The Mantu

No matter where you travel in this life, you can rest easy knowing that there will be dumplings. Each culture has some from of dough, stuffed with a sweet or savory filling, assured to satisfy even the pickiest eaters. When I first asked people what they knew about Afghan food, I got back answers like falafel, humus, and babaganoush. In reality, Afghan food is composed of many layers of fresh ingredients like herbs, vegetables, and varying proteins equipt to feed both carnivores and omnivores alike. Cue the dumplings - Mantu are the rose-shaped pastries native to Afghanistan, and are also the namesake of the new Richmond restaurant opened by refugee Chef Hamidullah Noori.

The Journey

Chef Noori came to America in 2015, settling first in Newport News, Virginia. There, he connected with NGOs who assigned him to labor intensive occupations like construction work. However, Noori had a secret - he was a talented chef with dreams of greatness, and he wasn’t planning on settling for anything less than he was worth. “I always had hope,” he said, “my mother told me, God is with you, even if you don’t have the chances that other people have, that’s fine because you’re not an ordinary person”.

With those words echoing in his mind, Hamid bought a bike and pedaled from restaurant to restaurant until he stopped at a little place off Warwick Boulevard - Saffron, a traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean eatery. He worked at Saffron for about 7 months before he moved to Richmond, Virginia, in search of better opportunities to support his family back home.

When he arrived in Richmond, Noorani Kabab House became his new home, where he made Pakistani, Indian and Chinese cuisine for two years. Noorani had a set menu, and Hamid was yearning to stretch his creative chops - to create and share his history and talents through the medium of taste. Noori is all about progress. “I didn’t want to have the same label my whole life,” he mused, “there were chefs who had been there for 6 or 7 years, and I didn’t want to be like that… I’m not made for that”.

Hamid decided to take a step back from restaurant life, to find an outlet outside of a kitchen, and took a night shift packaging boxes at a local Vitamin Shop. His days were reserved for working with the International Refugee Committee, an organization and resource for refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking and other vulnerable immigrants in the United States. Noori found the IRC when he arrived in Richmond, and employees Kieth Mulvin and Lillie Hinkle helped connect him with the head chef from Ellwood Thompsons, a locally sourced organic grocery store and cafe, where he was immediately hired after a short interview. Two days after starting at Ellwood’s, he received a call that his family was in danger.

After Hamid left Afghanistan in 2015, his mother and siblings began receiving threats from members of the Taliban regime, a common reaction to family members immigrating to America. It is often assumed that the person is changing sides or becoming a spy for a foreign government. Noori tried everything he could think of to help his family - he helped relocate them to India, but the climate was too harsh, so they moved on to Turkey. Upon arrival at the Turkish border, his mother and brothers were were displaced and separated, as far as ten hours from each other. None of them spoke the language, making the logistics of starting a new life next to impossible. Hamid appealed to Ellwood’s head chef and the IRC, explaining that he had to leave for two weeks to help his kin - not exactly the ideal start to a new job. Members of the IRC begged him to stay, unsure that his job would still be available when he returned, but Hamid had faith - if he had gotten this far, he knew he could do it again.

He was in Turkey for 18 days before returning to the United States. As expected, when he contacted the chef at Ellwood, the cooking position had been filled, but there was a need for a dishwasher. Noori happily accepted the position, and after some time, started helping out with preparing the salad bar entrees, when it quickly became apparent that he had the skills and classic training to operate independently. Hamid climbed through the ranks of the kitchen over the course of several months, and began producing his own dishes, such as the Mantu dumplings, to be featured on the hot bar. From there, the owner of Ellwood Thompsons, Rick Hood, started introducing Hamid to people who would change the course of his life. His most generous gift, however, was the space the restaurant now occupies. So began the inception of The Mantu.

The Space and Menu Features

The Mantu’s interior features cozy tables in an elegant, simply adorned dining room. Their patio is an intimate space, perfect for long autumn evenings with friends under warm bistro lights that illuminate the crisp, clean white tablecloths and seasonal herb garden that line the space.

As expected, the star of the show was the Mantu dumplings. My favorite was the vegetarian option - the tender pastry had a luxurious mouthfeel, and the shredded butternut squash inside cannot be described as anything other than al dente, perfectly balanced with the other herbaceous elements of the dish. The petals of the pastry and fresh interior were exquisitely complemented by the savory red kidney beans and accompanying sauces. While the beef dumpling was also a favorite, I felt the vegetarian mantu really highlighted the fundamental components Noori described as classic Afghan cuisine; “...the herbs, spices and fresh vegetables that we use are the same as what other people use, but the way of cooking is a little different. When people are thinking of Afghanee food, it’s citrusy, not too spicy, and the texture and flavor of everything, you can feel it… you should feel all the ingredients that are in the dish”.

