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.

Ajay's Chicken Tikka Masala
Uncle Sam's Immigrant Cafe founder Ajay Ravindranathan shares his recipe for Chicken tikka masala. Chicken tikka masala is one of the most popular, if not the most popular Indian dishes in the Western hemisphere. Succulent chunks of grilled chicken, ever so slightly charred, swimming in a rich, fragrant sauce redolent with fenugreek and warming spices. 
Check out this recipe
Chicken Tikka Masala

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

Han Lao

In quintessential St. Louis fashion, no matter what street you take you will likely find yourself surrounded by restaurants serving various types of cuisine. If that street you took happens to be Hanley Road just off the highway that takes you to downtown St. Louis, then you may find yourself looking at a sign advertising Laotian food and wondering, “What exactly is Laotian food?” And so you walk in to Han Lao, the Lao-Thai Kitchen in Brentwood.Han Lao Laotian Food dining room

You first notice its elegant, modern American decor. However, you also get the sense that this isn’t a stuffy, high-end locale but instead has a casual air to it, particularly considering that most dishes on their menu are under $10. It looks like the kind of place you could go for a quick lunch with friends and then go again for an elegant date night.

That sense of adaptability is an accurate representation of restaurant owner Thom Chantharasy and his family. Chantharasy was born in Laos, a Southeast Asian country neighboring China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. When he was only four, Laos experienced a civil war that saw the ruling monarch deposed by Communist forces.

“If the Communists felt like some people were particularly well-off, they would say ‘you don’t need that much’ and they would take it away,” says Chantharasy of his family’s motivation to flee Laos. “Late at night, we crossed the Mekong River into Thailand and just hoped that no one got shot. My parents, siblings, and grandparents were in a raft and none of us could swim except for my dad, so he had to make sure everyone got across safely.”

Upon reaching camps in Thailand, Chantharasy and his family were able to find sponsors who would transport them to the United States so that they could start a new life. His family initially lived in the projects of San Diego while his parents worked at a factory making windshield wipers. “My first memory of America was the pilot of our plane giving me those little plastic wings,” Chantarasy says. “We didn’t have much growing up. My mom tried to make American food to help us assimilate, so when I was 10 she made me a pizza but she used ketchup instead of tomato sauce. I told her that I preferred her Laotian cooking.”

Chantharasy eventually went to college in Tennessee and then lived in Memphis with his wife. It was there that he got his start in the restaurant business, and he had the choice of running a restaurant in either Memphis or St. Louis. He and his wife chose St. Louis, where Chantharasy eventually started his own Japanese restaurant, Robata, in Maplewood. Building off the success of Robata, Chantharasy later opened Han Lao to help his children connect with his culture.

“I started this restaurant with the idea of giving my kids more opportunities to eat the food from my side of the family. I want them to be able to eat Laotian food whenever they want.”

Han Lao Laotian Food bar

The people of St. Louis are fortunate beneficiaries of this decision, as they now also get to experience the Laotian food of Chantharasy’s youth. Chantharasy understands how many may not be familiar with Laotian cuisine, and so he decided to have his restaurant serve Thai food as well. “We advertise as a Laotian and Thai food place, and we use Thai food as a buffer. Most people haven’t had Laotian food, so the Thai food gets them in and then they notice the Laotian food and give it a try.”

Laotian food shares many traits with other Southeast Asian dishes, yet it maintains a distinct emphasis on powerful tastes. “People say Lao food is spicy, but to me it’s a combination of different things,” Chantharasy says. “You can have it sweet, sour, salty, and savory all at the same time or you can have one flavor at a time. It’s similar to Thai food except Laotian food can be spicier and more sour. We go through a full case of limes in 3-4 days.”

