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.

Check out Thainybites blog and photography at Thainybites.com
Subscribe for Tutorials and Reviews at Thainybites YouTube Channel
Follow on Instagram @thainybites

La Vaquera

La Vaquera

La Vaquera translates to “The Cowgirl”, an apt name for the vibrant little restaurant nestled in Southwest Little Rock.
The restaurant location was opened by husband and wife dream team Miguel and Sanjuana Torres in 2017.

La Vaquera

Meet the Owners

Miguel and Sanjuana both hail from San Luis Potosi in Central Mexico. They met and struck up a friendship at the age of eight, and little did they know then how important their connection would be all these years later.

Miguel left San Luis Potosi to move here to the United States when he was only thirteen years old. Coming from a big family, Miguel immigrated to the US in order to find his own path and his own place in the world. He traveled to Arkansas with an older sister, but within a few months he struck out on his own. Finding his way to Indianapolis, Miguel searched high and low for a business willing to employ someone as young as him. Fortunately, Miguel found a job with a Chinese restaurant. From then on, he has worked solidly in the restaurant industry. He has lived all over the United States, including Boston, Memphis, and Dallas, but he ended up returning to Arkansas to be with his older sister. He learned quickly that nothing is as important as family.

Miguel traveled back and forth to visit home frequently. It was on these visits that he reconnected with Sanjuana, and it didn’t take long for the sparks to fly. They were teenage sweethearts and eventually married, starting their own family in 1992. It took Sanjuana a little more convincing to settle down in Arkansas, however. She was studying to teach Pre-school and wasn’t quite as sure that her future was in the United States. After some time though, she decided to move to Arkansas and have all her family together. She officially made the move in 1999. Once here, she too found herself working in a Chinese restaurant.

Miguel and Sanjuana decided to open up a convenience store and sell groceries and produce in the Southwest Little Rock community. They both enjoyed working for themselves and being their own bosses. When the market crash happened in 2008, they began losing business to Walmart and needed to find a way to supplement their income. They kept their eyes and minds open to business opportunities wherever they went and they came along a taco food truck that was for sale. It was called La Vaquera. This was the beginning of their big restaurant adventure - their origin story. The truck was so well received that the Torres family was able to open a restaurant location in 2017. By this time their family had grown to include five children, all of whom help out regularly around the restaurant.

La Vaquera
La Vaquera
La Vaquera

La Vaquera is an authentic, family run place. In fact, Miguel and Sanjuana are the only chefs! They have an employee who helps run the front of the restaurant and works with the customers. The recipes on the menu all come straight from Sanjuana and her mother’s own recipe book and everything is tested thoroughly by the Torres kids before being approved for the menu.

The Food

When asked what their favorite menu items were, they had a tough time picking. Ultimately, Miguel has a fondness for the Steak Tacos and Sanjuana has a soft spot for their Steak Quesadilla. Their oldest son, Miguel, favors the Enchiladas Potosinas – which can’t be found on the menu, but can be specially requested. These special enchiladas are set apart by the made-to-order guacamole that coats the inside. In addition to the fresh guacamole, they can be stuffed with either grilled steak or chicken.

La Vaquera
La Vaquera
La Vaquera

I have a personal weakness for enchiladas, so I decided to try the Cheese Enchiladas and washed it all down with Horchata made from scratch. Fortunately, I went with a large group, so we were able to sample many fine dishes. La Vaquera has real bragging rights when it comes to their house-made enchilada sauce – it’s delicious. It has such body and bold flavor that it truly makes the dish. The horchata was delightfully refreshing with the perfect dosing of cinnamon.

La Vaquera

The Milanesa de Pollo was a perfectly seasoned and crispy piece of juicy, tender chicken breast.

La Vaquera

A Little Rock favorite is the Taco Salad. It is a beloved classic of the people in Arkansas, and the version cooked up by La Vaquera doesn’t disappoint. It comes in a wonderfully crisp shell and is stuffed with flavorful meat and veggies.