Coming in a close second, the lamb shank was roasted to utter perfection. At first I was surprised by the lack of steak knife at the table, but the moment I dug in, I understood why. The lamb was cooked impeccably, falling off the bone like melting butter. The dense, meaty dish was elevated by citrusy spices, and balanced with tender lentils served on a sizzling skillet. What more can you ask?

The potato skins are a popular dish with a loaded story behind it. Chef Noori took a deep breath before starting. “There was a time a time when we did not have food,” he said, heavily. He explained it like this:

One day, Noori was working in the kitchen slicing onions, and he was crying. His manager approached him and asked if it was because of the alliums or something else.
“Both,” he replied, “it makes me cry because there was a time when we did not have anything… when I slice them, sometimes I feel like I’m back in that situation...sometimes all we would eat is bread and onions. These are the things that I know, a way to survive, a way to start living again - potato skins and onions.” The beginning of everything, for Hamid.

In addition to potato peels and onions, the dish includes greens, such as cauliflower leaves, all crisped together in a satisfying snack, designed to precede any entree. The modern adaptation of Hamid’s childhood meal features garlic, tomatoes, jalapeno, and light splices.

Trials and Tribulations

Like many immigrant business owners, Hamid had many challenges to overcome to get to the point he’s at now. Besides the uncertainty of familial obligations, one of the struggles he’s faced has been conquering the trauma of his past. As Noori was growing up, the Taliban was fighting to take control of Afghanistan, and it completely changed the home he once knew. When he was 8 years old, he was working in a gas station when there was an explosion, and he became trapped inside as a fire raged around him. He was rescued, suffering just a burn on the back of his hand. “Nobody believes this, but now when I go to the gas station, it all comes back to me,” he said, “it’s always alive, that moment the gas station started burning”.

Another roadblock Noori faced was funding. Opening a restaurant is incredibly expensive, often costing more than $300,000. However, he fought uncertainty with incredible vulnerability. “Everybody supported me,” Hamid said, “whatever you see here wasn’t bought with my own money… if you share your dreams with others you’ll see that there are thousand of the right people around you who are just waiting to see how they can help you”.

Noori’s advice to those wanting to follow a similar path? “Wherever you go, you can change the world. If you bring hope, people will follow you”.

Visit:
The Mantu
10 S Thompson St
Richmond, VA 23221
Tel: (804) 716-6760
Hours:
Mon: Closed
Tue - Sun: 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm

Fresh Pot Café

So Fresh, So Clean

I stood entranced as I watched owners/chefs/spouses Blanca Mullo and Marco Garrido working some magic in their sparkling-clean kitchen, whipping up dishes from their native homeland of Ecuador. The smells of fresh herbs and spices filled the air, and when I say “fresh,” I mean just-picked-out-of-their-garden fresh. Mullo and Garrido grow mint, oregano, thyme and other ingredients in their home garden to use in their dishes and also sweeten several with local honey. You can’t get more fresh than that.

They didn’t know I was coming beforehand, so after catching them by surprise, I’m sure their kitchen is always this immaculate. This is also evidenced by their perfect 100 health score I noticed they had gotten on their last inspection. Mullo said after first immigrating to the United States she began working in housekeeping, cleaning in hotels as well as houses. I’m sure she excelled because if this restaurant is any indicator, she truly is a queen of clean in addition to Ecuadorian cuisine.

Bringing That Zero-Degrees-Latitude, Hard-Working Attitude to Chattanooga

With the equator passing through at zero degrees latitude, the Republic of Ecuador in South America is literally a translation of “Republic of Equator.” In an unassuming strip mall in the Chattanooga, Tenn., incorporated community of Hixson, at a latitude of 35.13948 degrees, Mullo and Garrido decided to open their Ecuadorian restaurant in 2014.

Mullo grew up in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador and the country’s most populated city. When she was a child, her mother owned a grocery store that eventually also became a restaurant. She and her siblings would help her mother in the store and restaurant after school in the afternoons and do their homework in the evenings. Mullo said her mother is a very hard-working, successful and ambitious person, and she has been a major influence on her life.

Mullo married Garrido when she was 18 years old. Together they opened their own restaurant in Quito while continuing to help her mother with hers. During Mullo’s childhood and early adulthood in Ecuador, she said her life was not difficult. However, that changed with the depreciation and eventual collapse of the sucre, which was Ecuador’s currency until the year 2000.

