Ruby’s Fast Food

Meeting the Owners

Walking towards Ruby's Fast Food on a cool but sunny November day in Chicago, the neighborhood is unassuming and quiet, with the exception of the crackling leaves and passing cars on this main street. I arrive at my destination, walk through the entrance, and find myself in a bustling operation. The air is warm and filled with the sounds of cooking in the kitchen, the smell of garlic, and a variety of seasonings that tempts the appetite. There is a line of people waiting to place their orders at the counter, and all but one solitary table is filled with diners cheerfully chattering and enjoying their meals. The interior of the restaurant is the polar opposite of where I was a moment ago.

While busy, the owners, Nickie and Arnie Rodica, are promptly taking the orders and packaging them for their customers with consummate ease. The two men are brothers, and took over the restaurant from their late mother, Ruby, in 2018.

Manila

Born in Manila in the Philippines, Ruby's captivation with food was inherent through her mother's involvement with cooking. Her mother had several canteens in the city where she would lead, manage, and cook for the local workers. “A fresh meal for good prices” said Nickie. Eventually, Ruby followed in the steps of her mother. There was a small kiosk in front of the house where they lived, and Ruby went on to use that space to make and sell meals everyday.

While in the Manila, Ruby met her husband Florante Rodica. “I'm not sure when my parents met, but I know they lived in the same neighborhood, somewhere along the line one chased the other” Nickie says with a laugh. After some time, Ruby and Florante's family grew with the addition of Arnie, their eldest son, and Nickie.
Florante was 1 of 13 siblings, and once his older siblings moved and settled in the US, he and Ruby decided to do the same. “Back in the day, that's how it worked” said Nickie, “the first sibling comes, and then the others follow.” So in January of 1991, the Rodica family started their journey to the southwest suburb of Westmont, Illinois to join the rest of their family. Nickie was 7 at the time, and while both his parents spoke English, Nickie did not. “I remember we were in the airport in Narita, Japan going to the States, and I wanted to tell my dad [in English] I was hungry, and the phrase that came out of my mouth was 'Dad, eat me'” Nickie recited lauging. “They would start laughing and I would ask 'Why are you laughing? Eat me!' and dad asks 'Why would I eat you?'” Even though Nickie did not speak much English then, the prospect of life in the US that was exciting for him, did not turn out to be so easy for his parents.

Westmont

The transition from the Philippines to Illinois was difficult for Ruby and Florante, firstly due to the lack of tropical weather, having arrived in a snowy January (Nickie was excited to see snow for the first time), but also due to leaving friends and family back home. Finding fulfilling work also proved to be a challenge. Since Ruby was helping her mom with the canteens in Manila, she was not sure what to do once she arrived. She ultimately looked for work wherever she could find it and over time worked in a number of places including a dry cleaning business, a fabric store, an office, and did some CNA work. During this time, Ruby would bring food to work where her coworkers would sample, and it became a hit! Those that tasted her food would ask her to prepare some items for them and would ask how much she would charge. Ruby never really enjoyed her 8 hour job, and with comments like “Why don't you open a restaurant?” she saw this as a chance to test the waters and do home catering on the weekends. Things were starting to take a turn for the better.

Nickie, meanwhile, was adjusting well. He took an English as a second language course in grade school and had good grades overall. It was when he was in the 6th grade that his interest in cooking developed while taking a Home Economics class. “The teacher's name was Mrs. Love,” said Nickie “She liked me and how I did in the class. So I would say 'If you like me, I love you!'” A good pun for an 11 year old! In the class, the students had the opportunity to bake cakes, cookies, and brownies. And as weeks passed, the tasks changed and got more complex. The class was his introduction to cooking first hand, and soon he starting experimenting on his own. “That's how I got into baking, cooking... frying the first egg ever, to frying hotdogs, mostly frying at first” said Nickie. “Then I made my first Pancit [a Filipino Stir Fry Noodle dish], not the best, but practice makes perfect.” Nickie has continued to hone his newfound interest ever since.

Over time, the family decided it was time for another move, this time with their eyes set on Chicago. In the summer of 1997, after Arnie finished high school and Nickie grade school, they set forth on their next adventure.

Chicago

The move to Chicago was a positive one for the family. Nickie and Arnie were doing well in school, and Ruby and Florante continued to work full time to support the family, but cooking was never far from Ruby's mind. At the time, Ruby and Florante did their taxes at a business located near the intersections Montrose and Ridgeway Avenue in the Albany Park neighborhood. When visiting this business, Ruby noticed a Fast Food Burger restaurant across the street. One day, during another of her visits, Ruby saw that the restaurant closed and the space opened up. Ruby saw this as a sign. There were not many Filipino restaurants in the city, and with her success catering on the weekends and the positive feedback, she decided to give it a try. After all her hard work, and working long hours to save up, she was finally able to open her restaurant, and called it Ruby's Fast Food.