This combination of sensations was evident in the Khao Poon, a signature dish of Laotian culture. “If you go to a birthday party, 99% of families would make this,” Chantharasy says. “We make ours using red curry and coconut milk, but there are also different variations of it.” The spice of the curry and the sourness from the lime stand out in this dish, creating a special blend of strong flavors without being overwhelming. The coconut pork broth and assorted vegetables complete the dish in traditional Southeast Asian fashion. Other Laotian dishes include Khao Piak Sen, which is similar to chicken noodle soup with its chicken broth and rice noodles, and Thum Muk Huong, a dish of smashed green papaya with pork rinds.

Laotian Food Thum Muk Huong

Other options at Han Lao include Thai staples such as Pad Thai and Pad See Ew, as well as Vietnamese-style chicken pho. There are also a plethora of meat options, with their chicken skin appetizer and grilled short ribs.

The unique emphasis on spiciness and sourness differentiates Laotian food from other seemingly similar types of cuisine. And while Laos may be a foreign country to many, Han Lao gives the people of St. Louis the unique opportunity to hear the story of Chantharasy’s family, including the sacrifices and hardships they have overcome to get here. “I want people to enjoy Laotian food, and to know that spicy is okay,” Chantharasy says. “My mom said she’s proud because she didn’t expect my food to be good. I told her it wouldn’t be as good as hers, but she said it’s pretty close.”

Visit :
Han Lao
Monday to Thursday 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM;
Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM
1250 Strassner Drive, St. Louis, MO 63144
(314) 932-1354

About the Author:
Jeet Das is a medical student that grew up in St. Louis and has lived in Los Angeles and Boston. He can likely be found at a nearby buffet.

Abyssinian Restaurant

Abyssinian Cuisine

As I walked eagerly over to my destination, I began to feel the chill of the night air as the sun descended behind the clouds. The dusk from the evening sun just lightly illuminating the restaurant’s sign. Ethiopian Eritrean Abyssinian Cuisine. I was prompt to catch the owners of the restaurant at the opening.

While waiting down the pathway leading to the front of Abyssinian Cuisine for its open, I noticed a man mingling in close proximity to where I stood. Cliff, whom I later discovered in conversation worked as a dishwasher for Moses and Sophia Russom’s restaurant. As we both waited, occasionally peering through the front glass windows, for someone to unlock the front door - Cliff to begin his shift and myself to dive in to a serving of Ethiopian cuisine - Cliff noted to me that the owners are usually always on time. I glanced down at my phone to check the time. 5:05 pm. And as I lifted my head, I saw a woman appeared in the door turning over the CLOSED sign to OPEN. Cliff and I entered, Sophia greeting us with a warm smile and welcome as we passed through the doorway. The dining area is cozy with incandescent lamps mirroring either sides of the artfully ornamented walls.

Abyssinian Cuisine

I walked to the end of the restaurant; Abyssinian Cuisine, and took a seat around the bar. Just across from me, Sophia and Moses’ 7-year-old son sat doing his homework. Moments later, Moses came out of the kitchen and placed a menu in front of me. After perusing through the menu for quite some time I settled on an appetizer. Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs mixed with onions, green peppers seasoned with herbs and spices. The entrée arrived on a bed of lettuce sliced tomato, and onion. The meatballs were tender and well-seasoned. The tomato lettuce and onion came together like a salad and were drizzled with a light vinaigrette pepper dressing.

Along with my appetizer, Moses brought out a sample of injera and cooked vegetables for me to try. Injera, is a traditional style Ethiopian flatbread. It is made from sourdough and takes on a spongy-like texture. It is a staple in Eritrean cuisine.
“Some places (In Ethiopia), it is eaten morning, noon, and dinner… once you like it, you crave for it”, says Moses.

Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs served on a bed of romaine lettuce with diced tomatoes and onions.

Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs served on a bed of romaine lettuce with diced tomatoes and onions.

He demonstrated to me the custom way to eat injera. Typically, it is eaten with the hands. A piece is torn off and then used to scoop up the meat or side it is being eaten with. A vast majority of the menu is served with injera, but entrees served with rice are available as well.

