life, which she is willing to talk about:

“I got married in 2006. It was a love marriage, but I was very naïve and didn’t know much about him. But after 9 years of abuse and domestic violence, I just had enough. In 2013, I took my son and left my ex. We stayed in a shelter. From the shelter, my sister and brother in law put me up in the their house and that’s how the journey started. My first cooking began in her house, her kitchen.”

Bini’s sister ran a daycare preschool, and Bini began to cook for some of her clients. She started by making rice, chicken, eggplant, and cucumber raita. News about the quality of her cooking spread quickly. Bini recalls, “I would cook during the day and then deliver the meals to people’s homes in brown bags at night with my son in the car.”

And then the decision that changed her life: “One client was a Spanish chef and he told my sister about La Cocina, Bini recalls. “He said I should go and apply.  I came for the interview and then they called me and said I was selected. And I was like Wow! And here I am today.”

The relationship between Bini and La Cocina has become very deep. “This is my second home, “ says Bini in La Cocina’s kitchen, while she and her crew fold and stuff momos. “And for my son, who is 8 now, it’s a second home too. My relationship with La Cocina has given me so much strength. I wouldn’t be here today without La Cocina’s help, plus the support of my family and my clients. My success is thanks to people like Caleb [La Cocina’s executive director]. These are my people. They have seen me cry, they have seen my happiness, and they have walked with me through thick and thin.  And with La Cocina’s support, Bini will achieve her dream of opening her own restaurant, projected for the fall of 2018. The large space at 1001 Howard Street in San Francisco will serve as an operations center for all of Bini’s outlets, plus she plans to have a 30-seat restaurant counter and a take-away case, with fresh momos that customers can watch being steamed.

Bini’s new digs, South of Market district, San Francisco. Photo: Geetika Agrawal

 

The food

The smell of spices greeted me as we walked up to the Bini’s Kitchen kiosk on Market Street in San Francisco, near the Financial District.  It was a little before noon and a line had formed outside the Bini’s  kiosk, replendant in its warm-spice colors.  My yardstick in measuring any Nepalese restaurant is whether chicken tikka masala (ubiquitous to all generic Indian restaurants in the US) appears on the menu. I took my place in line and glanced at the menu… No chicken tikka masala on the limited menu…now that was an auspicious start! A small sign to the right proudly proclaimed that lamb momos were back, subliminally urging us to order the same.  We ordered 2 combination plates that included 2 kinds of momos, the vegetarian and lamb, jeera rice, kwati (referred to as Nepalese chili here) and gurkha chicken.  Since there is pretty much no seating at the kiosk, we schlepped our food over to the Crocker Galleria with all the other folks on their lunch break.

Vegetarian momos and jeera rice, chilli flakes provided on the side

 

The momos were spectacular specimens of their kind, similar to Chinese dumplings, yet so different.  The wrapping thickness was just right, thick enough to be toothsome, but not so heavy that it felt gummy.  Both fillings were moist and flavorful, with a spice level that elevated, rather than dominated the natural flavors of the fillings.  I could easily detect ginger like in Chinese dumplings, but also tasted onion and warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, alien to any Chinese dumpling. The piece de resistance was the tomato cilantro chutney that put each bite over the top.  The chutney had a tangy-ness from the tomatoes along with a kick from Sichuan peppercorns and the umami-enhancing asafetida, a pungent resin best used in small doses.

Gurkha chicken close-up… Mmmmmm! Again chilli flakes on the side

 

The gurkha chicken, named after the famed cadre of Nepalese soldiers, highlighted how the same spices in different proportions, gives rise to a dish that hearkens back to Indian food, yet is so distinct.  The chicken was marinated overnight in spices to tenderize it and then cooked in a browned onion and tomato sauce.  It was finished off with butter, but was much lighter than the corresponding Indian butter chicken.