Ruby's Fast Food, The Beginning

Ruby's Fast Food saw immediate success but it was not without the help of her family. Florante, who was working in a clinical lab at the time, noticed that Ruby needed help at the business, and she agreed that it would be best if he joined. He soon began assisting with the cooking, and putting his own style into some of the recipes.
Nickie, who was one of the first students in Chicago to get a full tuition scholarship through The Posse Foundation [a program that rewards students in inner city schools that apply themselves] went on to complete his Bachelor's Degree at DePauw University in Biochemistry and Spanish in 2005. “There was some expectation for me and my brother to become a lawyer or a doctor. So my thought was to pursue one of those” said Nickie. After college, he also began helping at the restaurant part time first washing dishes, moving up to food prep, and then actually cooking. He learned a lot from his parents at this point watching how they would taste everything, learning to grasp the flavors, how to cook for a large group of people, and watching his parents style of cooking that overtime developed into his own.

Nickie intended to go back to school and was preparing for the MCAT's (Medical College Admission Test) to pursue Medical Sciences but he was not able to focus on studying since he was working at the same time. “The family business became more of a priority” said Nickie. He had mixed feelings about this at first, whether there was the obligation to be involved in the family business, his hesitation due mostly to his studies. At the same time, he did want to be involved because he enjoyed cooking so much. “Now, I wouldn't even question it” said Nickie, “I like being here, being in the kitchen, preparing the food, making sure things are done right, customers are eating well, and enjoying themselves.

The family's hard work did not go unnoticed. In 2010 and 2011 the restaurant was featured on several shows including The Cooking Channel's “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” WGN's “Chicago's Best,” and the Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods,” creating international exposure and attracting visitors from places like Greece and Singapore. “I remember that one night me, mom, and dad were sitting down and watching Bizarre Foods, an episode about Filipino food, thinking how great it would be to be on a show like that” said Nickie, “little did we know that 4 years later we would be contacted by a producer on the show.”

As time went on, Ruby's health began to decline, and she needed Nickie and Arnie to take on more responsibilities at the restaurant. She continued to take more of a step back from the restaurant until she knew that her sons could fully run the business on their own. “Today, my parents are no longer with us unfortunately” said Nickie, “I think my mom's plan was always to open a restaurant once she got to the US, and I think the goal for the restaurant was to provide for the family, so that my brother and I had something, and to provide to the Filipinos in the area. My mom was kind of a philanthropist. When she would earn from the restaurant, sometimes she would donate to the churches, or to the Philippines, to those she thought needed help.

“My mom was a tough person and besides me, Arnie, and my dad, she was on her own. But she persevered and did what she wanted to do, enjoyed cooking, and now I'm doing it how she taught me” said Nickie, “I'm very thankful for her. Those who do move to the states have that common idea of finding the American dream and with the restaurant she was able to achieve that."

Ruby's Fast Food, Today

Nickie and Arnie officially took over the restaurant in 2018. There are 5 people total that work at the restaurant including Nickie and Arnie. “Everyone pretty much knows what they have to do” said Nickie, “the guys come in at 8 [am], I come in at 8:30, and we have a short meeting to discuss what the plan is for the day.” Once the clock strikes 12, the restaurant is open for business. Most of the clientele are regulars whom Nickie and Arnie know on a first name basis, and while they are in line, they know more or less what they are going to order. They've even grown close relationships with some of their customers over the years. “We have a customer, she's like a grandma to me” said Nickie “she likes to cook too and she shares recipes with me because she says that none of her kids want to do it.” They also see new customers on the weekends mostly credited to advertisements and the television programs they were featured in. They receive an average of 250 orders per day on the weekdays, and double that per day on the weekends (not including weekend catering), a testament to their continued success.

And understandably so! Nickie brought over the first couple items which were “Bistec,” braised beef cooked with sugar, soy sauce, onions, and lemon, and “Chop Suey,” green beans, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, shrimp, and mushrooms. The beef was soaked in a rich sauce and was so tender you could cut with a spoon! The flavor was savory with a sweet undertone from the sugar. The vegetables from the Chop Suey were perfectly cooked through with a surprise light seasoned broth at the bottom, a combination of the vegetables and shrimp.