As I continued to finish up my appetizer, people began filling in Abyssinian Cuisine. A diverse flow of people came in and out. Although Ethiopian food is not very popular in the Hartford region of Connecticut, Moses says he gets a lot of new customers all the time. While the restaurant itself has been around for over 10 years it just reopened in December of 2018.

Over the last couple years, they experienced some issues with their heating system. Abyssinian Cuisine went two winters with no heat. Just last winter, one of the pipes burst, flooding the restaurant and caused its temporary closing. During this time, Moses shared they lost a lot of customers.

His wife Sofia does a majority restaurant’s cooking along with two other chefs. Their family also helping out when needed. It was his brother-in-law to whom he modeled his restaurant after. His brother in law owns his own pizza restaurant out in California.

After migrating to the U.S., and living in Connecticut for only two years, Moses and Sophia opened their restaurant, in the hopes of introducing the Eritrean culture and food to America. Moses’s family hails from the Tigrigna tribe in Northern Ethiopia (Eritrea). There are 9 different ethnic groups in Eritrea, with 9 different languages. Tigrigna is among the 9 ethnic groups shared Moses to me.

Sprinkled throughout the restaurant, cultural artifacts, sculptures and paintings reflect their homeland and different tribes of Ethiopia. The restaurant’s name, as Moses explained is derived from the ancient name for the northern region of Ethiopia, Abyssinia.

Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, seasoned beef, carrots, and potatoes served with mashed lentils and steamed cabbage over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

After finishing my appetizer, I had decided I would return on another day to try a full-sized entrée. On my second visit, I had a comrade of mine accompany me. I came this time on a less busy day.
I ordered the Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, beef and potatoes cooked with vegetable oil, garlic, carrots, onions and green peppers served with injera of course.

Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, seasoned beef, carrots, and potatoes served with mashed lentils and steamed cabbage over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

My friend ordered the Doro Wot. Moses says this is favorite dish on the menu. The Doro wot is tender chicken marinated in lemon, sautéed in seasoned butter stewed in red pepper sauce flavored with onions, garlic and ginger root. It is served with Abyssinian homemade cottage cheese, a boiled egg and injera.

As we ate, Moses explained some of what goes into the food. The Doro Wot, uses a special Awaze sauce. There are 16 different spices used in the awaze sauce.

“It’s what gives the flavor of the food”, Moses exclaimed. “Back home, normally at the house, you have somebody who knows how many of what kind of (spices) to combine”.

This spice mixture is actually brought back from Ethiopia and is completely organic. For the awaze sauce to come out just right, one must know exactly what amount of spices to use, otherwise other flavors can become overpowering.

Doro Wot, spiced chicken with hard-boiled eggs served over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

Doro Wot, spiced chicken with hard-boiled eggs served over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).
Baklava, a popular sweet North African dessert

After our entrées, we finished up with dessert – Baklava. Baklava is a pastry, layered with walnuts and syrup. When it arrived, I sliced my fork in and was surprised to find that it was a rather thick texture almost hardened even. It is very sweet, sure to curb any sugar craving.

Baklava, a popular sweet North African dessert.

Whether sweet or savory, there was definitely no lack of zest in Abyssinian Cuisine. For Moses, his dream for the restaurant is to be just that - “To grow…and have the best Eritrean food and flavor.”

Moses Russom, owner of Abyssinian Cuisine Restaurant.

Visit:
Abyssinian Restaurant
533 Farmington Ave, Hartford, CT 06105
(860) 218-2231

Hours:

Monday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Tuesday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Wednesday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Thursday 5:00 pm – 9:30pm
Friday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Saturday 5:00pm – 10pm
Sunday CLOSED

Café Azul

Café Azul

When I imagine the life of a restaurant owner I envision daily slogs of hard work and very little personal or family time. Many chefs and industry workers lament how hard it can be to achieve a healthy work/life balance working in restaurants. But Monica Serrano and Mickey Torrealba have successfully figured out a formula that puts family first. Their restaurant, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer, located in the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District, is a true multigenerational, family run business. Their success can be attributed to many factors; timing, location and business model, expert industry knowledge, but above all, delicious homemade Venezuelan food.

