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

Mrs. Potato Restaurant – Brazilian Potato House

Mrs. Potato a Brazilian potato house

To wander inside of Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian potato house tucked into Southwest Orlando, you’d never imagine from the modest decor and cozy atmosphere that this restaurant was showcased in an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives when Guy Fieri chose Orlando as his featured “Flavortown” in 2017.

carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese

Carne Seca

“I hope you’re hungry,” says chef-owner Rafaela Cabede as a carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese is placed in front of me, the server pausing briefly with a big smile to see my reaction to this ultimate comfort food. The rosti potato, Brazil’s version of the classic potato pancake, is Mrs. Potato’s signature dish, with filling options that not only represent the traditional Brazilian flavors that Rafaela grew up with, but also Philly cheesesteak, broccoli and cheese, and other flavors that remind Americans of home as well.

“I’m happy to share my culture, but I want to respect your culture as well,” says Rafaela as she politely watches me groan over the crispy, buttery potatoes and the saltiness of the meat. A creamy, house-made garlic sauce and a spicy Brazilian pepper sauce are served on the side for additional flavoring, but the rosti is heavenly in its own right.

The carne seca, or dried beef, rosti potato has a yellow star next to it on the Mrs. Potato menu, indicating that Guy Fieri sampled and put his restauranteur stamp of approval on it. It has become the most popular menu item since the episode aired, but while Rafaela says she was overjoyed to have been chosen for the TV show, she was also nervous for one main reason — she had no formal culinary or restaurant education.

Rafaela Cabede

Chef Rafaela with Carne Seca

“All I have is a passion for cooking. I have always cooked for my family and for my friends,” says Rafaela. “Some people go running, some go to the gym. I go to the kitchen. Cooking is my way of telling people ‘I love you.’

She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian potato houses are a mainstay of Brazilian comfort cuisine. It was in Rio where Rafaela’s mother met her stepfather, an American engineer from California who was in the country working on a project with his company. The two were married after a year and a half, and after her stepfather’s project was complete, the family moved to California when Rafaela was 11.

She stayed in the San Francisco Bay area for about three years, and when Rafaela was about 14, she and her family went back to Brazil, where she finished her education and ended up getting a professional degree in teaching. Rafaela enriched the lives of both children and adults during her career, but as the political situation in Brazil became more volatile, she knew she had to make a decision to secure a better future for her daughter, Bruna.

In 2010, when her daughter was 10 years old, Rafaela made the important decision to come back to the San Francisco/Bay area. With her teaching career left behind her in Brazil, Rafaela’s dream to open a potato house began to take the forefront.

“The concept of a Brazilian potato house is very common in Brazil. But when I told other people my dream that I wanted to open a Brazilian potato house, they would look at me and say, ‘What!?’” a Brazilian Potato House? she said. “Potatoes are international. I don’t know one culture that doesn’t have them. Like when you play cards and a wild card goes with anything, potatoes go well with anything.”

But Rafaela soon found that realizing her dream might not be possible in San Francisco.

“I couldn’t find quality Brazilian ingredients in California for my Brazilian potato house. It was like being an artist and having your brushes and tools taken away. I wasn’t feeling it,” she says.

The strong Brazilian culture and more accessible and diverse food markets of Orlando, Florida appealed to Rafaela, and shortly after, she relocated to The City Beautiful. But although her dream to open a potato house was just as alive and strong as ever, she knew she wasn’t ready yet.

“I didn’t know anything about restaurants. Everything I knew about it was what I had seen on TV,” she says, laughing.

Rafaela decided to begin her foray into the restaurant industry by starting at the beginning and applying at Brio Tuscan Grille at Orlando’s Millenia Mall. She did not yet have the necessary experience to be a server, so she began as a hostess and used the position as an opportunity to learn.

“Whenever I got the opportunity to go into the kitchen, I would ask them, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and I was probably the most annoying person but they would explain it to me and I learned about consistency, portion control, temperature control...I saw someone putting hot chicken into the refrigerator and asked why because my mom had always told me I would break the fridge if I put hot things in it,” she says. “They told me about getting the chicken down to a certain temperature in a certain amount of time to keep it safe from bacteria.”

Rafaela’s tenacity and determination earned her a place in Brio’s server course after just four months with the company, which was unheard of at the time. At the end of the course, she and three other potential servers were tested by having to serve the General Manager and other senior positions at the restaurant as though they were everyday customers, and Rafaela says it is the most difficult test she has ever taken to date.

