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.

JJ Tea House

At the corner of Blossom and Main Street, only a few blocks away from the University of South Carolina, sits JJ Tea House- making it the perfect go to for students craving authentic Taiwanese food and Boba tea.
Recently opened in 2017, JJ Tea House has become the hub for many college students, especially Asian exchange students. With the availability of dishes from their home countries, JJ Tea house makes Columbia, South Carolina feel more like home to them and their college experience a lot more enjoyable.
I have been going to JJ Tea House since it first opened, and every time I’ve walked in, I’ve been cheerfully greeted by the staff or the owner, Yvette. Yvette is from Taipei, Taiwan and runs the business with the help of her husband Max.

It’s evident that the restaurant is family owned as the ambiance is extremely homey and welcoming. As soon as you walk in, you can tell that a lot of love and thought has been put into the restaurant from the layout of the tables, to the decor and drawings hanging on the walls. The kitchen and cooks are easily seen from almost every spot in the restaurant, adding to the homeliness of the place.

Owner’s Story
Prior to living in the US, Yvette lived in Taipei, Taiwan with her family. “My father is a business man and my mother a nurse. I have two older sisters; one is ten years older, the other one is three years older,” Yvette explains to me. She then went on to re-tell what her life in Taiwan was like which she explained was“like a normal childhood in the United States”. She and her siblings went to school every morning and did their homework after just like any child would. It sounded like Yvette enjoyed her life in Taiwan, but in 1995 her parents decided to move to the US when she was sixteen.
I asked what attracted her family to the US, and she replied that her father “liked the way of education in the US and happy learning environment with freedom of studying. He wanted the three of us to grow up in this kind of environment.”
I also asked Yvette what inspired her to open a restaurant, which led me to learn that she is no stranger to the food industry. “My mom opened three restaurants in California since 2000. Now she owns another one in Boston. Everything I have learned is from my mother” she informed me.
She further went on to explain that “because there is no authentic Taiwanese food and Boba milk tea in South Carolina, I decided to open the first Boba milk tea restaurant with Taiwanese food”. She expressed that the greatest hardship she faced was finding a good location. “Location is the hardest part and the most important key too. We focus on student consumers, so we have been searching around schools”. Luckily, they found the perfect spot near the University of South Carolina, where students previously had no access to authentic Taiwanese food and good Boba tea.

Menu and Go To Dishes
When I first started going to JJ Tea House, I was amazed by the extensive Boba tea and drink menu. It was hard to pick what to try out, especially being new to it all, but the staff and Yvette were extremely helpful. They walked me through the menu explaining their different teas from milk tea to clear tea as well as their different toppings from Boba to pudding. Their menu also includes fresh juices, flavored milk, lattes and slushies.


Yvette suggested that I try their Jasmine milk tea with Boba which you can get two of for just five dollars. The floral notes of the jasmine tea, the creaminess of the milk, and the sweetness of the Boba makes it one of their most refreshing drinks and my personal favorite.
I also tried their clear peach tea with Boba, which as a tea aficionado, I can say is the best peach tea I’ve ever had. The clear teas are perfect for anyone lactose intolerant who is unable to drink any of their milk teas, but doesn’t want to miss out on all the goodness.


I then ordered their fried fish dish which comes with rice and three sides. The sides differ most days, but the day I ordered it, I got broccoli with a salad as well as steamed egg. Yvette took her time explaining the dishes to me before I ordered and ensured that I did not get pork as a side, after explaining to her that I don’t eat it.
The fish was perfectly golden and crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The rice was flavorful with a sweet soy sauce drizzled over it and the broccoli, juicy and perfectly cooked. It was my first time trying steamed egg, and I loved the fluffy airy texture of it.


I also tried their shrimp fried rice which has now become my go-to dish. The dish isn’t oily and is the most flavorful shrimp fried rice I’ve had in the city. The portions are also extremely generous for the price, making it the perfect dish for students on a budget.

What makes JJ Tea House so great is not only their delicious quality food, but also Yvette and her family who have put their love into the place to make it feel like student’s home away from home. Yvette opening her own restaurant after her mother had owned multiple successful ones herself, is an inspiring story to many women out there to acquire as much knowledge as they can and pursue their dreams of opening their own restaurant or business.
JJ Tea House will always be a special place to students at the University of South Carolina who just want to feel welcome and have a good hearty meal to keep them going.

Visit:
JJ Tea House
Address: 601 Main St Ste D, Columbia, SC 29201
Phone: (803) 834-6666
Hours: Monday- Sunday 11AM-9PM

About the Author:
I graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor’s in English. Writing is one of my passions along with leather carving. I share my leather work on my Instagram blog page

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”