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer: In the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District

Monica Serrano was born and raised in the Washington DC area and went to college at the nearby University of Maryland in College Park. Her father grew up in Alicante, Spain and her mother in Colombia. Her husband, Mickey Torrealba, is Venezuelan but like so many of his compatriots, he left his troubled home country and Monica and Mickey ended up meeting and falling in love in Puerto Rico. But without family close by, Monica knew that she wanted to come back to her hometown to put down roots. She figured that a college town with a constant supply of hungry customers would be a great place to open a restaurant. Plus, she recognized that the area was still a largely untapped treasure.

Located just over the border of Washington DC, the communities along the Route 1 corridor in Maryland like Hyattsville and College Park are vibrant communities in their own right but also conveniently located to downtown DC.  They offer the comradery and charm of a small town but with the walkability, diversity and vibrancy of a city. Add a relatively affordable housing stock, large detached homes with big yards and a commercial retail center, and this area has all the right ingredients for growth. Today, the steady influx of new residents and the thriving small business and restaurant scene are evidence that Hyattsville is booming.

When Monica was a child, her father successfully ran two high-end Spanish eateries in nearby Bethesda, MD. She saw first-hand how hard running a restaurant can be and what it took to be successful. She applied the lessons from her father’s success to Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer. Mickey and Monica prefer not to have a space that’s too large. Larger restaurants need more customers and staff to serve them. Plus, preparing larger amounts of food is harder to control for quality and consistency. Although they wanted a cozy spot where people feel welcome to sit down and savor their food, the couple knew that offering table service would increase overhead expenses significantly. Instead, patrons order their food at the counter. They also wisely keep the menu small and manageable, allowing them to deliver only the freshest and highest quality food.

Café Azul

A cozy interior where patrons can enjoy their food

Café Azul

Venezuelan Pride on Display

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is unique in that the café is located just below Monica and Mickey’s home in one of the first new development projects to spur growth in Hyattsville. Live/work units were once common small business models, particularly in urban areas, but they fell out of favor in the US with the rise of the suburbs. They can still be found more frequently in cities throughout Latin America and Europe, but they are starting to pop up in the US again in conjunction with the urban revitalization happening all across the country. When the Arts District development in Hyattsville was built in 2007, it included a handful of these units with storefront retail space facing the busy, commuter artery of Route 1 and two levels of living space above. Some owners lease out their commercial spaces but others took the opportunity to open their own small businesses right where they live.

There are a few benefits to this model. First, it allows families to work with their children by their side instead of having to commute to a separate place of business and pay for childcare. It’s more cost effective as housing and business costs are bundled together. It also means that since Monica and Mickey own their building instead of lease it, their business costs don’t go up. In fact, they are accruing equity. Since they opened the restaurant in 2009, the cost of real estate has increased steadily in Hyattsville. In a rapidly gentrifying metropolitan area like DC, rising rent is one of the most common reasons why restaurants close their doors but for Monica and Mickey, this isn’t a concern.

In addition to urbanization, the current fast-casual dining trend is another social factor that is working in the family’s favor. Americans want food that is affordable and quick, but still healthy, fresh and delicious. Particularly in the DC area, we also want our restaurants to be as diverse as our population. Monica and her father acknowledge that the fancy, sit-down Spanish restaurants they once owned, and that were so popular two decades ago, might not be as easy to keep afloat today. But Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer has timed the trend of casual dining just right and Hyattsville is the kind of laid back community that welcomes a diversity of cuisine in a casual setting.