On January 9, 2000, Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad declared the U.S. dollar as Ecuador’s official currency. The Ecuadorian sucre had fallen victim to rampant inflation that had increased rapidly in the preceding years, so Mahuad decided to switch the country to a more stable currency. However, this dollarization hit the country’s economy hard. Overnight, the sucre became mostly worthless and those who hadn’t already invested their sucres into U.S. dollars in advance lost most of their money.

Mullo said most common people didn’t know the switch was coming and were caught by surprise. “It disappeared from the morning to the night … One morning we had the sucre, and the next morning it didn’t exist,” she said. “Nobody knew [ahead of time] except the government and the banks. The businesses became broke.”

Then-President Mahuad faced civil unrest with demonstrations by the public, and a military coup forced him out of office on January 22, 2000, just 13 days after the currency switch. Mahuad’s Vice President, Gustavo Noboa, was then appointed as Ecuadorian President, but he continued with the dollarization of the economy Mahuad had started. Because mostly only the government and the banks knew of the official switch and it hit the general public without warning, there was some shady business going on with embezzlement of U.S. dollars and currency exchanges from some in government and the upper classes who were tipped off ahead of time. The lower and middle classes were hit the hardest with the surprise, though the whole country suffered to varying degrees with the decline of the sucre.

Mullo said her life after dollarization wasn’t terrible, it was just that their options dissipated after the sucre went away. Her family was not wanting for anything important like water and food. She realized that she had it better than other people in Ecuador because she lived in the city, and many Ecuadorians in rural areas had it much worse. While more difficult after dollarization, her life continued on and she did the best she could working hard during that Ecuadorian recession at the beginning of the millennium.

Three years later, in 2003, Garrido got a call about an opportunity to come to the U.S. for a restaurant job in Chattanooga and decided to take it. Mullo followed two months later after their daughter finished school. As Mullo worked her aforementioned housekeeping jobs before moving on to join Garrido in Chattanooga’s restaurant industry, continuing their culinary craft and supporting their daughter in college, they were brewing what would eventually become the Fresh Pot Café. They had plenty to bring to the table with their Ecuadorian culinary experience and knowledge of running their own business in this new location approximately 35 degrees latitude from where their culinary journey began.

Mullo said: “Chattanooga was the first city that we visited in the U.S. and it has been a beautiful experience. We were in Chattanooga for 10 years before we decided to open this restaurant. I love the city. It was a challenge, but we’ve embraced the difficulties and successes of our journey. We have been blessed. The people of Chattanooga seem to like Latino cuisine. We’ve had guests come from all over the country from Nashville to Chicago [in addition to being] so well-received by the city. We like to represent the Latino community as people who are very capable of success. We show that Latino immigrants come to this country, work hard and move forward.”

Mullo has frequently gone back to Ecuador to visit family, especially her mother. And while in Ecuador, she gathers traditional spices and other ingredients, bringing them back to add to the Fresh Pot Café’s authenticity of their Ecuadorian dishes. However, recent trips have not been so pleasant due to her mother’s illness. “Because my mother is very important to me, she’s on my mind quite a bit,” Mullo said. “Being far from her side breaks my heart.”

Because Ecuador is on the U.S. dollar as their official currency now, visiting Ecuador is even easier than most countries for U.S. tourists because there is no currency exchange. The bills are the exact same bills used in the U.S., though some coins are a bit different while holding the same monetary value. Ecuador is a beautiful country worth visiting for the sights, history, culture and food — and if you’re interested in seeing that southern/northern hemisphere equator water rotation trick. However, for Chattanoogans, we don’t have to go to Ecuador to get authentic Ecuadorian food. Mullo and Garrido have brought it to us, so I roamed over to Hixson to check it out.

Roamin’ with Roman Around Ecuadorian Cuisine in Hixson

Everything about this restaurant is low-key until you step inside: from the suburban strip mall it’s located in, to the name of the restaurant, which sounds like a coffee shop. It’s been going strong for about six years, and drawing in quite a crowd with a lot of positive buzz, despite its unobvious appearance as a restaurant that serves authentic Ecuadorian food.

Upon walking in, though, the Ecuadorian pride shines throughout. In addition to bringing ingredients from Ecuador for their dishes, Mullo and Garrido have a display case in front which showcases colorful keepsakes from their homeland. Artwork and photos from Ecuador line the walls along with an apron embroidered with the recipe for seco de pollo, an authentic Ecuadorian chicken stew. The Latino music playing through the sound system adds further immersion to the restaurant's ambiance.