“One of them would ask for water with no ice, one of them would ask for water with ice and lemon, and we had to memorize the ingredients for everything on the menu so one of them would claim to have an allergy and ask if a certain ingredient was in a dish,” she said.

Of the four people who took that final test, only three passed — and Rafaela was one of them. In the four years that she stayed with Brio, she quickly worked her way up from server to closer to team leader while continuing to ask questions from the experts around her and using every opportunity to learn.

“From customer service to cleaning to answering review, I’m so thankful for that. That was my big school,” she says.

Now ready to realize her dream, Rafaela opened the first location of Mrs. Potato in 2014, in a small kiosk on International Drive — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Orlando.

“We had four flavors on the menu when we first began,” she explains, “and everything we made was to pay the bills. What’s for dinner? Let’s have a potato. Every single day I would eat a potato because that’s what I could afford.”

As for the name Mrs. Potato, Rafaela says that was a result of sudden inspiration.

“I wanted a name that would speak for itself, and ‘Rafaela’s Potato House’ wouldn’t really do that. The drawer was drawing as I was speaking, and I thought ‘How about Mr. Potato?’ but realized that my husband can’t fry an egg and I’m the chef!”

happy-looking female potato character

Mrs. Potato was born, a happy-looking female potato character with one hand on her hip and the other holding a giant wooden spoon, ready to prepare your order in her chef’s hat and apron. Mrs. Potato has also become a nickname for Rafaela, and within just a year of opening the business, word had already spread about the new potato house in town and the little kiosk on International Drive was featured in Orlando Magazine.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

By 2016, Rafaela was able to move to her current location, which offered her the ability to upgrade from just a few outside picnic tables to a true restaurant experience. The popularity of her dishes continued to grow, and Mrs. Potato was soon visited by the local Fox 35 TV station.

But although her business was gaining traction, Rafaela’s daughter, Bruna, was getting closer to college age, and Rafaela was worried about being able to send her to her school of choice — the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

“How could I have the story of bringing her over here for a better life and then have to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to go to school?” she said.

Their lives changed when Guy Fieri came to town.

“He asked me where my daughter was, and I said, ‘She’s out front.’ He said, ‘I want to meet her’ so he went out there and he said to her, ‘We’re doing this for you.’”

Bruna is now 19 years old and attending the University of Florida for International Affairs, an achievement that Rafaela knows she could not have achieved without Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Although the Food Network recognition has not changed or defined Rafaela or Mrs. Potato, the success that the restaurant has experienced since the episode aired is a large part of their story.

“I never imagined this,” says Rafaela, speaking about the 300% increase in business that the restaurant has seen and the Yelp awards, magazine features and autographed Guy Fieri poster that adorn the dining room wall.

The staff at Mrs. Potato, Brazilian Potato House which started with just one person in addition to Rafaela, is now a team of 20.

“They’re not just 20 employees. These are 20 families and 20 immigrants who have the same dreams that I did,” she says. “I think the American dream is still possible for people who work hard and are decent and who respect the culture. I don’t want to impose my culture; I want to share it.”

Banana Crunchy Roll

Before I knew what was happening, Rafaela whispered a few words in Portuguese to one of her staff, and in a few minutes, a surprise dessert was put on the table — a cheesecake and banana crunchy roll, served with soft vanilla ice cream and homemade dulce de leche sauce.

When I revealed that I’d eaten the entire carne seca potato because I couldn’t have leftovers due to being on the keto diet, Rafaela laughed a deep, hearty belly laugh, and a single spoon was placed at the table for me, because I was her guest.

Visit:
Mrs. Potato
4550 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, Florida 32811
407-290-0991

Author: Becky Greiner 
Becky is based in Orlando, Florida, and jumps at any opportunity to combine writing, people, and food. She has been writing professionally for 16 years and can most often be found on her patio with a cup of strong coffee and a book with a weird title.

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.

Buen Provecho

Kattia Rojas grew up in San Jose, Costa Rica, in what she describes as a traditional Latin family. She loved to watch as her mother cooked for the family and as her grandmother cooked for guests at the coastal inn that she and Kattia’s grandfather ran. Kattia was encouraged to pursue her studies rather than to spend too much time in the kitchen and it wasn’t until years later that she would blend these interests, with the creation of Buen Provecho Restaurant, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Buen Provecho

That blending began in 2000 when Kattia decided that, in order to move forward with her marketing career and to work for a trans-national company, she had to learn English. She had several family members living in Sussex County, New Jersey, and soon found herself living there for what she thought would be one month. One month turned into several and then into a year. As her English improved, she ended up working for her uncle’s company where she met her husband, William, who was also from Costa Rica.

