Spicy Zest Restaurant

In a nondescript strip mall in Farmers Branch, a suburb of Dallas, sits the state of Texas’ first Sri Lankan restaurant, Spicy Zest. It is a very small restaurant with bright walls, festive wall hangings and just a few tables. It feels almost as if you are eating in someone's home due to the hospitality and cozy feel of the restaurant. Sri Lanka is a picturesque island nation in the Indian Ocean 40 miles from India, known for very flavorful and spicy dishes unfamiliar to most Americans.

Chef-owner of Spicy Zest Nimidu Senaratne is a Sri Lanka native with a very interesting background. Chef Senaratne’s uncle owned small resorts and he grew up working in these resorts. He received a diploma in Hotel Management from the Swiss Lanka Hotel School in Sri Lanka, and subsequently, obtained an advanced diploma in Food & Beverages conducted by City & Guilds Institute in the UK. Senartne then left Sri Lanka at the age of 22 to move to Singapore and work at Sentosa Island Resort and to study hospitality. He was responsible for very large banquet catering there as well as studying for the Advanced Diploma in Hotel Management at Bristol Business School. His future wife Chamari Walliwalagedra, also from Sri Lanka, was studying in the US and would eventually get her PhD in Chemistry from Cleveland State University.  Chef Senaratne moved to Cleveland to further his education and received a degree in Food and Restaurant Management. While studying for his degree, he also worked extensively for the Hilton and Marriott corporations.

Chef Senaratne moved to Dallas in 2013 and he and his wife started Spicy Zest first as a home based catering business, a passion-project he had always wanted to pursue. As the business grew, he then opened his own restaurant in 2016 in Farmers Branch, first as a take-out only spot without any tables. Senaratne concentrated on Sri Lankan traditional specialities and his own “fusion” takes on the food from his childhood. He uses imported spices from Sri Lanka, no preservatives, fresh ingredients and antibiotic free meat. Word of mouth and local press spread the word of the tastiness of the food, and in 2016 he added tables to become a full sit down restaurant. While Senaratne struggled to pay the overhead the first year, he refused to compromise on quality of ingredients to make his delectable and unique food.

The first several years Senaratne struggled to make Spicy Zest a successful venture. He was working long hours seven days a week and barely getting by. Staffing was a big issue and it was often hard to cover the bills. Despite his struggles, Chef Senaratne was committed to his vision of bringing Sri Lankan food to the United States while maintaining his incredibly high standards for his food. Over time, his staffing issues have improved and he has hired another Sous Chef from his native Sri Lanka. More recently, he also has added business lunch catering that has been very popular and helped the business to become more profitable. Chef Senaratne is not afraid of criticism and welcomes opinions and ideas to help make his business more successful. His extensive hospitality background makes him a chef who is able to look at both the culinary and the business part of owning a restaurant.

When you walk in to Spicy Zest you feel very welcome right away. Frequently, either Chef Senaratne or his wife will walk you through the menu and the types of Sri Lankan dishes to be sampled. On a very hot Tuesday night in August, we were one a few tables occupied but there were many others coming in for take out. We started with fresh baked buns out of the oven stuffed with Seeni Sambol (onion confit) and others stuffed with fish. Don’t forget to try the egg hoppers if available as a starter. This staple of Sri Lankan cuisine is like a savory thin crepe with a soft boiled egg in the middle. It is served with condiments on the side and is eaten like a taco. The mutton Kottu is a favorite of mine. It is a traditional Sri Lankan dish of tender cubed mutton, Sri Lankan roti flatbread, carrots, onions, eggs and a curry spice blend. It is savory and spicy comfort dish. The lamprais is a generous mixture of rice, vegetables and meat rolled into a banana leaf and steamed. We opted for the pork lamprais and it was outstanding and filling. Also very popular is the deviled beef, which is seasoned & marinated for 48 hours then pan fried till crispy with vegetables and a sauce that is spicy, tangy and a little sweet.