Lamb momos, in all their splendor

 

Kwati: Nepalese ‘chili’ for the soul

Also amazing was kwati, a stew of 8-9 kinds of sprouted beans redolent with spices that included ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin and carom- perfect for San Francisco foggy days. Carom, a seed similar to caraway, smells like thyme but is far more pungent.  It has a very assertive taste and can easily overpower a dish unless judiciously used, which it clearly was in this case.

The fact that this is a labor of love comes through with every bite of Bini’s food…to me, that is the highest accolade I can give.  I am looking forward to her new venture and tasting other items on her rotating menu at the kiosk.

Her goal to give back

Bini’s present schedule is very challenging. “Right now I feel bad for my son,” she says.  “He has cousins and all, but he has not had all the experiences that I got because his momma is working 18-hour days. He has to ask his mom for time, and that kills me.”

“My day starts at 5am. I get up and do my exercises then work in the kitchen 9am- 4pm. Fridays nights, I work at Off The Grid from 5pm-10pm, then clean up, take my crew back to La Cocina, put things in storage, drop them off and return home around 1am. Then Saturday, I’m up at 5:00am, here at 5:40 to be ready for the Ferry Building Farmers Market. Sunday, I’m home with my son. Nights, I’m usually on the computer emailing clients.”  But one thing: Bini is sure to always make her son’s lunch.

“My goal is to help the immigrant women who are domestic violence survivors,” says Bini. “That’s why I talk about my pain. Every time I talk, it is still painful. But when I talk about it, it’s going help someone out there. Someone is going to listen and read about this and realize they can get help. That mother might be panicking, thinking ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything.’ But maybe she has a skill, and if she comes to La Cocina, they will help her and she can get a livelihood.”

“Eventually, my plan is to have a way to really help them. When Bini’s Kitchen expands, I want them to come and work for me as employees. I want to do it from my heart because I still remember those days. I remember when I first moved out with my son, I was staying with my sister and looking for an apartment but I didn’t have a job. One day I was so hungry. I walked into a donut shop and I really wanted to eat something. I saw a croissant. I asked the man how much it was and he said $1.35. I looked in my pocket and that is all the money I had: $1.35, but I thought I can’t buy the croissant, because I have my son and maybe he will need milk so I just walked out and continued to look for a job. I still remember that time. I work hard these days, but I feel blessed. This is a therapy for me and I love doing it.”

“My goals are vast. Take advantage of opportunities. Keep helping people. I have a very strong team. I am very proud of them. They are like my extended family. Of course I want to help those women in the battered women shelter however I can.  So many people are affected. There are still so many women who blame themselves. I did that too. But if I can speak openly and open my door, hopefully that will help other women not to die. I hope I can help someone and then she can help other women. It will carry on. And my son is the biggest thing to me. I want him to see and feel and respect women.”

Encore: Bini and her creations

 

Visit Bini at Bini’s Kitchen 

McKesson Plaza, 1 Post Street

San Francisco, CA 94104

(415) 590-3087

Bini’s Kitchen Website

 

Grocery Café, Oakland

 Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)  Photo courtesy: Richard Shaw

I find it interesting how certain memories from ones’ childhood endure over time.  Living in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a child, my first entre to Burmese food was ‘Khauswey’- chicken stewed in a gravy redolent with coconut milk, onions and turmeric.  It would be served either over egg noodles (traditional) or rice (completely non-traditional) and I remember literally licking our plates clean when it was on the dinner menu.  For us, it was sufficiently different from traditional Indian food, to become very enticing and almost a novelty.  It wouldn’t be till years later, and half a world away, that I would be reintroduced to Burmese food; this time in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Burma by the Bay

In 1962 the Burmese army overthrew the ruling government in a coup.  The political and economic turmoil that resulted led a number of Burmese to resettle elsewhere. Aided by the United States Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the subsequent removal of restrictions on immigration from Asia, a large number of Burmese found their way to America.  Decades later, as a result of the government crackdown following the 1988 uprising against the junta, another wave of Burmese landed on American shores.  Missing their way of life in the ‘old country’, some decided to cater to the growing Burmese diaspora in the Bay Area and open Burmese restaurants.  Burma Superstar in the inner-Richmond district was the first restaurant that actually put Burmese cuisine on the San Francisco culinary map. The number of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area has since skyrocketed.