Next was “Garlic Rice,” white rice sauteed in fresh garlic finished with fried garlic and scallions, with “Catfish Nuggets,” catfish fried in a seasoned batter, “Chicken Curry,” chicken cooked with Japanese curry, coconut milk, potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers, and “Lumpia,” fried ground pork spring rolls seasoned with garlic, salt, and black pepper, served with a side of “Suka,” a spicy vinegar sauce, and “Sweet and Sour Sauce.” The garlic rice, while simple in theory, was flavorful and executed so well that it could be eaten on its own. This paired well with the remaining items. The catfish was light with a crusty salty batter, the lumpia wrap was crisp encasing a juicy and chewy ground pork, the chicken curry, despite looking heavy, had a delicate curry flavor, tender chicken, and sizable vegetables that complimented the overall texture.

After that was the “Pancit,” a crowd favorite. Pancit consists of stir fried thin rice noodles sauteed in garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce, with pork, shrimp, and vegetables, served with a lemon wedge. The noodles were soft and lightly coated with oil, the pork and shrimp were hardy and maintained their respective flavors, while the vegetables added a crunch that brought the whole dish together.

We topped it all off with “Halo Halo,” a sweet drink made with sweet white and red mung beans, sweetened jackfruit, coconut, coconut jelly, shaved ice, evaporated milk, toasted sweet rice, dulce de leche, ube [purple yam] paste, and ube flavored cereal. A mixture of textures that could not be more favorable! If you have a sweet tooth, Halo Halo is the perfect drink. “Arnie was telling me that in the Philippines, each household would have their own version of Halo Halo, and people would go to other houses and pay whatever to have their version” said Nickie. The best way to eat is to mix everything.

“We are one of the few places that are authentic” said Nickie. “This is a lot of the food grandma and mom would make back in the Philippines. After reading the reviews online, that's one of the most common comments you see, that the food is authentic and people like and enjoy coming here- they feel at home.”

I experienced that first-hand speaking to some of the regulars during my time at the restaurant. “I come here at least twice a week!” said one of the diners, a middle aged man who is originally from Manila, enthusiastically. “ When I come here I buy a lot, that way when I go home, I don't have to cook, I just put in the microwave and I'm done! This is the best Filipino food in the city!” He continued with a laugh “I used to live all the way across town and moved two blocks away so I could be closer to the restaurant!” Another diner, an elderly woman also originally from Manila, agreed from across the room “Yes, the food is the best! I like to cook but sometimes I get so tired and it's easy for me to come here and get good food” she continued “This is my hobby, eat, eat, eat!” To which we all agreed! The feeling of home continued when I asked Nickie and Arnie to get together for a photo. The woman I was speaking to earlier commented “Aren't they handsome? You should see them in a suit! Not in this thing, this apron!” she says endearingly “But they are both handsome men!”

Nickie does have his sights on other ventures. One goal is for the restaurant to become bigger. He'd like to double the amount of seating, and the size of the Kitchen. He is also considering opening another space somewhere in the city, a diner with a “Filipino twist,” because of his love for Filipino food (which always puts a smile on his face) and breakfast foods. Whatever the next step may be, he wants to maintain the integrity of the food. But another thing that's important, Nickie said, is that his mom told him to never leave this space. “She was superstitious in the way that she thought, and if the luck is there, you stay” referring to the restaurant's success at that location. “If you want to experience having a Filipino grandmother, what it feels like to have a home cooked Filipino meal, come here” said Nickie, “It will fill you up, touch your soul, and make you smile.” I wrapped up by asking Nickie what other exciting things are coming up for him, his response “I kind of wish my parents had more kids and I want a big family” he laughs “but this coming new year, I'm planning on getting a puppy, so I want to start with that and see how it goes.”

Visit:
Ruby’s Fast Food
3740 W Montrose Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 539-2669

Hours:
Monday - Closed
Tuesday through Friday - 12:00pm to 7:00pm
Saturday and Sunday - 11:00am to 7:00pm
Holiday Hours Vary

About the Author - Leslie Fabian
Leslie has a long background in the hospitality industry and initially started in the industry with the hopes of eventually opening a restaurant. That is still the case, but in the meantime, she spends her time dining at area restaurants, trying new foods, and baking. She is also working on starting a Food Blog called “All Things Eats” where she showcases area restaurants, makes baking videos, reviews new food products, and generally talks about all things eats!

The Mantu

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

The Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Space and Menu Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trials and Tribulations

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

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

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

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

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”

 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.