Due to his time in Singapore, Chef Senaratne also offers the Indonesian fried rice with seafood and pineapple called Nasi Goreng. You must leave room for a little Watalapppan at the end of your meal. Watalappan is a rich Sri Lankan flan-like custard with notes of cardamom and nutmeg. If you can’t decide on what to try, then I recommend the weekend buffet which has an array of menu items to tempt your palate.

Senartne’s hope is to expand to a larger location in the near future. His goal is to have as many people as possible experience the incredible flavors of his native cuisine. WIth the amazing and unique flavor profile of his dishes, hopefully more will be able to discover the hospitality that Sri Lankan cuisine and Chef Senaratne has to offer.

Visit:
Spicy Zest
Location: 13920 Josey Ln suite 107, Farmers Branch, TX 75234
Phone: 469-629-9191
Hours: Tue/Wed/Fri/Sat 11:00 AM - 9:45 PM,
Sunday 11:00 AM - 6:30 PM
Closed: Mon & Thur

About the Author:

Liam Conner is a junior in high school at Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas. He has a lifelong love of learning about other cultures, especially exploring cultures by trying their native food and learning about their food customs. Liam went to Taiwan in March of 2019 on a cultural exchange and made a podcast about the food of the Night Markets. Liam plans on majoring in International Studies in college with a concentration in South & Southeast Asia and continuing to try any new ethnic restaurant he can find along his way.

The Red Lion Restaurant

On a busy street in Madison, Wisconsin, Red Lion Singapore Grill and Japanese Cuisine is in its second month of operation. Jeffrey Cui and his wife Jessica own and operate this brand-new restaurant in what is becoming an up and coming neighborhood.
Located at 515 Cottage Grove Road, Red Lion is in a prime location. The street has some of the old - the VFW, a small carry-out only pizza joint and an abundance of dive bars. It has the feeling of a small town in the middle of the city. However, right across from the Cuis restaurant is one of many recent apartment developments in the area, one of which will eventually hold the new public library. Importantly, the area will soon have new, hungry inhabitants, a boon for the Cui's.
Red Lion is small and quaint. Down a few steps from the main entrance and to the right is the sushi counter, while straight ahead is the kitchen and to the left the small dining area. In the main dining room magnificent photographs of the Singapore skyline cover the wall. If you are lucky enough to sit by the window, you will be just a touch below street level, getting a great view of the street – perfect for watching people and cars.

I sat down with Jeffrey and we chatted about his long history and interest in the food of Singapore. Jeffrey is a 5th generation Singaporean. His parents have ancestors from two different regions in China and their descendants have since lived in the city-state. Like the United States, it is common to find people from different cultures in Singapore. Jeffrey describes Singapore as a mixed culture, with inhabitants of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and British descent.

Jeffrey developed his love of food from his parents. His father was once a head chef for an upscale hotel, while his mother was a lecturer in a culinary school. Jeffrey has experience in many different types of cuisine – he told me he was the first Singaporean trained Brazilian passador chef in the city-state. He also became a pastry chef, which he attributes to luck. He was a server at a high-end hotel when the pastry chef had to leave for a few days due to a family emergency. Jeffrey assured him that he could fill in, as he had learned how to plate the pastries. When the pastry chef came back, he was so impressed with Jeffrey that he was able to get him a job as his assistant. From then Jeffrey was sponsored to go to culinary school and eventually become a pastry chef.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey tells me that the tropical Singapore climate and lifestyle did not suit him, and he yearned to go somewhere with a cooler climate. He visited a friend in New York City and that inspired him to make the move to the US. He has moved around many times since then, living in New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and now Wisconsin. He said he likes the quiet life in Wisconsin better than Singapore and even New York City. He explained to me that Singapore runs 24 hours a day and that is reflected in the businesses and people’s lifestyles.
In the United States, Jeffrey first started helping as a translator for restaurant owners. He also helped them manage their restaurants. Along with Red Lion, he also co-owns a restaurant in Missouri. Jeffrey and his wife finally moved to Madison in December 2018 after 6 or 7 years of living in Rockford, Illinois. A shooting of a police officer near his home in Rockford made the Cuis reevaluate where they wanted to live, and they decided to give Madison a chance. About five months after the move, the building for Red Lion became available. Jeffrey saw the for-lease sign the first day the space was available and he took the chance to start his own family-run restaurant in Madison.

