Mirabella Italian Cuisine & Bar

One fateful day in 2015, Arturo Aucaquizhpi, was walking down the street of his Irving Park neighborhood with his daughters (now aged 14 and 17), destined for the local Stop &Shop. The owner of Mirabell Restaurant, a nearly 40-year old German restaurant a block or so away from Arturo’s house, was closing. Having arrived in the United States from Ecuador in 1992, Arturo contemplated his 24-year dream of opening his own restaurant. He went home, discussed his vision with his wife, and decided that night that he would bring the run-down space back to life in the form of Mirabella Italian Cuisine & Bar, a steakhouse and neighborhood staple.

Having worked at Chicago’s Gene & Georgetti, Chicago’s longstanding Italian steakhouse, for a number of years, Arturo is familiar and well-trained in the cuisine. However, Arturo certainly doesn’t forget who and what brought him to the United States. His father worked in a restaurant to send remittances back to the family in Ecuador, moving here in 1972, 20 years before Arturo would follow at age 16. Arturo recalled his older brother who tragically passed away, attempting to enter the United States and provide for his family as his father did.  Both Arturo and his father worked in Italian restaurants upon their arrival to the United States, cleaning dishes and bussing tables. Arturo made his way to eventually work as a line chef at Gene & Georgetti, discovering his true passion: cooking.

Family and cooking are the cornerstones of Arturo’s life, with his wife (and occasionally daughters) working in the restaurant. One might wonder, as I did, “why didn’t he open an Ecuadorean restaurant?” His answer was very straightforward – demand for Ecuadorean food was not consistent enough. While demand for Ecuadorean food comes and goes, Italian food is perhaps the go-to cuisine of comfort around here. The freshly renovated space is certainly comfortable with warm lighting and exposed beams that transport the customer to a starry night in Tuscany. Having sat down and spoken with Arturo, I’d say that he too is comfortable with Italian cuisine after so much experience in the business. When I asked what his best dish was, he told me adamantly that I couldn’t go wrong with any thing on the menu – and he was right!

The meal began with a well-balanced gin and tonic, accompanied by a bread platter containing offerings that exceeded expectations: roasted garlic, ricotta cheese, and butter kept me plenty busy as I struggled to make a decision. Ultimately, I settled on the black tagliolini with shrimp and scallops, which his bartender told me was particularly good – he too was right. Before the delicious pasta, I enjoyed what may have been the best minestrone soup I’ve ever tried. The bartender also noted how hard Arturo works, all day, every day. Arturo himself believes that “if you want to eat good, you have to work,” and he certainly lives by that motto. Rather than describe himself as a restaurant owner or what have you, Arturo expressed happiness and certainty in what his occupation is, first and foremost: “I am [a] cook.”

Seated near the entrance to the restaurant I was privy to the comings and goings of customers, both regulars and first-timers such as myself. The regulars and staff were noticeably amicable, sharing laughs and hugs both before and after their meals. One customer asked his waiter, “can you make the sauce extra spicy for me tonight?,” to which the waiter replied in the affirmative with a grin and a pat on the shoulder, knowing the customer’s go-too dish as he led them to what is truly one of the most pleasant dining rooms I’ve been to in Chicago. A woman and her husband hugged their waiter on their way out – “until next week!” As Arturo specifically noted the need to offer a pleasant experience in order to maintain recurring customers, I’d consider it a job well done.

Ultimately, Arturo and his restaurant are so inviting. He put so much time and effort into getting where he is, both throughout his life and even in the arduous renovation work that he took on himself (with hands to help). He’s very grateful, thanking God and his family for a blessed life through hard work and faith. I can’t wait to return and hopefully enjoy their lovely outdoor seating and choice meats.

Visit:
Mirabella Italian Cuisine & Bar
3454 W Addison Street, Chicago, IL 60618
773.463.1962

Hours
Sunday: 11AM - 10PM
Monday: Closed
Tuesday - Saturday: 3PM - 11PM

About the author: Julian Bishop is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.

