Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar

When you walk into Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar and speak to Sirac Ergun, you can sense his passion.  Sirac is the chef and co-owner of Pera. He opened Pera Turkish restaurant in 2017 with his brother Ahmet. They are from Sanliurfa which is in eastern Turkey bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Sirac and Ahmet’s long and winding journey to America took them first to Istanbul, where in 1998 they opened Oceans 7, a seafood restaurant with their 5 bothers. Sirac’s dream had always been to open a restaurant in the US so that he could share his traditions and culture. In 2000, with $100 in his pocket, he moved to the United States. He worked 2-3 jobs simultaneously in Italian, Turkish, and Kurdish restaurants gaining the knowledge and money he would need to open his very own Turkish restaurant. His hard work paid off! Ahmet joined him in 2011, and they opened Pera in May 2017 after working for 17 years at others’ restaurants.

Pera is named after a vibrant district in Istanbul full of enticing eateries. It is found on the site of a former Turkish restaurant that had been there for 30 years. The brothers worked hard to rebuild the restaurant from the ground up, both its reputation and the ambience. They faced a huge challenge in welcoming back the former patrons and appealing to a wider demographic. Fortunately for us, Sirac doesn’t shy away from any challenge.  He felt that his delicious food and excellent service would quickly bring customers in and back, and boy was he right!

Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar

Pera is located on Broadway in the heart of the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago. Lakeview is a hip, yuppie area and one of the fiercest battlegrounds in Chicago for restaurants, with one located every few doors.  How does a Turkish restaurant survive and even thrive in this heated environment?  Sirac says, “Having so much competition just makes me work harder and have to be better than my competitors.”  He knows he has to differentiate, and does it so well.  He showers his guests with genuine Turkish hospitality ensuring that people walk in as customers but leave as friends.  His approach with his customers is to “break the ice” by leading with the magic of Turkey by bringing the sounds, scents, flavors and loves of a people whose roots go back for centuries.  His approach to food is to take the same dishes that other restaurants serve and make them unquestionably unique and exceptional.  For example, the hummus served is blended with red beets and the falafel is stuffed with goat cheese.  Although it takes longer, he chops the kebab meat by hand, yielding a far superior taste.  Sirac uses fresh dill.  He prepares everything on a daily basis. It is easy to see that living in America for the past 18 years has not dampened his enthusiasm for the food and culture of his homeland. While his family jokes that he has become Americanized, he really is a proud Turkish man bringing the best of his heritage to his grateful American diners, which is exactly what one wants in an authentic Turkish restaurant.

The ambiance of the restaurant is instantaneously welcoming, warm, chic, and elegant. There is Turkish tile art on the walls and handmade light fixtures from Kutahya.  The white seats give Pera a clean feel.  Sirac and his brother didn’t always agree on the ambiance but Sirac is older so he usually won out as per Turkish cultural norms.  He wanted to make the restaurant kid friendly yet appealing to adults and welcoming to people of all cultures and backgrounds.  The current project is to renovate the upstairs which will be opening in May.  That space will be for private parties for special occasions, birthday parties, showers, and every type of private party.

THE FOOD

Presentation is really important to Sirac.  He wants the food to be as beautiful as it is tasty.  Everything is made fresh daily and is upscale yet warm and welcoming.

Pera Turkish Kitchen & Bar

Appetizers (Mezze Selection) (Top to Bottom and Left to Right):

Turkish food

Red beet hummus:  Sirac has used a unique family recipe to make a twist on classic hummus by adding red beets. This brings a sweet flavor to the hummus and makes it stand out. Presented beautifully on a slate platter with drops of mustard. Grilled Octopus: an octopus tentacle resting on a bed of sautéed eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers.  Beyond the beautiful presentation, the grilled octopus was flavorful and extremely tender. White bean dip: blended with dill, garlic, cumin, olive oil, and paprika served with daily baked homemade bread offered complimentary to every guest. Falafel: stuffed with goat cheese served as an appetizer with a simple bed of greens and a spicy tahini sauce. Goat cheese is unique to his restaurant and not a traditional preparation of the dish. Zucchini Beignet: perfectly crispy yet moist homemade fried veggie patties with feta cheese, fresh mint and dill served with a creamy garlic yogurt sauce.

Main Course (Top to Bottom and Left to Right):

Turkish food

Manti: Turkish tortellini crossed with a dumpling, stuffed with mushroom. Light and flavorful, tender pasta with a light sauce – simply delicious Siramarsir:  zucchini stuffed with filet mignon, sautéed onions, and mixed herbs served with garlic yogurt and rice. The   beef and zucchini were perfectly cooked. You will see why this is Sirac’s favorite dish. The dill in the yogurt sauce highlighted  the sweetness of the zucchini perfectly. All the elements of the dish melded wonderfully to dance on our taste buds. Lamb Kebab: Sirac is really proud of the lamb kebabs.  He marinates them overnight.  If he doesn’t have any lamb that has adequately marinated the full 24-hours, he will take the dish off the menu for the day.  He wants them to be perfectly flavored and juicy. Hunkar: This was a favorite of Sultan Suleyman’s wife, Hurrem Sultan and definitely a favorite of ours.  Beef simmered with garlic and tomato sauce is served on a bed of pureed eggplant. The tomato sauce had a deeper and darker silkiness that was well matched to the bold flavor of the meat.