The most difficult part of opening their restaurant was the amount of work they had to do to the existing space. Jeffrey and his wife had to put in some serious work before they could start operating their restaurant. The exhaust hood was coated in oil and soot. They spent six weeks cleaning the entire restaurant. They tore out the carpets and cleaned the kitchen until it was spotless. Finally, they opened Red Lion on July 28th, 2019.

However, Singaporean cuisine is a rarity in this part of the United States, which Jeffrey said was the second biggest challenge of opening the restaurant. Jeffrey is currently experimenting with different dishes to see what will stick with American tastes, before he puts more Singaporean food on the menu. He said he has focused on the Japanese side of the menu because he knows Americans are already familiar with it. Jeffrey cooks all the food, Japanese and Singaporean, but now has a sushi chef, Jeremy Liu, to make the sushi.

Still, Jeffrey believes that Americans will be open to certain Singaporean dishes, like Singaporean curry.
“I know Americans love curry,” Jeffrey stated.
Like its people, Singaporean food comes from many different cultures. The people borrow food and ideas from different cultures and make it into their own.
“Singapore is a mixed culture country,” Jeffrey explained. “People who live in Singapore, we treat everyone as humans- we don’t put race in our language and we don’t compare cultures. We mix really well together.”

That diversity is reflected in typical Singaporean food, from the curry to Hainanese chicken rice, which Jeffrey touted as one of the signature dishes of Singapore. Currently, Hainanese chicken rice is a rotating special on the menu, as Jeffrey determines what Singaporean dishes can be permanent menu items. As it can be expensive to obtain Singaporean food products, Jeffrey wants to make sure they are compatible with his customers before they are offered a permanent on the menu.

With the help of my partner, I tried some Singaporean dishes and sushi specialties at Red Lion. During our interview, Jeffrey said that he has tried to tone down the spice levels for Americans for some of the Singaporean dishes, but that he offers some sambal chili paste with dried shrimp to patrons who are up for the challenge. I was able to try some of this paste with the Singapore chicken curry that I ordered, which was the special of the day.

The Singapore curry, which is more of the consistency of a soup than Indian curry, is fragrant and delicious. The chicken is very tender and falls apart and the potatoes give the dish a nice hearty touch, perfect for a chilly day in Wisconsin. It is served with rice and interestingly, a small portion of a baguette, which Jeffrey encouraged us to dip in the broth. It is a wonderful combination of eastern and western practices – it is both a curry with rice and a soup with bread for dipping. The chili paste that he gives us on the side is certainly spicy, and for those who can’t get enough of hot sauce, this is a wonderful item to try. He advised us to mix it into the rice, and it packs a punch. The dried shrimp mixed in gives the dish a deeper flavor profile, and is a unique and savory flavor for those who are open to complex tastes.

We also tried the pork gyoza. They are offered as steamed or fried. I asked Jeffrey which he prefers, and he offered to give us half steamed, half fried. The dumplings were absolutely delicious. I preferred the steamed dumplings, as they were juicy to bite into. The fried dumplings were lightly fried and also very tasty. They came with a sesame soy dipping sauce, which enhanced all the flavors in the dumplings.

After that, we indulged in two signature sushi rolls. The chef presented both beautifully. The Red Lion roll has a very rich flavor – it contains cream cheese, avocado, lobster tempura and is topped with tuna and is wrapped in soy paper with eel sauce and spicy mayo. We also tried the Sentosa roll (named after the Singaporean island), which is exceptional. The roll contains crab, avocado, spicy salmon, and is wrapped in crab meat, topped with some crunch and spicy mayo. This roll is very decadent and is perfect for those who love crab.