Serial Restaurateur

William Lue immigrated to the Bay Area in the 70’s.  A Burmese of Chinese origin, he worked in Chinese and Burmese restaurants in San Francisco through the 70’s and 80’s.  Following a lengthy hiatus, he returned to the food industry with a Burmese food truck, Burmese Gourmet in 2012.  Since then he has opened a string of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area including Pacheco Bistro in Martinez, Refined Palate in Orinda, T.W. Burmese in San Ramon and Grocery Café in Oakland. As an immigrant, promoting his culinary heritage and helping other Burmese immigrants assimilate rank high on his list of aims, and he uses his restaurants effectively for that purpose.

Grocery Café entrance

London calling

The current incarnation of Grocery Café in Jack London Square in Oakland sits in a venue vacated by a Hahn’s hibachi, a popular Bay Area Korean chain.  The original restaurant was elsewhere in Oakland, but forced to move due to extensive modifications called for by the health department.  The new larger venue is bright, airy and inviting and a brief glance at the menu assures me that none of the standards have been omitted.

The Hahn’s BBQ sign hasn’t been completely removed

The interior  still maintains the Hahn’s vibe, though the food is dramatically different.

Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand, Burmese cuisine is an amalgamation of the three cuisines, yet very distinct.  Turmeric and onion are almost ubiquitous flavors and nowhere is this combination more evident than in the national dish of Burma- Mohinga, a noodle based fish chowder.  Also well known are the salads or ‘thoke’, in particular laphet or tea leaf salad made with fermented tea leaves.  The version at Grocery Café is slightly Americanized, in that lettuce is added to the mix.  We started with the Burmese Paratha, a multi-layered Indian-inspired flatbread with a curry dipping sauce and then moved on to Khao Swe thoke, a noodle salad with a curried coconut dressing and condiments on the side.

Paratha and curry dipping sauce

Khao Swe Thoke

What about the ‘khauswey’ of my childhood?  The Ono Khao Swe came in a big bowl with wheat noodles and chicken swimming in a fragrant mild curry broth, accompanied with fried shallots and lentil fritters (referred to as exotic fritter in the menu).

Ono Kahao Swe

Accompaniments to the Ono Khao Swe

The flavors were spot on taking me back to my childhood and we pretty much licked the bowl clean…. some things never change!  And if one wants a little more spice, 2 kinds of chili pepper condiments, green and red are provided to kick things up a notch.

Chili pepper condiments

Though I didn’t see it on the tables, ‘ngapi’ or fermented fish paste is apparently available upon request as a condiment. The other dish we could not pass up on the menu was the oxtail stew, a fragrant stew with kabocha squash, sliced ginger and mushrooms.  The Chinese influence was evident in this dish, with the ginger and the mushrooms, but the addition of bay leaves gave the dish an identity all of its own.

Oxtail Stew

It was served with a mound of coconut rice, not entirely dissimilar from the Indonesian Nasi Lemak.

Coconut Rice

The restaurant does not currently have a liquor license, though a number of tables in the know decided to B.Y.O.B. I don’t believe they charge any corkage fees either, and a nice crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc would compliment the food perfectly!  They do, however, serve a selection of Burmese and Chinese teas for those so inclined.

Burmese restaurants have matured in the Bay Area and are now considered a viable alternative to the more traditional Chinese and Thai.  And with folks like Lue promoting the cuisine of their homeland, the buzz will only increase.  For a taste of Yangon, Grocery Café is just a short hop over the Bay Bridge for San Franciscans and well worth the effort.

Visit

Grocery Cafe
90 Franklin St,
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone:  925-566-4877