Dessert:

Turkish food

There was a wide array of hot beverages including Turkish tea, apple tea, and Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is cooked with the grounds and served in a small cup. The teas were all served in a beautiful clear tea cup. Kunefe:  If you want a dessert with a “wow” factor, this is for you. It delivers a succulent package, wrapped in a shredded and latticed filo dough pastry, filled with the perfect portion of mozzarella. It was served on top of a gleaming pool of syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Upon further investigation with Sirac we discovered that jasmine flower is the secret weapon of this dish. This dish is simply mind blowing. Baklava: This classic dessert paired with Turkish tea combines light and flaky texture, sticky sweetness and a mild flavor similar to earl grey to produce the perfect balance of flavors. It was served with a scoop of ice cream that at first glance was vanilla but surprised the diner with bits of apricot to add complexity to the texture. The only challenge here was making room to finish it all. For an apertif we were served Raki, a Turkish anis liquor which is best had with water and ice.

Turkish Wine:

Cankaya – a light and mildly fruity white wine reminiscent of a Chardonnay. It was the perfect accompaniment to the appetizer selection. Yakut – similar to a Merlot. Not overpowering but flavorful enough to bring out the light and fun aspects of the grape.

MEET SIRAC ERGUN:

With a wonderful smile and sense of pride Sirac tells us, “The dream never ends.” He strives to open another restaurant either in downtown Chicago or Houston, saying, “It is all about sharing – you have to grow up together to be successful.” We are so fortunate to have shared our evening with Sirac, immersing ourselves in the food and friendships of Turkey.

VISIT:

PERA TURKISH KITCHEN AND BAR
2833 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 880-0063

This article is a group effort by the following…

Boston based Chris A. enjoys dining out with his family as often as possible. You’ll often find him and his wife on bikes enjoying New England.

Edwin P. is a Southern California native techie and vintage video game enthusiast. He enjoys playing golf and going hiking in his free time.

Shilpa R. loves everything about food and lives in the best city for it. In her home in Portland, OR she enjoys eating out and exposing her 3 year old daughter to the weird but delicious tastes of this great food city.

Susie T. resides in Austin, TX but is originally from Chicago. She showed her passion for eating from infancy much to the shock of her mother and delight of her grandmother. She loves food of every kind and is determined to try as many different types of food as possible.

Los Hermanos

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

Los Hermanos Dominican food
Aris and Raymond Compres, the brothers behind Los Hermanos.

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

Photos at Los Hermanos

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

La Isla
La Isla – the map of Hispaniola proudly displayed.

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

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

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

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

Los Hermanos Dominican food restaurant

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

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

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

Dominican food

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

Dominican food - rice

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

Los Hermanos restaurant

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

Dominican food - beef with tostones
Beef with Tostones

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

Dominican food breakfast
Dominican breakfast – Los Tres Golpes

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

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

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

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

Visit Los Hermanos

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

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

All Photos By Nicole Harkin

Enoteca Maria – Nonnas of the World

 

Two Restaurants, One Address, 40 Well Seasoned Chefs

If you were out for a noonday stroll in downtown Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs (this one a landing point for the famed, free Staten Island Ferry), you’d no doubt pass Enoteca Maria on Hyatt Street.

A small, inviting Italian eatery and wine bar, this intimate enoteca offers a lunchtime menu plump with iconic southern Italian dishes and imported wines and beers. But come late afternoon and Enoteca Maria transforms into a scene so distinct from the lunchtime landscape that it requires a second name: Nonnas of the World. Nonnas? Yep, starting around three in the afternoon it’s as if your own grandmother – had she come from Japan, Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt or any of another of a dozen or so other countries – had hijacked the restaurant just for the pleasure of cooking for a roomful of strangers.

Italian offerings are a constant at Enoteca Maria, but in the evening there is a parallel menu, global in nature and singular to the native cuisine of that night’s featured nonna.

No age limit or nation bias here, only granny-aged cooks need apply. While they may be untrained chefs, these grannies are hardly unsung: they’ve been celebrated in print from The New York Times to newspapers in Italy, the Ukraine, Germany and more. Too, they’ve been featured in a documentary, on NBC-TV, even in Ripley’s Believe it or Not!

Food = Love + Culture

“Every time one of these nonnas is in the kitchen,” says Enoteca Maria owner and founder Joe Scaravella, “you have a thousand years of culture coming out of their fingertips.”

Joe opened the restaurant in 2008 using a rotating group of Italian nonna chefs. So it wasn’t much of a reach for him to start thinking more globally. And in a few years he sought out a wider array of grandmothers who were eager to supply the kind of kitchen love and culture that his own Nonna Domenica had shown to him.