We left Red Lion feeling extremely satisfied. The combination of food items is unique and different from other restaurants in the area. From talking with Jeffrey, this seems to be the theme of Singaporean cuisine – a mixture from many different cultures to form a delicious fusion.

At the end of the interview, I asked Jeffrey if there is anything that he wanted Americans to know about Singapore. He said, “Singapore is clean and beautiful.” Jeffrey has taken these high standards of Singaporean life and cuisine and transferred them to his restaurant. Although Singaporean cuisine may be new to the area, a food from one mixed culture to another will surely have something for everyone.

Visit:
The Red Lion Restaurant
515 Cottage Grove Rd.
Madison, WI 53716
Call Red Lion Singapore Grill by phone at 608-467-3018

About the Author:

Sarah Kuelbs is a UW-Madison School of Journalism graduate and food writer based in Madison, WI.

Korean Ssam Bar

Korea is now often in the media, and many Americans have consequently become interested in its food and culture. While a wide array of ethnic cuisines are available in Sarasota, Florida (a mecca for the arts, outdoor activities, and nature situated on the Gulf Coast) Korean Ssam Bar has attracted a loyal following since opening on March 22, 2017.

Yun and Yup Namgoong are the owners of this popular restaurant. Yun immigrated to Sarasota at age 17, moving from Incheon, South Korea, with her family. Her father, a master of Tae Kwon Do, had opened a martial arts academy in Sarasota a year before she arrived.

Yun attended Bayshore High School in Bradenton and worked part-time for the well-known beach-side restaurant, Sandbar, owned by Ed Chiles, son of former governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles. The Sandbar’s gorgeous location on Anna Maria Island and its iconic status in the area made this a terrific place for Yun to learn the restaurant business. She worked several years as a hostess at the Sandbar, chosen, no doubt, for this “front of the house” responsibility due to her outgoing personality and ability to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.

Yun graduated from the University of South Florida. She was working for the State of Florida as a social worker when the opportunity to get into the restaurant business came her way. By then she had married Yup, who is a graduate of the prestigious Ringling College of Art and Design. They took over a Korean restaurant in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, and successfully ran it for 11 years.

Yun and Yup learned through restaurant contacts that an Indian restaurant in Sarasota was up for sale. They seized this opportunity and Korean Ssam Bar was born. Yun left her job in social services and moved to the “back of the house” to take over cooking while Yup took over the “front of the house.” With his calm nature, he manages the busy restaurant with warmth and a quiet reserve that makes guests feel comfortable and welcomed.

The new restaurant’s name is a play on words based on Yun’s fond memories of the Sandbar. Ssam means “lettuce wrap,” a Korean specialty, and so Ssam Bar was named!

For the cooking, Yun drew on her childhood memories of food preparation in Korea. She is influenced by the home cooking of her grandparents, parents, and extended family. The recipes Yun has developed are traditionally Korean. She procures traditional Korean ingredients and makes all of her own sauces and condiments. Marinated meats are based on techniques that she learned from her family.

One recipe Yun remembers from her childhood is kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine—a traditional side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, known for its digestive and nutritional qualities. It is classified as a probiotic. With growing public interest in healthy eating, SSam Bar is recognized as a destination for local “foodies.”

At Ssam Bar, Yun prepares 15 heads of napa cabbage a week. Compare this to the 100 heads of cabbage that her family prepared each November in Korea. There, the tradition of burying the cabbage in the ground in earthenware containers was carefully followed. Kimchi-making was a family event and fostered social occasions at the start and the end of production. Often, a feast of pork and fresh kimchi was made to celebrate the beginning of the process. Since this was a winter staple, the kimchi had ice on it when taken from the ground in small quantities until it ran out in February or March.

While Yun recalls the first year of Ssam Bar as hectic and somewhat stressful, her golden rule of saying “Please” and “Thank you” to everyone working in the kitchen and her good helpers who “calm her down” are the secrets to her success. Now Yun enjoys the harmony of a well-run kitchen and is delighted to prepare home cooking for her many customers with the support of a great staff: Yup and their two children, daughter Bari and son Yho, who also help out.