Sambuxa NYC

I met Chef Gladys at the headquarters of what was described to me by the house staff as “basically, the Grammys of food.” In a beautiful kitchen in the basement of a brownstone building on the lower west side of Manhattan, Gladys Shartou, alongside eight of New York’s most creative and inspired chefs, was preparing one of the six courses for diners at the James Beard Foundation “Odyssey Across Africa” dinner, prepared by African Woman chefs and business owners. As the chef, manager, CEO, COO, and holder of every other position in the company she built and still builds from scratch, Chef Gladys was representing Sambuxa NYC at the table, a catering service (and so much more) serving up a delicious menu of traditional and modern Sudanese dishes. Shartou, born with a skill for the seasonings and an affinity for the flames of the food world, offers a healthy selection of flavors from her homeland at Sambuxa NYC, including the titular sambuxas which I was so lucky to try – but more on that later. Because before Chef Gladys was sought out by the enlightened palates of Manhattan, and before she regularly pitched her tent at the Queens Night Market, she saw the world from the eyes of an immigrant several times over, getting a taste of both ends of the horizon, and in between.


Chef Gladys was born in Khartoum, Sudan’s largest and capital city. She stayed there until she was about 5 years old, and then for the first of many times, left to begin a new life in a new place. She went from Khartoum to Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring country Ethiopia, and after a few years to Queens, New York, and then a quiet village in Sweden close to the border of Germany. All throughout her young years, no matter where she was, Shartou grew in the cooking traditions and culture of her Sudanese family. “I started cooking around eight,” she tells me. “Before that I was in charge of preparing salads.” She was always in the kitchen with her family, helping to chop vegetables, but when she was eight years old her father asked her to prepare a whole chicken. “I was like, how do you make chicken? He was shocked that his Sudanese daughter didn’t know how to make chicken. So he showed me how, and that gave me the confidence to help cook real food.”

Outside of the kitchen she also faced new challenges, those of adjusting to her new Swedish surroundings. “They were very conservative when we arrived in the 90’s, the girls had to wear skirts, they had their braids, really Christian. Some of the churches didn’t want people to watch TV.” When her family moved there they were doing well financially in Sudan and in New York, so they were very used to modern living. “They were judging us...they were like ‘oh, you’re from Africa you don’t know anything’ but we were in more developed environments than they were... Even now when I go back, people look, and when I get on the train they’re like ‘who’s this?’”

Stepping in to yet another life as an immigrant in a new country, Shartou left from college in Geneva, Switzerland with a degree in International Relations and moved to Bordeaux, France. and for the first time put on the metaphorical chef hat, cooking Sudanese lunch food to make extra money while in school for International Management. “I put it up [on] a craigslist type page, like ‘hey, try a different kind of lunch.” She hung up the apron when she moved back to the states, working for the Swiss mission to the UN, and then for the Democrats in DC until 2017. “But after the election they let a lot of high level people go, [and] so then I came to New York and I’m like, ‘what’s the next best thing I know? baby-sitting.‘ So I baby sat and I decided to start my business.” And thus, was born Sambuxa NYC in 2018.


Fast forward through countless months of vision, business savvy, non-stop cooking and outright hard work and determination, and Chef Gladys is showing me her peanut chicken skewers sizzling over the blue propane flames beneath the world class dining room that will soon be full of flavor seekers of the highest caliber, embarking on a gastronomical odyssey across Africa. We made our way through the buzz of the kitchen, past Liberian plantain cake and tacos from Benin, out to the patio behind the house, sitting on a long bench opposite a black marble bar to have a chat. I had to know, despite cooking in the cultural smorgasborg of New York City, what challenges Shartou faced serving food from another land. ”You have to educate people about the food, you have to always draw similarities to other cuisines.” When I asked why she chose to start cheffing again in New York, she smiled and confidently told me: “I had nothing to lose, my food is amazing.” She had always dreamed of opening a restaurant and being able to introduce Sudanese food and culture to the world, and her company is “a dream come true.” Her business model as modern and adaptable as her cuisine, Sambuxa NYC is a food entity that caters, sets up at various popups, and takes online meal orders, without the heavy costs of a brick-and-mortar restaurant face. “I do want to open a restaurant some day, just as a sort of home base, but I don’t need that right now.” She mentioned to me that she always felt like New York was home, but when I asked if she considered herself more of a New Yorker or Sudanese, she assured me that she will always be Sudanese. “I am going to back soon... my end goal is to actually [create] a business incubator in Khartoum, to encourage young Sudanese to come in and think about what their talents are and get them some grants, and then start growing our economy.” Far more than just a chef, Shartou is a visionary.