All around the table I only heard positive reviews (and many sighs of satisfaction) about everything tried.  The Gorditas came in hand-patted corn pockets that struck the perfect balance of flavor and thickness.  The beef stood out as a particularly succulent stuffing for this hand-sized pocket of goodness.

The Bistek a la Mexicana is a spicy, flavorful dish that isn’t for individuals who can’t take the heat. If you like some fire though, this is the meal for you. It’s tender steak is seasoned to perfection – it’s the real deal.

La Vaquera

The Tacos Supremos are a colorful and fresh fiesta on a plate. They taste as good as they look too!

La Vaquera

The food is truly delicious, fresh, and authentic. What really makes La Vaquera stand out though is the special story of a dedicated and loving family that came to the United States to seek opportunity. I asked Miguel and Sanjuana what their experience in the US had been like. Sanjuana simply said it had been “beautiful” with a content smile. Miguel replied that he has lived a full life here in the United States. He’s gone through it all, the good and the bad. He’s had hard times, but he has had many happy times as well.

They are happy to be here in the United States, and they are happy to be raising their children here. As parents they want nothing more than for their children to be happy, explore, do well in life, and have the chance to do things that they themselves were not able to. Miguel and Sanjuana embody the spirit of most immigrants to the US. They work hard – and frequently. Their restaurant is open 10AM – 9PM Monday and Wednesday – Saturday and 9AM - 9PM on Sundays. They believe wholeheartedly in chasing after dreams and relentlessly pursuing a better life. Miguel believes that anyone can accomplish anything they want if they are willing to work hard for it. He knows it can be hard sometimes, he has experienced it for himself, but he believes “where there is a will, there’s a way.”

I heartily recommend dining at La Vaquera. Come, eat, talk, and have another beer!

Visit:
La Vaquera
10308 Chicot Rd., Little Rock, AR 72209
(501) 565 – 3108
Delivery available through Postmates

Hours:
Sunday: 9AM – 9 PM
Monday: 10AM – 9PM
Tuesday: Closed
Wednesday - Saturday: 10AM – 9PM

About the Author:

Jodi

I love food and I love getting to know new people. I have always found that everyone has an interesting story, and absolutely nothing beats sharing stories over delicious food. It is my goal in life to meet as many good people and eat as much good food as possible.

Bali Kitchen

Bali Kitchen

MEET THE RESTAURATEUR

Jazz Pasay, Owner of Bali Kitchen

Nestled right at the heart of East Village, New York City, is a small and chic Indonesian restaurant. Bali Kitchen, owned by Indonesian immigrant Jazz Pasay, features an industrial chic decor which blends in well with the East Village aesthetic. This neighborhood is unique because the 1960s brought about an influx of musicians, artists, and hippies drawn to low rent prices. Bali Kitchen’s white-painted exposed brick wall and dark wood tabletops contrast with the silvery metal chairs and the stark black exterior. This combination with a glass storefront creates a beautiful setting to eat delicious food.

Bali Kitchen
Bali Kitchen

Bali Kitchen is only a few blocks away from the iconic New York deli, Katz delicatessen. But not to worry, Bali Kitchen holds its own.

Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, is a warm and put together individual who is a confluence of Indonesian culture. His passion to share Indonesian food as a vehicle for culture is contagious. He was born in Manado, a city on Sulawesi island but grew up in Surabaya, East Java island spending much time in Bali and eventually moved to the capital city, Jakarta. His menu is inspired by his vibrant and island-hopping style upbringing. Pasay takes the best dish from every city and showcases them in his menu, thereby bringing the best of Indonesia to New York City.

Bali Kitchen

Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, holding a plate of fake rambutans (an Indonesian fruit)

“I immigrated straight to New York City,” said Pasay. He worked for American, Chinese, Korean and Japanese restaurants before ultimately opening Bali Kitchen.

Pasay opened this restaurant in September of 2017 with the mission of sharing Indonesian culture to New Yorkers. New York City is already well known for its ethnic diversity and charming multicultural society, so introducing Indonesian food and culture is another great addition to this already breathtaking city.