Our group of four diners sampled many dishes and enjoyed them all immensely. The small, intimate dining room was filled with locals: students from nearby colleges, professionals, retirees, families with young children, and food aficionados.

Recently, a mother/daughter pair returned from a trip to South Korea. The daughter is a big fan of K-Pop music and they were happy to compliment Yun, saying that they missed her style of cooking while in Korea. They returned to Ssam Bar the day after they arrived home from their trip to share their travel and culinary adventure stories.

We enjoyed:

Red Wine by the glass/Cabernet Sauvignon
Barley Tea/Yun says its mild flavor is a favorite of the Queen of England!

Korean Dishes:
Kimchee Pancake Appetizer
Pork Dumplings Appetizer
Spring Rolls Appetizer
Stone Hot Pot/Bibimbap: Rice topped with choice of protein, or spicy squid, and a fried egg, in a sizzling stone bowl, usually mixed with Gochujang, the traditional Korean pepper paste
Black Bean Sauce with Udon Noodles/Jajangmyeon
Thin sliced Marinated Beef/Beef Bulgogi: The favorite dish sampled that night
Lettuce Wrap/Ssam with condiments: kimchi (fresh and aged), chayote and cucumber, potato. This item, while not officially on the menu, is available by special request

Two weeks later, we returned to Ssam Bar to taste a dish that is available, by order, at least a week in advance: Samgyetang/Ginseng Chicken Soup. It is a favorite dish in Korea, served during the very hot summer months…. perfect for a hot summer day in Sarasota! The recipe revolves around cooking a small chicken stuffed with ginseng, other herbs, sticky rice, and red dates. The recipe is said to have medicinal qualities. We were eager to sample it, as one person in our party had recently been hospitalized with digestive issues and might benefit from tasting this new dish. It is served piping hot. As the Korean saying goes, “Eating the hot soup is fighting heat with heat.”

We enjoyed the presentation when the condiments were lined up in front of us and the pot of Samgyetang presented at the table. We helped ourselves to the broth and pieces of the chicken, which fell off the bones. It is a simple, pleasing dish, with no salt or heavy spices. Adding the condiments and rice, served as sides, added spice, saltiness and extra flavor. We highly recommend this dish.

On our second visit, there were two long tables with 8 to 10 people in a party. Some of the other guests were local Koreans, a few regular customers, several business people out for an early dinner, and a curious vacationer.

Everything we sampled was made with care, presented well, and delicious.

When asked what the family does for vacations or breaks, Yun explained that her children’s best memories are visits to Korea. They enjoy going camping in the Korean mountains with Yup’s family. Part of the experience is to bring a stove to cook outside, and they sleep in tents.

Give Korean Ssam Bar a try. You will want to go back often once you taste Yun’s home-style Korean cooking.

Visit:
Korean Ssam Bar
1303 N Washington Blvd, Unit E
Sarasota, FL 34236
Tel: 941.312.6264

About the Author:
Sara Sinaiko is a writer living in Sarasota, Florida. Beginning in September, 2019, she is honored to serve as the Fair Food Program Development Director (ciw-online.org; fairfoodstandards.org).

Sabores del Sur

“I hope my parents are proud of me,” pauses Chef Guisell Osorio of Sabores del Sur as a tear swells in her eye. “I know they are”, she then reassures herself. Guisell left Chile at 21 to pursue her dream in the “Land of Opportunity”: the United States. Ever since she was a child, Guisell loved to cook and prepare food. Building off of her grandma’s homemade recipes, Guisell created what is now a well-known South American bistro in Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco. Her family was nothing less but proud. Last year, before her father passed away in Chile, he asked Guisell’s mom to get a special cookbook stuffed deep in the closet which was filled with his own recipes. He asked that the book be sent to Guisell. With this gesture he wanted to show his love and support for Guisell's passion. “If only his writing was a bit more clear”, laughs Guisell as she reminisces about her parents.