Back in the kitchen, Chef Gladys has two items cooking to be served during the multi-course, multi-chef meal. One, the vegetable sambuxa, I am delighted to be trying; the other, a skewered chicken strip with spices and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, falls outside the margins of my plants-only diet, but please believe my left hand slapped my right away from reaching for the stick end hanging off the grill. And what are the flavors that define Sudanese food? “The first one, specifically, what I learned from my mom is cumin. But we don’t use like two tablespoons, we use a lot, but you would never know the way we cook it down with the onions and everything.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get Chef Gladys to disclose many details on the secrets of her rich food culture, but she assured me there was an abundant use of onions, garlic, and bold spices that other cultures have yet to orchestrate in such a way. My questions fizzle out as she pulls a basket out of the deep fryer and places 4 four vegetable sambuxas on a small white plate and hands it to me, and while I wait anxiously for them to cool I am enlightened to the dish in front of me and its history. Sudan, a place of international trade in the Eastern hemisphere, has seen many cultures come through its gates. The sambuxa is a triangle of fried crust wrapped around a filling of spiced beef or vegetables, similar to the Ethiopian sambusa or the Indian samosa. Sambuxa crusts, however, are made with a rice-based flour akin to that used in some Asian cuisines, and so they have a very light and crispy wrap much like that of a Thai spring roll.


The time has come. The four crispy, golden triangles rest on my plate like crown jewels on a satin pillow, the faint glisten of a thin oil coat, corners and creases expertly folded into the dimension where food and art become indiscernible. I bite in to the first one, and everything Chef Gladys promised came to life on my taste buds. The thin crust collapses easily into light, pastry-like flakes and the filling of potatoes, cabbage, onions and peppers is indeed uniquely flavored in comparison to its cousin dumplings in the eastern cuisines. I could write line after line mounting a futile attempt at what can really only be discovered through experience. In retrospect, I should have taken much more time to truly savor the fruits of Shartou’s craft, but as with all delicious food, my crispy quartet was devoured in short order, and maximum self-discipline was exercised in my effort to leave any sambuxas for the diners upstairs.


Aside from the veggie sambuxas I ate and the grilled chicken skewers, Sambuxa NYC offers a range of #foodanese flavors for everyone, including vegan selections such as veggie and sweet potato-spinach sambuxas, peanut butter eggplant salad and vegetable stews, alongside beef and chicken sambuxas, and as many stews, salads, and wraps as you could want at your event. She may not have a restaurant, but if you’re looking to taste the works of Chef Gladys you can contact her for catering at sambuxa.com or find her at any number of events she serves at around New York, frequently posted on her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter under the same name.

Visit:
Sambuxa NYC

Phil-Am Kusina Restaurant

Phil-Am Kusina, short for Filipino American kitchen, is located in the heart of Rosebank on Staten Island. Home to a population of immigrant families migrating from the Philippines, over 7,700 reside in Staten Island today. Phil-Am Kusina lends culture and traditional cuisine to those who are missing their home country.

Phil-Am Kusina has a unique design that looks like a revamped single family home turned restaurant. Walking in, you will be placed at an open table by the restaurant’s manager Gretchen. Hanging on the walls is décor collected from the Philippines, adding an authentic and captivating layer to the meal. There is no bad seat, each table has an undisrupted view of the outside avenue as natural light pours in from the front facing windows.

This was a slow Thursday afternoon which gave me the opportunity to sit down and chat with the petite restaurant manager, Gretchen. Gretchen states the busiest hours are on the weekend, specifically after church. Religion in the Philippines is marked by a majority of people belonging to the Roman Catholic Church.