Buen Provecho
Buen Provecho

When an opportunity to move West to manage a ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, presented itself, Kattia and William decided to take it. It was there, in Southern Colorado, that Kattia remembered her love of cooking. The ranch’s owners were an elderly couple who enjoyed socializing and Kattia began making desserts and dishes for them to take to events. It was during this period that Kattia realized cooking came naturally to her and that, more importantly, she enjoyed it. “I should take this seriously,” she thought.

Along with other managerial tasks, she began cooking for 20-30 guests at time, harking back to time spent in the kitchen at her grandparent’s inn. It was up to her to create the menu and she would periodically throw a traditional Costa Rican casado into the mix.  Though casado literally means a “married man,” in Costa Rican cuisine it also refers to the meals wives traditionally cook for their husbands, always consisting of rice, black beans, plantians, salad, a tortilla and a protein, usually pork, chicken, or beef.  In addition to traditional casados, Kattia would also cook favorites such as ropa vieja ( shredded beef in a tomato sauce) and arroz con pollo (chicken and rice).  According to Kattia, “arroz con pollo is very traditional in Costa Rica. If you get married there, you have to serve arroz con pollo. If you have a birthday party, you must serve arroz con pollo. It’s what we do. It’s tradition. For my daughter’s birthdays, I always serve arroz con pollo.”

Over time, Kattia and William became full-time assistants to the owners. They spent summers in Pagosa Springs and the rest of the year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where their bosses encouraged them to go back to school. In 2011 Kattia enrolled in the baking program at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM)  and then in the culinary arts program. As a student, she began selling her pastries and desserts to restaurants around Albuquerque. She graduated with a degree in baking and soon began an internship with The Streetfood Institute (streetfoodinstitute.org). The internship helped turn Kattia’s dream into a business. In addition to offering entrepreneurial classes and support, The Streetfood Institute helped her to find a commercial kitchen space to rent.

Kattia began by making tamales. Though New Mexico has its own traditional version, Kattia wanted to introduce Albuquerque to Costa Rican tamales, which use a different kind of masa (cornmeal), often less spicy fillings, and are wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. She began slowly, selling only to friends and to others in the local Costa Rican community, until several of her teachers urged her to expand and begin selling tamales to the public.

In 2015 she and William obtained their first business license and food permit and bought a customized van so they could sell tamales, pastries, and desserts at the Railyard Market on Sunday mornings, in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood. Long lines formed almost immediately and she began to sell out every Sunday. Though markets can be grueling, with pre-dawn load-ins and set-ups, she loved meeting people and watching as they were introduced to Costa Rican flavors. And, through these markets, her reputation grew. She began catering private events, added two more markets to her weekly repertoire and, with the help of one friend from baking school, was making 300 tamales and pastries each week.

Buen Provecho
Buen Provecho

In the summer of 2017, she received a call from someone she’d met at one of the markets, who loved her tamales, asking if she’d be interested in opening a restaurant in the El Vado Motel. Originally built in 1937 and located on Route 66, near Albuquerque’s Old Town and the Rio Grande river, The El Vado was being revamped as not only a hotel but as a combination of restaurants, shops, a taproom, and lofts, all surrounding a common patio and fountain. Kattia’s friend, who now managed the El Vado, wanted she and William to sign a lease for one of the soon to be opened restaurant spaces. After discussing it, Kattia and William decided they didn’t feel ready and they decided not to sign.
Over the next six months, the couple they had spent sixteen years assisting needed less help from Kattia and William. They encouraged them to expand their business and to start a restaurant. In 2015, the husband passed away and in January, 2018, on the same day that the wife moved into an assisted care facility, Kattia received another call from her friend at El Vado. There was one spot left and, though smaller than the one they’d originally opted out of, could be perfect for them. Kattia loved the rustic, cool vibe of El Vado’s white stuccoed adobe walls because it reminded her of her grandparents’ inn. By this point Kattia’s confidence had grown because of her success at the markets and she took it as a fortuitous sign that another spot had opened up. She and William decided to take the leap and to officially open Buen Provecho.
The new El Vado opened in May of 2018, with Buen Provecho standing proudly between Zendo coffee and Happy Chickenzz. Kattia tears up remembering the day she first saw the sign hanging above her door and of all of the hard work that had gone into making her dream a reality. Buen Provecho is cozy, welcoming guests with the smell of Costa Rican coffee (roasted specially for the restaurant), tres leches cake, and an assortment of casados