Sabores del Sur, which means "Flavors from the South”, is located in the business area near the Pleasant Hill BART station. A flow of business customers come here for lunch from nearby office buildings. Once inside, the place envelops you like a cozy blanket. Traditional and modern Latin music plays subtly in the background. The restaurant is  well lit, with comfortable chairs accompanying each table. At the far corner of the restaurant, an exotic collection of Chilean objects are put on display, two of those delicate antiques being Guisell’s grandma’s old sewing machine and telephone.

As I looked around the unique restaurant, I noticed that only women worked behind the counter. I quickly found out that almost every one of those women had children and Chef Guisell ensures that each employee is able to balance family and work. “I make sure they are paid fairly and are treated well.”

Guisell is often the person who takes your order. If you are there for the first time, she will give you several recommendations. You are treated as a special guest.

The menu has about 4-5 choices in every category, which makes it simple and easy to choose. In addition, there are a lot of familiar international names on the menu. Chile’s multi-cultural heritage had a significant influence on its cuisine. German influence can be seen in the sausages like Prietas, Chilean-style blood sausage served with potatoes. The traditional Shepherd's Pie (Pastel de Choclo) has a Chilean twist by using a summer corn crust rather than potatoes.

Scanning the menu intently, I decided that I was craving a meaty sandwich. Guisell was at the register and recommended Churrasco (Grilled steak with tomato, avocado & aioli), but I had my heart set on Pan con Chicharrón (Peruvian-style fried pork with sweet potato & onion salad).

Interestingly, Pan Con Chicharron is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but I couldn’t even finish half for lunch - it was so filling! The flavorful sandwich creates sweet, salty, and tangy flavors by combining pork, sweet potato and red onion relish. Chicharron is a term used for cooking meat, typically pork, by braising and frying to create a tender, but also crispy piece of meat. The sandwich is made on a traditional bread called Marraqueta, Chile’s version of a French baguette.

To go with my sandwich, I wanted to order a soup as well. There were 3 soups on the menu, but Aguadito de Pollo (Peruvian-style organic chicken & rice soup) sounded best at that moment. What made the particular soup very unusual was the sudden, bursting sweet corn flavor. In Peru, they call this soup “levanta-muertos” which means “wakes up the dead” because of its restoring and soothing qualities.

My mom ordered Traditional Chilean empanada since this was the only traditional food we knew before coming to the restaurant. Chileans eat empanadas at any time of the year, but they are most popular during Fiestas Patrias holidays to celebrate Chile’s independence. Every culture seems to have it’s version of these turnover pies (Calzones, Pierogies), yet the Chilean version was definitely a new kick of unique. Empanadas came to South America with the Spanish 500 years ago, and every South American culture has transformed the traditional empanada to their own liking. We decided on the Steak Empanada which was very flavorful due to the exotic Chilean spices and “caldúa”. In Chile, they say the juicier the better. The dough kept the whole ensemble together, making it smooth and able to be cut easily, but at the same time, the empanada didn’t crumble or fall part.

For dessert, we had to try Chef Guiselle’s famous Alfajores - crumbly butter cookies, filled with a thick layer of creamy dulce de leche caramel and dusted in white powdered sugar. Originally, the Spaniards acquired Alfajores from the Middle East. The word “alfajor” actually comes from an old Arabic word that stands for “excellent” or “luxurious”. After Alfajores were brought to South America, every country in the continent made its own version of these cookies, becoming local specialties filled with dulce de le leche, jam, or chocolate, and sometimes coated in a sugar glaze. Chef Guisell’s Alfajores were irresistible and I munched on both cookies even though the second one was meant for someone else.

A lot of different people come to this place: families with South American background, business people from nearby offices, and cultural foodies. As I waited for my order, I noticed one family ordering a red drink poured form a large glass jar. I was curious to try it. It turned out to be chicha morada, a beverage prepared by boiling purple corn with various fruits added in and a pinch of cinnamon along with a few cloves. To me it was delicious and refreshing. This drink is considered to have many health benefits being packed with antioxidants.