Mouth Watering Menu Options

Spend a little time in the restaurant and it becomes clear that the focus on family is the main priority for Mickey and Monica. They have three children ranging in age from 9- to 4-years-old who bustle in and out of the restaurant. It’s clear that they feel as if the café is an extension of their home. The kids might help out by taking a few orders and cleaning some tables, but then they can run upstairs to finish their homework. Monica’s mother and father also regularly stay with them and help out with both the kids and the restaurant. They benefit from her father’s years of experience in the restaurant industry, plus he loves to chat with the customers.

After putting in many long hours upon first opening the café, Monica and Mickey made the decision to close two days a week so they can rest and have quality time with their children, family, and friends. They also close for a month in the summer. Since they believe in teaching their children through experiences, they are committed to making time for them to travel, play and explore. Monica took her daughter to Spain last year to experience where her grandfather grew up. She already has plans to take her to Colombia this summer. Unfortunately, the family won’t be able to visit their father’s homeland anytime soon given the current political unrest. It makes Monica sad to think that they might never see the country where their father was born, where they have roots and where some of their family members are still living. But the restaurant helps to keep their connection to Venezuela strong.

Café Azul

Images of Caracas

Café Azul

Dancing Devil Mask from a Venezuelan religious festival

Monica and Mickey are also very close to the large, robust Catholic community in Hyattsville. They both grew up within the Church attending private Catholic schools and wanted to raise their children in that same tradition. Monica and Mickey’s family attend St. Jerome’s Catholic Church and their children go to St. Jerome’s private Catholic school. St. Jerome’s is a top-rated Catholic school and it is walkable from their home. Their church and school community have supported them during challenging times, and Monica and Mickey show their appreciation by giving back. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer donates meals to new moms who have just given birth in their community. They donate a meal a week, on average. The personal connection with their community and the loyal support they offer keeps the business thriving.

Mickey and Monica bought in a great location; in the heart of the community that is synonymous with home and belonging for them. They bought at a great time; when the area was just starting to be recognized as a destination. Their restaurant industry experience led them to make wise choices in organizing the café. But none of that would matter if the food were not delicious. That is what keeps people coming back. Mickey is the chef and he clearly takes pride and care in preparing the food from his home country. Venezuelan food has become more common in the DC area over the years. Arguably the most well-known dish is the arepa. And arepas are front and center at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer.

Chicken and Avocado Arepa

Café Azul

Arepas are like thick, corn tortillas that are made with cornmeal and cooked on a skillet. They can be stuffed with all kinds of delicious things. Most of the fillings offered at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the most popular found in Venezuela. Arepas can be filled with shredded beef, chicken or pork as well as beans, cheese, vegetables, and plantains. One of my personal favorites is chicken with avocado. The chicken is prepared as a cold chicken salad with mayonnaise and creamy avocado stuffed inside a warm, crispy corn arepa. It is decadent. Arepas are traditionally made with butter but Mickey will make them without for customers who are dairy free. The secret to getting the arepas crispy on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside is to make sure that the cornmeal is well mixed and the skillet is properly heated. When I asked Monica if there is a filling that is popular in Venezuela but that might not go over well here for Americans, she suggested fish. Indeed, I haven’t come across a fish-filled arepa in the DC area yet, but I would definitely give it a try if I did. And a tip if you’re trying an arepa for the first time; you might be given a knife and fork, but you should really just dive into it like you’re eating a hamburger.

Sweet and briny cheese cachapa

As mouthwatering as the arepas are, it was the cachapa that I couldn’t stop thinking about. A cachapa is a corn pancake made with only fresh corn and a little flour, no corn meal like the arepa. The sweet corn goodness of this pancake is then balanced out with the slightly salty Venezuelan queso de mano or homemade cheese. Venezuelan queso de mano is a soft cheese similar to fresh mozzarella but more complex in flavor. Queso de mano is brinier, reminiscent of the sea. Cheese is the difference between a good cachapa and a fantastic one, so Monica and Mickey knew they would have to go to great lengths to find traditional queso de mano. When they first opened, there were no distributors that they knew of making Venezuelan cheese here in the States. But they eventually found one in Miami and so they regularly have fresh queso de mano brought up from Florida.