“Especially in this time when there’s so much divisiveness it’s important to bring people from different cultures together,” Joe says, “I think food and music and art do that very comfortably, I’m proud to be part of that.

Choosing My Nonna

Since I know nothing of Colombia’s cuisine or culture, I chose the diminutive Rosa Maria Ortega from Medellin as my chef for the night. My hope was that I’d learn–and taste–something new and different. Nonna Ortega didn’t disappoint. Shy, and speaking very limited English, Nonna Ortega was clearly in charge of the kitchen, bustling from stove to table, stopping only for a selfie or two with appreciative customers. Like the other nonnas, Rosa Maria Ortega seemed to enjoy the attention and the gratitude.

Since my Spanish is as limited as is Nonna Ortega’s English, I threw myself on the expertise of the pleasant, experienced wait staff to steer me through the menu and to choose an appropriate wine. Here’s what was on the menu:

¿Qué hay en el menú?

Arepas con Carne; Patacones con Guacamole; Sancocho de Pollo; Arroz con Pollo, and for dessert…

The Patacones con Guacamole turned out to be a dinner-plate ­sized patty of warm, toasty, fried green plantains smothered in an herbed guacamole sauce. In other words Colombian comfort food on a cold winter’s night. And since the temperature outside was well below freezing, I warmed at the sight of my next dish Sancocho de Pollo, a soupy chicken stew made with root vegetables and served with a side of cob corn, avocado and rice. And for dessert? Pudin de Coco, a silky, creamy, custardy concoction, similar to flan, but with a subtle hint of coconut.

Nonna’s Story

Nonna Ortega, one of seven siblings, first came to this country in 1985 using her cooking skills to sell Colombian tamales. After several years however, she gave birth to a daughter Michelle and decided to return to Colombia. But worried that Michelle would not excel back home she returned to the US to stay in 1999. She worked two and three jobs here to try to get ahead. And to give her daughter a better life.

In fact, it’s daughter Michelle Restrepo, who shares her Mom’s story. It was Michelle’s father-in-law who introduced Michelle to Joe Scaravella several years ago. And she quickly thought of her Mom, who has always enjoyed cooking for crowds, as one of the chefs. Nonna Ortega lives in Old Bridge, New Jersey in a Colombian community. Her Mom is delighted to be recognized for her skills. “In fact,” says Michelle, “every time she’s asked for one of her recipes, or complimented on her cooking, or asked for a photo, she calls me just thrilled with it all.” And how about you Michelle, are you a good cook? “No, I don’t need to be. I have my Mom.”

Think about:

  • The restaurant — cash only– is open Wednesday through Sunday; reservations are recommended. But in order to choose your favorite nonna food or to try something new, log on to the nonna calendar for a schedule of upcoming cuisines here.

  • The Staten Island Island ferry trip from Manhattan’s Whitehall Station to St. George, Staten Island takes about 25 minutes. If you can, make your dinner reservation around dusk so that in addition to a memorable supper you can enjoy a stunning sunset view of the Statue of Liberty.

Visit Enoteca Maria

27 Hyatt Street, Staten Island, New York 10301
(718) 447-2777

Please note:  Cash only; no credit cards accepted.

 

Yemen Kitchen

Meet the Restaurateur – Abdul Al Rammah, Owner of Yemen Kitchen

Yemen

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

Yemen Kitchen sign

Yemen Kitchen sign

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 Yemeni food from their childhoods far away and those who have never been there.

owner of Yemen Kitchen

owner of Yemen Kitchen

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 food 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 Yemeni 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 food 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.

Yemeni food drink

Yemeni food rice dish

Yemeni food hummus and tawah

Yemeni food lamb rice carrots

Yemeni food sahawiqOur 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.

Yemeni food saltah

zanbakah - Yemeni food

Yemeni food chicken rice

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 Yemeni 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.”

Yemen Kitchen thank you notes

Visit Abdul Al Rammah:

Yemen Kitchen

219 Jones Street • San Francisco, CA 94102

415.214.3575

Bini’s Kitchen

Nepal, home to Bini's amazing Nepalese food

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 food. 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 - Nepalese food

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 showing her Nepalese food

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 crew making Nepalese food

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 food

Spice blends are an essential element to create the unique flavors of Nepalese food. 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 Kitchen - authentic Nepalese food

Bini’s colorful kiosk on Market Street, San Francisco

Bini's Kitchen - Mango Lassi

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 Nepalese food 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

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, resplendant 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 - Nepalese food

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 - Nepalese food

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 - Nepalese food

Lamb momos, in all their splendor

Kwati: Nepalese food 'chili'

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 incredible Nepalese 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.”

Bini making Nepalese food

Encore: Bini and her Nepalese food creations

Visit Bini at Bini’s Kitchen 

McKesson Plaza, 1 Post Street

San Francisco, CA 94104

(415) 590-3087

Bini’s Kitchen Website