About Chef Guisell

Chef Guisell was born in Santiago de Chile in a very large family. She grew up during the 80s under the difficult military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Rules were very strict, an example being that 8 p.m. was the curfew for all people, adults and children. “That’s why people had parties at night”, Guisell exclaimed, “If you didn’t leave on time, you were stuck at someone’s house for the rest of the night, so what’s a better way to spend the evening then a party” It was also a time of “Macho community”, meaning that the girls couldn’t go anywhere without a male chaperone.

When Guisell was 17, she moved to the US with her parents for 2 years and attended a high school in the East Bay. She immediately fell in love with the feeling of freedom of the “Land of Opportunity”. As the family went back to Chile, Guisell promised herself that she would come back.

Guisell returned to the Bay Area 2 years later. The only problem was that she had a mere $27 in her pocket, yet she also held a dream to build her own business. After several rounds of jobs, she slowly began to create her informal business, Sabores del Sur, selling her favorite South American foods to friends and family.

As she developed her business on her own, she found it hard keeping in touch with her family. Her family didn’t have a phone in Chile until the late 90s. In order to speak with her parents, Guisell had to call the community center at a specific time each week. The person from the community center in Chile would run out and call Guisell’s mom. Every minute of the conversation was precious.

To get the authentic recipes from Chile, Guisell would often call her grandmother, who happened to be the only family member in Chile with a phone. At the sky high cost of $2 per minute, she would write down the tips from her grandma and later incorporate the recipes in the building of her restaurant. Many dishes today are based on the same magic recipes from Guisell's abuelita.

But it was not just the mysterious deliciousness of grandma’s recipes. Guisell told us, “One day, I realized that I had it in me, I had a gift of being able to make delicious foods and a way of making people happy with it! I am very blessed because I do what I love. My restaurant is like my living room and I have guests every day. I love it!” Guiselle prepared and built her restaurant for a full year before officially opening it in 2004. Prior to the opening, she did a lot of research, testing, and took what seemed like an infinite amount of culinary and business classes.

“Was it hard building your own restaurant as a woman?”, I asked. “I never thought or assumed that things would be different because I am a woman”, replied Guisell, “ I never thought I would achieve less or could do less. I thought of myself as a person with a dream and I knew that I would work hard, do the right thing, and I would get there.”

Guisell thinks of herself as being very fortunate. When she first started, programs such as La Cocina and Women’s Initiative took her under their wings as a talented entrepreneur and provided commercial kitchen space, industry expertise and other resources for her success.

La Cocina is an incubator for aspiring working class, food entrepreneurs with a mission to improve equity in business ownership for women, immigrants, and people of color. According to La Cocina, “Women account for only 33% of business owners nationwide and still make 46-75 cents for every dollar their white, male counterparts make”.

The other secret for her success? “I always treat those around me with respect, and in return they respect me”, said Guisell, “and I always ask questions. That’s how I learn. When I was little, my aunts would say, ‘do you always have to ask questions, Guisell?’ And I still do.”

In addition, Guisell always keeps researching and learning ways to improve her restaurant. She keeps a journal of ideas that lessons from other accomplished business people and chefs. “There is always something to learn,'' she stated.

Chef Guisell has always been a positive contributor to the community. Sabores del Sur supports Fair Trade, Locally Grown and Buy Local Programs. “I believe in giving back, and I have always lived by this principle”, shared Guisell. When Guisell was just starting out, she would give back by volunteering at the AIDs Foundation and Breast Cancer Foundation events by Cheering, helping set up and clean up after.

Guisell is especially passionate about Chilean Teletón, a charity event held yearly since 1978, which raises funds to help children with developmental disabilities. “This event cut across political divides and got our country together. It helped us create opportunities for children and their families that are often struggling”. Considering herself very blessed, Guisell says she started asking people to donate to Chilean Teleton instead of giving gifts on her birthday. Sometimes during Christmas, she organizes dinners for friends and family and asks guests to contribute to Teleton as a donation in order to attend her event.