Pasay’s mother owned a small catering business in Jakarta where he was introduced to the importance food plays in shaping identity and forging relationships among people. While Pasay helped his mother in the kitchen occasionally, he still owns a fashion business in Jakarta that has been operating for the last 20 years called Jazz Pasay & SAMAR costume & beyond.

Bali Kitchen

Head Chef, David Silva Perez, cooking in the kitchen of Bali Kitchen

Pasay gets his aromatics, spices, and ingredients from an Indonesian grocery store in Chinatown as well as from Amherst, Queens. According to Pasay, there is a large and thriving Indonesian community in Queens and supermarkets with imported Indonesian goods are abundant in the area.

Bali Kitchen

Interior of Bali Kitchen.

Pasay’s genuine need to share his culture comes through when asked about his clientele. He knows them very well, already categorizing the restaurant eaters into three groups. His familiarity with who eats at his restaurant reflects his passion to share his culture to both those who don’t know it and those already familiar with it. He explains the first group are local New Yorkers who live in East Village. Second come New Yorkers who have, according to Pasay, “certain connection to Indonesia, either they have been to Indonesia or they have family members or friends who are Indonesian”. And thirdly, are Indonesian tourists who need some taste of home after traveling to the States.

BEING GAY IN INDONESIA

Pasay immigrated in 2012 through his husband. Pasay said, “Gay marriage over there [in Indonesia] is very illegal so I just moved here [New York City].” Pasay married his husband in June 2012 while in the process of applying for gay asylum, he said, “Lucky us, before submitting the file, the US federal government legalized same-sex marriage in June 2013.”

The Indonesian LGBT community is subject to discrimination and hate crimes. Indonesia is a Muslim majority country and religion is very closely tied with politics, thereby affecting public policy. Religious norms hold strong beliefs that make it dangerous for Indonesians to express their sexuality and many face threats to their lives, such as flogging punishments in Aceh. Same-sex marriage is not recognized and same-sex couples are not protected under the eyes of the law. Recently, the political climate is increasingly hostile as sharia-supporting terrorist fundamentalist Muslim groups have gained more support.

OBSTACLES FACED IN AMERICA

Pasay talks about the hardships he faced with opening a restaurant in America. For instance, Indonesian cuisine may simply be too exotic and therefore practically unheard of to many Americans. This lack of exposure is a significant barrier to bringing customers to his restaurant. Pasay said, “Not many people are familiar with Indonesian food so it’s hard for them to instantly get drawn to it.”

Further, there was a difference in workplace dynamics that needed to get some getting used to; such as the relationship between employer and employee is more hierarchical back in Indonesia. Pasay said, “It’s just harder to manage people because this is America and it’s not like in Indonesia where you can just ask people to do things. Here it’s a different dynamic.”

Pasay also mentions health regulations as an unexpected obstacle. Pasay said, “In Indonesia, you serve food at room temperature and it’s okay. But here everything has to be hot and cooked right away. If you leave the food out for a long time the health department would give us sanctions.” What makes it difficult, according to Pasay, “our food has different varieties [of cooking methods]: one is baked, grilled, fried, steamed and so you really have to be able to manage the time.”

THE CUISINE

Indonesia is home to over 300 ethnic groups and this presents a uniquely diverse and incredibly wide range of dishes. Indonesia is a large exporter of spices which leads to crazy flavor combinations in their food. From his menu, Pasay recommends Nasi Campur Bali, Rendang, and Nasi Goreng. He said, “Those three are very popular.”

Bali Kitchen’s food is authentic and traditional, with hardly any American influence. According to Pasay, the taste may seem diluted to some people “because of the spice itself. We [him and his chefs] cannot get the fresh one so we’re subjected with the dried ones so as a result, it’s not really rich like in Indonesia. But in terms of authenticity, we employ/add the whole thing according to the traditional authentic recipe.”