Our server was very friendly, attentive and helpful with any questions we had about the menu. It was also nice of Mullo to talk to us about her life and her restaurant, and let me see the kitchen, even after we showed up unannounced.

The wall menu is written in yellow, blue and red chalk, which are the main colors of the Ecuadorian flag, along with the green and white on the coat of arms. However, the menu is quite eclectic and features some traditional North American café fare and pastas in addition to the authentic Ecuadorian cuisine. Being skilled chefs, they can cook anything and make it fresh and delicious, but the Ecuadorian menu was the treasure I was seeking.

Appetizers

To begin, and throughout my meal, I enjoyed their traditional Ecuadorian drink made of carrots, pineapple, passion fruit, oats and brown sugar. Oats are a base of several Ecuadorian drinks called colada de avena, refresco de avena or sometimes just “quaker” (named after the oat brand). This refreshing drink was nicely sweet, but not overly so, balanced by the oats and the earthiness of the carrots.

My partner and I ordered two appetizers: the ceviche de camaron (shrimp ceviche) and the yuca frita (fried yuca).

Ceviche is common throughout Latin American cuisine with some variations, and this Ecuadorian shrimp version was an excellent one. The basis of curing the raw shrimp in a powerful acidic bath of lemon juice, tomato and onion perfectly “cooked” these plump shrimp to their proper pinkness and tender consistency. The shrimp were deveined with precision and each bite exploded with these strong acidic flavors and cilantro. Not only were they prepared without literal heat, but mild without capsaicin spicy heat as well.

A lemon wedge was included to add more citric acid if desired, and a couple of avocado wedges also marinated in this pool party. Crunchy fried plantains were served to the side with a crispy outer breading exterior and a firm interior. These medallions were prepared savory without much sweetness and spiced but not spicy. They were an excellent vehicle for eating the shrimp or for sopping up the sauce.

Next, I tried their fried yuca. Also called cassava, yuca is a starchy tuber that is popular in Ecuador and throughout the tropics — the starch can also be extracted to make tapioca. This yuca dish had a crispy fried exterior with pillowy-soft interior layers. It was served with a side of chipotle mayo for dipping to add some savory creaminess and a smidge of heat.

This was a delicious dish any french fry lover would devour. It’s also available with pico de gallo on the side if mayo is “no bueno” to you, but even the most hardened mayonnaise hater could enjoy this emulsion with its powerful punch of aromatics.

Main Course

We sampled four main entrées from the Ecuadorian menu: the arroz colorado (rice pilaf), the seco de carne (beef stew), the encocado de mariscos (coconut seafood) and the fritada (fried pork).

Pretty much all of the dishes were mild as far as capsaicin pepper spiciness, but a fresh, house-made hot sauce was available that packed some heat. Its tomato, pepper, onion and vinegar base had some viscosity to help it stick to foods, and it would be good with most of their dishes for those who want to add an extra kick.

The arroz colorado had some kick of its own and was the spiciest dish I sampled, though it wasn’t super spicy, and the hot sauce went well with this dish to crank it up even more. Its tomato-based sauce was similar to the hot sauce but with a robust presence of cumin. As is standard with rice pilaf dishes, the rice was cooked in broth, proteins, veggies, herbs and spices to fully impart each grain with maximum flavor.

I had the chicken and sausage version. It’s also available with shrimp, but I had shrimp with two other dishes. The sausage had a smoky flavor with a presence of garlic, and this sliced pork link was sautéed with onions to crisp the casing and spread its flavor to the rest of the dish. The chicken, rice, bell peppers, carrots and peas all intermingled together with the sausage, onions, broth and sauce as the dish was cooked into its fluffy pile of goodness.

Medium-boiled egg, raw tomato slices and naturally sweet fried plantains were served to the side and nicely complemented the pilaf. The plantain chunks were not breaded and prepared much sweeter than the medallions I had earlier with the ceviche. They had a soft interior, much like the consistency of their cousin, the banana, with the fried outside caramelized with their sugars.

I was considering getting the seco de pollo (chicken stew) because of the recipe on the apron I talked about earlier, but I was in a beefy mood that day and got the seco de carne instead — though I will definitely come back to try the seco de pollo.

This was a steamy stew with tender cuts of beef braised in a tomato-based sauce that had strong notes of cumin and mild heat. Caramelized onions, celery, bell peppers, carrots and peas were stewed with the beef and provided a pleasing array of flavors in addition to a wide spectrum of colors. It also had a large chunk of potato, which soaked in the stew’s piquant essence as it softened.