Café Azul
Café Azul

Traditional Venezuelan Tamal or Hallaca

Another notable offering at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan version of a tamal. Hallacas are filled with a cornmeal dough or masa and chicken, pork, beef or a combination of all three. They also have raisins and capers and olives for that irresistible mix of sweet and salty. They are then wrapped in plantain leaves instead of corn husks like Mexican or Central American tamales. But like Mexican and Central American tamales, they are traditionally eaten around Christmas time. In fact, because of the demand for hallacas at Christmas, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer stays open on Sundays in December. Thankfully though, hallacas are available all year round at the cafe. And since they make them fresh but don’t cook them right away, you can always take them home and freeze them. Once they defrost and you steam them, it’s just like eating a fresh tamal.

Given the diverse background of the family, the menu also inevitably includes treats that are popular in other parts of South and Central America as well. Delicious homemade empanadas are fan favorites and almost always available, as are tequeños which are cigar-shaped, cheese-filled pastries that are very popular with kids. They also do a mean Cubano sandwich at the café. And if you’re not too stuffed for a sweet treat, they even make a delicious tres (and cuatro!) leches cake.

The Beloved Empanada

Café Azul

For ten years the Hyattsville community has been able to enjoy the offerings of Venezuelan food that Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer shares. That’s a lifetime in restaurant years. And there’s no sign that we won’t continue to be able to enjoy Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer for many more years to come. A variety of factors have led up the longevity and success of this local, family owned business where the kids might ring up your food order and their grandfather might deliver your food to the table and chat you up about his recent travels through Central America. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is a local treasure and as a nearby resident who is lucky enough to enjoy the lovingly prepared, delicious food and welcoming ambiance of this very special place, I can safely say that the communities they serve are very grateful that they’re here.

Visit:

Café Azul
4423 Longfellow Street,
Hyattsville, MD 20781
Phone: 301-209-0049

Laura Pimentel is a Washington, DC based foodie who likes to explore her world one bite at a time.

Shibam Restaurant

Shibam Restaurant

Mayfair’s Shibam Restaurant is an Oasis for Near-East and Middle-East Chicago

The Yemeni city of Shibam is called the Chicago of the Desert, a reference to its impressive skyline of mud brick skyscrapers. Shibam rises as a metropolitan oasis on the Southern Arabian plateau, where it was once an important way station for caravans of spice traders, who left their mark on Yemeni cuisine.

Reyad Ajour

Located on a busy corner of Chicago’s northside Mayfair neighborhood, Shibam Restaurant is an oasis all its own, a place where Persian Gulf emigres can find those Spice Route flavors of cumin and coriander, turmeric and ginger, fenugreek and aniseed blended into soups and stews and rice dishes that simply taste like home. (A sister restaurant, Shibaum South, just opened in Bridgeview.)

Shibam Restaurant

Of course, there are countless Chicago restaurants that sell more well-known, often times Americanized Middle East staples like falafel, shawarma, and hummus, said Reyad Ajour, the manager of Shibam, who is from the Giza area of Palestine. But there is no other restaurant in the city serving the slow-simmering and instantly addictive fahsa curry, served in a bubbling clay pot or agda, a hearty vegetable and meat stew whose grandmotherly warmth settles around you like a hug. I’ve loved Middle Eastern food since high school and I’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years. I cry for all the lost meals.

Its food is a product of Ottoman influences from the north and Indian influences to the south, Ajour explains, taking me on a tour of the lavish spread of foods that have begun to appear on the table of our large, plush booth. The dishes move from the pickup window to our table at an alarming pace.