Saffron

In the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho, a refreshing respite from the usual chain restaurants has opened on the ever-regenerating old main street in the historic downtown. Yellow, red, and orange paint with gold accents adorn the walls, suggestive of the warm smells of spice lingering in the air. Wafts of cardamom, cinnamon, and anise engulf you as you enter Saffron, the first standalone Indian restaurant in Twin Falls.
Sanu, from Kolkata, India and Rosemary, his wife from Peru form the dynamic duo running the restaurant. Both Sanu and Rosemary immigrated to the U.S. on work visas within the last 5 years. They met in Sun Valley, Idaho while working at different restaurants in the area and bonded over their mutual love and passion for food.


Sanu and Rosemary

Sanu grew up learning about cooking under the tutelage of his Mother, who he says was a very good cook, but didn’t start thinking about cooking as a career until he was 22. After completing a 3-year degree in Hotel and Hospital Management, he cooked at various 5-star hotels in India. Dreaming of bigger and better things, he heard of an opportunity from a consultancy group for a job cooking in Sun Valley, Idaho and jumped at the opportunity.

Vegetable Curry, Karahi Chicken, Chicken Korma

Rosemary moved to the U.S. four years ago on a work visa to join her family who owns a group of local burrito shops in Southern Idaho called KB’s. In her spare time, she pursued her degree in Business Management from the local community college.
After dating over the course of a few years, they moved to San Francisco and worked in an upscale Indian restaurant, honing their culinary and restaurant chops. During their time in San Francisco, Rosemary’s mother called and asked her if she and Sanu could come help manage and cook at the Pocatello KB’s restaurant to help the family. Rosemary was hesitant as they were really enjoying their time in San Francisco, but she knew she had to help her family, so she agreed.

Chicken 65 Appetizer

After a few months of managing and cooking at the restaurant, although they enjoyed the business, they realized that they longed for something more. Sanu was dying inside to get back to his Indian roots and express his true culinary self. They dreamed of owning their own restaurant, making their own dishes with their own spices in their own way. One night, Rosemary and Sanu were spending time with Sanju, Sanu’s brother who had owned an Indian restaurant in Pocatello. After sharing some laughs, they had a sudden thought- why don’t we open a restaurant?  That night they started looking for available spaces in Twin Falls where they might open a restaurant. As fate would have it, they found that the KB’s burritos in downtown Twin Falls had just closed and was available to lease. Although it was 9 at night, they called the realtor and set up a meeting to see the property the next day. The next day, they showed up at the restaurant and 30 minutes later signed the lease and Saffron was born.


Lunch special with assorted dishes

With the help of Sanju and other family members, they started rapidly painting, decorating, and just 3 months later, Saffron was open for business. With Rosemary running the business side and greeting customers with a smile and Sanu cooking his creative and comforting food, Saffron has taken off. Dishes like chicken 65, an appetizer named for its 65 different spices that go into the flavorful curry, are part of a delicious and adventurous menu. Community members were packed in on the first night I visited, excited to welcome something new and authentic into their town. As I take the first bite of the chicken karahi, flavors of ginger, garam masala, tomato, chiles, and cinnamon warm my palate. The Naan is chewy, buttery and crispy. The rice is fragrant and fluffy. Sanu comes out to eagerly ask how everything is, satisfied as we rave about all the dishes we are eating.


In the back of the kitchen are Renuka, Kal, Krishna, and Ran, immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan, laughing and enjoying each other’s company as they chop onions, garlic, peppers, and ginger. They say they are all one big, happy family. Sanu says that he is most excited when other Indians come in and give positive compliments to the dishes. He says that Indians can be quite critical of Indian food, so when they give their seal of approval, it means a lot. Sanu says that he prides himself on not cutting corners, spending hours simmering the curries, toasting and grinding his own spices, and roasting the vegetables to build the bold, complex flavors that go into each of his dishes. He says that he is constantly experimenting with new dishes, testing them out as specials, and if the customer reaction is good, he will put It on the full-time menu.


Rosemary says that it took her a while to learn all the nuances of Indian food- all the spices, the dishes, and flavors that were very different from her Peruvian roots. She is also learning to speak Hindi, while Sanu is slowly picking up Spanish. Sanu jokes that Peruvian food doesn’t taste like anything, to which Rosemary shoots back asking why he asked her to make Peruvian Ceviche on their day off? Sanu laughs and admits that he has grown to love Peruvian food, but Indian food will always be first in his heart. This beautiful combination of cultures seems to be the secret ingredient to the delicious flavors and inviting ambience of Saffron, making it well on its way to becoming a staple in Twin Falls for years to come.

Visite:
Saffron
117 Main Ave E,
Twin Falls, ID 83301
saffronidaho@gmail.com
Tel: 208-933-2580

About Author: Porter Long

Porter Long is a food scientist by day, food fermentation experimenter by night, and a food enthusiast always. He lives in Twin Falls, Idaho with his wife, two dogs, and four chickens.