We soon discover that Teresita Imperial, Gretchen’s Aunty is the owner of Phil-Am Kusina, opening its doors in 2015. Imperial immigrated to the United States in the late 70s to be with her siblings, travel, and follow her dreams that meant calling America home. After taking the board exams and coming to America, Imperial began to work for Revlon, a multinational cosmetics company. There she worked full-time as a chemist in the hair color department for 38 years, retiring in 2012. Filipino natives are known to be hospitable and business minded. Gretchen added the restaurant isn’t the only food service provider her family owns.
After Imperial married her husband in 1983 - together they started a grocery business. Phil-Am Foods began its food services over 35 years ago, serving up the same traditional ingredients its neighboring restaurant now thrives on. Elements like purple yams, chili flakes, langka (flavoring found in a type of jackfruit) and Japanese inspired sliced sushi ginger.

Filipino food is a cuisine of many influences. Gretchen shares with us her home town called Batanguena and explains that the Philippines is an archipelago with over a thousand islands located in the South China Sea. The Philippines collects influence from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Japan, to name a few of its neighbors.

From 1565 to 1821 the colony was directly ruled from Spain’s government in Mexico. In the midst of defeat after the Spanish-American war, the Philippines then became a territory of the United States until after World War II. This resulted in a culinary melting pot with influence both from the East and the West.

In order to savor the ultimate traditional experience, we went with a specialty drink to quench our thirst. On the drink menu was delightful Filipino juice, and we ordered two flavors, mango and calamansi. Calamansi is a Philippine lime and is ubiquitous in traditional Filipino cuisine, used in several condiments, beverages, dishes and marinades. Served chilled with its rich colors, we sipped on the tangy yet sweet juice while ordering the rest of our meal.

Appetizers range from Lumpia eggrolls with pork and vegetables to crunchy shells filled with chicken sisig. Other traditionally and culturally influenced dishes like miki bihon (egg & rice noodles with veggies, pork and shrimp), pork stew, tilapia fillet in a sweet pineapple sauce and adobo are also on the menu. Adobo is a perfect dinner for the entire family, braised pork or chicken simmered in soy sauce and vinegar, garlic, bay leaves and black peppercorn. Adobo is a true Filipino experience because it originated in the Philippines prior to colonization. Ancestors would often cook adobo, before foreigners arrived to the Philippines.

For dessert, Gretchen graciously treated us to ube, a purple yam bursting with flavor and color used in sweet dishes. The bright purple Filipino ice-cream is available for purchase by the pint at their grocery store. Our experience was a two part adventure, as we headed over to the Phil-Am Foods just across the street. The shelves are stocked with everything needed to recreate traditional Filipino cuisine, or just to jazz up a meal. Ingredients such as jasmine white scented rice, calamansi juice, ginger, watermelon seeds and candy to snack on. Eventually we made our way to the freezer section where you could find ube in mango salted caramel flavor. I was most excited about this particular discovery and I couldn’t resist taking one home with me.
The experience at Phil-Am Kusina is worth dining out for, and the friendly faces you encounter, such as Gretchen, is equivalent to an extra scoop of delicious ube.

A huge thank you to our local immigrant restaurant owners bringing us recipes from back home. Without folks like Gretchen’s Aunty, New York wouldn’t be the widely diverse experience it is. Finding authenticity is not about traveling to far lands, it’s about acknowledging culture in your own backyard.

Visit:
Phil-Am Kusina
556 Tompkins avenue
Staten Island, NY — 10305
Phone: (718) 727 3663

Hours:
Mon, Tues: 11:00 am - 9:00 pm
Wed: Closed
Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun:  11:00 am - 9:00 pm

Dedicated to Gretchen’s Aunty.

About the Author

"My two loves are food and writing. My best memories are visiting new restaurants with my boyfriend, we love Vietnamese and Italian. Writing for Uncle Sam’s was an amazing opportunity and I hope to become a journalist and help inform people through my writing and research."

Social Media: Twitter handle “_myamanda”