Shibam Restaurant
Chicken Rice

The centerpiece, the dish ordered more than any other here, is mandi lamb, slow-simmered on the bone and served atop fragrant and colorful basmati rice. A butterflied Whole Greek fish arrives next, painted in a crimson sauce more fiery in color than flavor and perfectly broiled, with crispy edges and a moist interior. But is the chicken fahsa I can’t seem to stop eating, dunking my bread repeatedly into the bubbling tomato-onion-and-spice juices in its clay pot. I stare with longing at the golden brown mutapaq pastry, stuffed with chicken moistened with tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro, and manage to stop eating the fahsa long enough to try it. It’s flaky and flavorful and totally worth the carbs.

Yemen is larger than California in area but smaller than Texas and strategically situated in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country has been embroiled in a civil war since 2015, with a host of external actors, including the US, playing roles. As many as 80,000 combatants and civilians are believed to have died since 2016 in Yemen, and the country is facing a desperate humanitarian crisis, with some 20 million reportedly hungry or facing famine.

That’s why for some of its Yemeni patrons, Shibam has become a place to not only share food but to share their stories, and their worries.

As a percentage of Shibam’s clientele, though, Yemenis are in the distinct minority. Some 70 percent of my fellow diners are from India or Pakistan, Reyour tells me. One Indian man I spoke with on the Sunday morning of my second visit said he had just made the 40-minute round trip from Devon Ave., Chicago’s row of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, grocery stores and shops, just so he could pick up lunch from Shibam. The ingredients and the food preparation methods are the same, he tells me, but the spices are different enough, or their combinations novel enough anyway, to make eating it feel like “a change of pace.”

The Zurbian lamb, no doubt, is a clear cousin to biryani; a cucumber yogurt sauce clearly a relative to raita. Both cuisines rely heavily on rice, and hot flatbreads, with Shibam’s version arriving as pizza-size circles perfectly charred and folded into fourths and nestled in a basket. I tear piece after piece of it off, spooning on a housemade medium-hot salsa called sahawegg before adding a morsel of fish or a torn shred of the lamb mandi for a tiny, juicy sandwich.

There are also things on the Shibam menu, like the funugreek redolent stew, fahsa, that make me wish I’d experienced it sooner. Another one is a layered dessert called arika, which has mashed dates and bits of wheat on the bottom and is topped with a layer of butter and a kind of clotted cream, sprinkled with black seeds and drizzled with honey. It’s the perfect dessert to let the diner control the sweetness, which is very mild from the dates mash but can be dialed up with honey as desired.

Shibam’s interior is fast-casual inviting and comfortable, with the tables spaced far enough apart that no one feels crowded. In the basement is another large dining room, with two private, reservable rooms furnished with colorful cushions and poufs for floor seating. In Arabic countries, the midday meal is the largest, and on weekends the restaurant is hopping from lunch late into the night. It serves no alcohol, and it never closes.

Moving to Chicago from the Middle East was a challenge for Ajour, who arrived mid-winter without so much as a coat to get him started. Yemeni cook Majed Gunid, who hails from Ibb, said for him the adjustment to the chilly upper midwest was easier than learning the language or getting the hang of the educational system at the age of 15. For starters, Gunid said, he had been used to spending the full day in the same classroom, with one teacher for all subjects. Suddenly, he was expected to pack up and move every hour on the hour, and not speaking a word of English, he found it hard to ask directions.

For both of them, Shibam has been a source of familiarity and warmth, an oasis in a city that can sometimes register as chilly to outsiders. Gunid said he works there 50-plus hours a week, but on his time off there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“Between the people who work here, and who come here and the food,” he said, “this is where I feel the most at home.”

Visit:

SHIBAM RESTAURANT (Chicago North)
4807 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60630
(773) 977-7272

SHIBAM RESTAURANT (Chicago South)
9052 S Harlem Ave, Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 599-1112

About the author:

Carrie Miller is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who writes about, food, travel, and culture. Her blog, ExpatCook.com is about cooking American Southern recipes for strangers abroad.