Bali Kitchen
Bali Kitchen

My first visit I decided to order the house special Nasi Campur Bali, which literally translates to Rice Mix Bali. This dish is incredibly complex with nine different toppings (yes, nine) on top of rice plated over banana leaves served with a side of extra hot chili paste. Nasi Campur Bali acts much like a microcosm of Indonesian cultural identity- separate components that all come beautifully together in a delicious dish. Nasi Campur Bali includes chicken marinated in a combination of Indonesian herbs topped with grated coconut flakes, peanuts, egg topped with chilli sauce, tempeh (fried fermented soybean), green beans, fried shallots, krupuk (deep fried cracker), sate lilit (chicken skewer marinated in Indonesian herbs) and some battered and fried miscellaneous vegetables. If you like your food sweet, I definitely recommend topping it off with the in house sweet soy sauce called kecap manis that they provide on the countertop next to the cutlery.

Going clockwise: Jamu drink, chilli sauce, krupuk and Nasi Campur Bali (House Special dish).

For the accompanying beverage, Bali Kitchen has a wide range to choose from, including but not limited to durian juice, coconut water, iced lychee or rambutan, and sweetened iced teas (famously teh botol and teh kotak). I chose the traditional Indonesian drink, Jamu which is a blend of turmeric, tamarind, black pepper, and yacon syrup. The thin, dark orangey liquid was surprisingly pleasant despite the unconventional mix of ingredients and perfectly complements the main course because it cuts right through the intense spiciness of the added chili. Traditionally, Jamu is a medicinal drink but here it takes on a milder taste, while still staying true to the health benefits of its original inspiration.

My second visit I ordered Nasi Goreng Kampung, fried rice with dried fish and shrimp paste. This dish is topped with eight toppings: sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, shrimp crackers, pickled vegetables, fried onions, fried egg, dried fish and dried shrimp. Nasi Goreng Kampung is a staple, everyday food for Indonesians and has an incredibly strong flavor profile that can only be achieved using a variety of spices.

Nasi Goreng Kampung

Bali Kitchen doubles not only as a restaurant but a catering service- with a secret menu. Pasay mentions that with the cold New York winter season, offices and private events order food for large groups. They famously prepare Nasi Tumpeng, an elaborate and colorful feast centered around yellow, aromatic infused rice shaped in an inverted cone. Pasay smiles when he mentions that those who call for this service are almost always Indonesians because they are familiar with what they want and ask him to prepare special orders like terasi and ikan asin which are sometimes unfeasible to cook in the small restaurant kitchen. But don’t be intimidated, Pasay is very friendly and is willing to cater to newcomers who have no idea that they would be in for such a treat!

Nasi Tumpeng catering order. Image courtesy of Bali Kitchen.

Nasi Tumpeng is an extremely significant dish to Indonesian cultural and historical identity. It dates far back to ancient Indonesian tradition that revered mountains as spirits. Read more about the symbolic and philosophical meanings and the complex beliefs about Nasi Tumpeng in this article.

SITUATION NOW IN INDONESIA

Indonesia was hit particularly bad throughout 2018 by a series of earthquakes and tsunamis that caused numerous casualties namely in the regions of Java, Sumatra, Lombok, and Sulawesi. The worst of which struck Sulawesi last September which killed over 2,000 people. Despite Indonesia’s unfortunate familiarity with earthquakes and tsunamis, there is a lack of infrastructure available to prevent high casualties. Death and injuries could have been mitigated or avoided but instead, the government failed to maintain warning systems that would have saved many lives.

CNN covered an article about what went wrong with Indonesia’s early tsunami warning system, which highlights the country’s failure to warn its citizens due to “vandalism, limited budget, and technical damage to tsunami buoys”, according to Supoto Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Board for Disaster Management.

Despite the natural disasters that occur seemingly frequently in the area and questionable human rights issues, Indonesia remains a fascinating place to visit. To get a small taste of that Indonesian spirit, visit Bali Kitchen, right here in the Big Apple. You won't be sorry.

 

Visit:
Bali Kitchen
128 E 4th Street • New York, NY 10003
646.678.4784
Hours: Everyday from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

About the Author

Isabel is an adventurous eater and will happily go out of her culinary comfort zone. She’s constantly obsessed with finding her new favorite food and trying the craziest foods. As an avid traveler, she believes food is the perfect way to bridge the gaps between people of different cultures.