White rice was served to the side to further soak up every last drop of this rich stew broth. The dish also included lettuce and avocado — many of the Ecuadorian dishes came with avocado, which is great because avocado is “delicioso.”

While I enjoyed all of the dishes I tasted, I think my personal favorite was the encocado de mariscos (coconut seafood). This dish is available with salmon or shrimp, or both, so of course I chose both.

The salmon and shrimp were both cooked perfectly juicy with the salmon delicately flaking with my fork. They were smothered in a luscious coconut sauce that was very creamy with a bit of sweetness and shredded coconut topping it off. I really like how coconut pairs with seafood, which both geographically and gastronomically makes sense because the coconut palm tree grows so close to the ocean. Coconut goes very well with both light seafood flavors such as shrimp, as well as the stronger flavors of oily fish like salmon. This sauce was glorious and would be good on pretty much anything, so fortunately there was plenty to go around with the sides.

My starchy buddy, the yuca, made another appearance in this dish. Unlike the appetizer, this side was mashed yuca shaped into cakes. Strong flavors of garlic and onion were cooked into this buttery mash, pan fried with a slight crispiness on the top and bottom. They were very smooth, light and airy like a cloud, and saturating them with the coconut cream sauce was heavenly.

The broccoli florets were cooked until they were softened a bit while still maintaining their deep green and nutrients. I used these floret clusters to mop up any last remnants of the sauce so I wouldn’t be tempted to lick my plate.

Last but certainly not least was the fritada dish. The pork had a juicy, flavorful interior that was perfectly cooked to be tender to the bite with a nice crispy outside. This is done traditionally by boiling the pork in water, onion, garlic and spices, letting the water reduce until it all evaporates and the fat starts to render, and then finishing it off by frying in the pork fat. It was served with an abundance of sides, including pico de gallo and avocado, that made this dish a delectable adventure.

The first side I tried was what they called “giant white corn” on the menu. This corn was made “giant” by boiling in an alkali to puff the kernels out. In Ecuador and other South American countries, this is called “mote,” and it is similar to “hominy” in Central and North America. Making the corn alkaline gives a more delicate consistency and flavor than regular corn, which they then amped up the flavor with a chile powder mixture.

With the fritadas being the stars of this dish, the co-stars were definitely the llapingachos, which are Ecuadorian potato pancakes. These had a silky mashed potato interior with no lumps, mixed with cheese, onion and spices, and a fried crust on the exterior. They had strong flavor of onion and annatto, with the latter also giving them their bright yellow hue. The cheese gave a bit of creaminess and there was also a slight tinge of sweetness.

Moving to the sweetest end of the spectrum of sides was the naturally sweet fried plantain. This was the same plantain side that was on the rice pilaf dish I talked about earlier. It provided a great interplay of savory and sweet to give this dish a kind of dessert in itself. Speaking of dessert ...

Desserts

To wrap up the meal, we tried the bread pudding and crème brûlée. While neither dish is necessarily Ecuadorian, these were the only two desserts offered when I was there.

However, widely consumed throughout much of the world, bread pudding is truly a universal dessert, crossing all class and cultural boundaries — albeit with different ingredients and preparation methods. Fresh Pot Café’s version was flavored with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in its warm bread mixture. Topped with smooth vanilla ice cream and fresh-sliced strawberry to cool things off, it was a decadent yet humble dessert that really hit the spot.

I took the crème brûlée to go because I was so full I was about to explode, but I had a taste while I was there. It was a velvety smooth vanilla custard with the top caramelized into a slightly crunchy crystal candied sugar layer. Fresh strawberry slices were served on top.

Of the two desserts, this was more straightforward with its creamy vanilla flavor, a less complex and more, well, “vanilla” dessert compared to the bread pudding, but tasty all the same for those who want something simple and sugary. It was a sweet ending to this experience with Fresh Pot Café’s very sweet and talented chefs/owners.

Final Thoughts

I was very pleased with my experience at Fresh Pot Café, not only to eat the food, but also to meet the owners and learn about their immigration story. They are such nice and hard-working people who are giving Chattanooga a gift by bringing their cuisine and culture from their homeland, and the city is very lucky to have them here. They opened the Fresh Pot Café while I was living in Chicago, so this was my first experience at this restaurant after moving back. There will certainly be many more visits to come.

Visit:
Fresh Pot Café
5425 TN-153
Hixson, TN 37343
(423) 805-3773
Monday–Saturday: 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

About the Author

Roman Flis is a writer who focuses on food, culture, history and folklore with his “Roamin’ with Roman” articles. You can find more on his website romanflis.com, follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and email him at roaminwithroman@gmail.com.