It's easy to tell that Chef Guisell has the strength of an iron fist and a soft kind hard for everyone in need. After visiting “Sabores del Sur” , I felt like I had visited a friend in South America, someone who truly cared about me and wanted to make sure my mom and l felt comfortable and ate well. I hope to come back to her place soon with my friends so that they become a part of this experience too.

Visit:
Sabores del Sur
3003 Oak Rd #105,
Walnut Creek, CA 94597

Agra Cafe

Agra Cafe

Agra Cafe is tucked into the corner of a happening strip mall at the junction of Sunset and Fountain in Silverlake, Agra Cafe offers a delicious and authentic taste of the Punjab region of India. As soon as you walk in, the enticing aroma of spices lets you know you’re in for something special. The cozy red-tinted mildly incensed interior, decorated with Indian artwork, provides the perfect, inviting space for a traditional Indian meal for a romantic night out, a large family gathering or dinner-for-one any night of the week. Lucky Singh, a friendly and dapper member of the family who own Agra, describes their cuisine as much like the the food in his native Northern India. The combination of basic spices and other special ingredients makes for the unique, yet typical, cuisine. Of course, Lucky explains, each chef also adds their personal touch, and the high quality of the ingredients and spices that Agra sources from their local and global purveyors also makes the food exceptional. In the late 1990s, Lucky’s Uncle Amrik Singh arrived in the U.S, and initially found work driving an ice cream truck. He was financially judicious and in 2008, was able to buy a Bangladeshi restaurant with his savings. After learning a lot from the former owner, Singh transformed the place and Agra Cafe was born. Immediately following the opening, family from India, including Lucky, came to America to help with the restaurant. Lucky, used to a life of farming in Northern India and unable to speak English fluently, struggled to make himself at home in the U.S. However, through Lucky’s relationships with customers, painstakingly-acquired language skills and a lot of hard work, he has hit his stride. Today, almost all the staff at Agra Cafe are family; in total two generations of around twenty cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles work there. While Agra’s business continues to thrive, there are always some challenges like finding certain specific ingredients, and the proper utensils. Just sourcing the unique furnace-looking stove or 'tandoor' took a lot of doing.

Additionally, finding chefs who are capable of cooking this type of food isn’t that easy in America. However, the Singh family believes their employees can rise from dishwashing personnel to chef by watching and learning from the original chefs, and this has proven true at Agra Cafe. According to Lucky, over the past few years, Agra has expanded into more delivery-based service which is great for me because I order from Agra every Sunday night!

Photo: Agra Variety of Curry - Agra Lamb - Agra Curry Shrimp


With a menu ranging from currys, kormas, vindaloos, to soups of all kinds, to vegetable dishes, to balti or tandoori plates, it is safe to say that Agra’s chefs are versatile, and that there is something for everyone to love. Each member of my family has a different favorite. My sister loves the Chicken Tikka Masala with its bright orange fenugreek laden sauce and mild flavor, while my parents always choose from the deep hot vinegar-and-tomato-based Vindaloos. My weekly favorite is the Lamb Korma accompanied by a Cheese Naan, polished off with a rice pudding. The creamy texture of the Korma sauce served over rice makes for an incredibly delicious dish rich with flavors of ginger, garlic, and cumin. The thin-pizza-like Naan is ideal to mop up every last bite. Finally, the rice pudding is made with the same Basmati rice used for regular dishes which gives it a thinner texture, and is unique, refreshing and light.

At Agra Cafe, each dish can be ordered at a range of different spice levels going from mild to very spicy. The condiments that come with most dishes - a deep burgundy tamarind chutney and a bright green chili coriander chutney - are homemade and worth trying. Plus, Agra Cafe also offers a variety of enticing Indian drinks like Chai, Lassis, and some of India’s best beers like Kingfisher and Taj Mahal. Overall, Agra Cafe is a truly unique and authentic dive into North Indian cuisine, and probably the best Indian food you can get without going to India!

Visit:
Visit-Agra-Cafe 
4325 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
323- 665-7890
Hours 11:30-1am

Agra