When asked about her menu, Kattia says she spent over a month planning and thinking about it. She knew she wanted to have appetizers, sandwiches, and some larger plates, along with her famous tamales and pastries. Because their space is small, they rent a commercial kitchen where they make all of the tamales and desserts. The meals are all made fresh to order with ingredients bought that day. Although Kattia misses being able to pick mangos and passionfruit in the backyard, she has no trouble finding them, along with other essential ingredients such as coconut, tamarind, and banana leaves, at supermarkets in Albuquerque, especially Ta Lin Market and El Mezquite market.
I visited Buen Provecho twice for this story, once at their stand at the Railyard Holiday Market and once at their El Vado base. At the market, I ordered one of their vegan tamales, filled with mushrooms and topped with sun-dried tomatoes and a tapenade made of capers, green and black olives, roasted red peppers. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it was delicious and easy to eat while strolling through the market. Two women asked me what I was eating and where they could get one as I looked at soaps and candles a few stalls down from Kattia’s. When I visited their restaurant, I ordered the Ropa Vieja casado and Vegetarian Nachos. First of all the meal was beautiful! Garnished with avocado and mango, the plate came with shredded beef in a tomato sauce, perfectly seasoned black beans, picadillo stew (which reminded me of my favorite New Mexican calabacitas), sweet plantains, a salad, rice with a fried egg on top, and a homemade corn tortilla. It was an abnormally warm December day and I sat on the patio, though both the casado and the homemade cheddar cheese sauce drizzled nachos would have gone well with a beer from the El Vado Taproom, had I wanted to eat indoors


Within two weeks of opening Buen Provecho, Kattia and William had lines snaking out the door and realized they would need to hire more help quickly. They now have 8 part time employees, most of whom Kattia met through the baking program at CNM. When asked about plans to expand, she says that the goal is to open another Buen Provecho in 2019 and possibly more beyond that. Because business has been so good, she has had to cut down on markets which she misses but hopes to do one per month when the season returns. Her eleven year old daughter loves to help at the markets and, as Kattia tells me, “is proud of her mom.”
When asked if she thinks the American Dream is possible, she says yes, but it is not easy. She and William have achieved it through hard work, education, saving money, and a periodic leap of faith. She says it has all been worth it because of the happiness she feels by sharing her food and culture with her customers. As it says on the back of her menu, “my customers are like my family and my food is my gift to them.”
Buen Provecho!

BuenProvechoABQ.com
2500 Central Ave SW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
(505) 550-9668

Winter Hours:

Tuesday- Thursday 11:30-6:30
Friday 11:30-7
Saturday 11-7
Sunday 11-5

The Author: Claire Sandrin lives, writes, and eats in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can follow her adventures at smagik.com or @smagikstudio on Instagram

La Chiva

La Chiva

Walking into La Chiva is like coming home. Winter is still in full force in downtown Denver, Colorado, and the drastic 20 (and sometimes, 30) degree difference between day and night makes the brisk evening air feel that much colder. But being greeted by the smell of hot oil and spices and feasting your eyes on the greenery and vibrant colors in the cozy little restaurant are enough to warm even the coldest hands and cause even the fullest tummies to grumble.

Spanish music plays softly over the speakers while Carmen dances and sings along in the kitchen. She gives prompt service behind the register to her guests and always with a bright smile. Her husband, Jorge, is busy cooking in the kitchen. The Colombian couple are the proud owners of La Chiva, a restaurant specializing in Colombian cuisine which originally started as a food truck.

La Chiva

La Chiva – A Brief History

“La chiva” is a Colombian party bus and the perfect name for their food truck, which still makes appearances around the city. The couple thought it best to start as a food truck and when the time came, open a brick and mortar restaurant. The food truck has been traveling around Denver for 4 years and the brick and mortar was opened about 8 months ago.

The story of La Chiva was many years in the making. From an early age, Jorge could always be found in the kitchen. “Growing up, I loved food, I loved going to the kitchen. My brothers…they would tease me because a man’s not supposed to be in the kitchen.” Jorge immigrated to the United States with his family as a junior in high school. He attended college where he met Carmen, who had immigrated to the U.S. in order to further her college education. Carmen went into the healthcare field, while Jorge started his career in IT. He worked in the IT field until retirement, but opening a restaurant had always been his dream.

Carmen and Jorge lived in New Jersey, Chicago, and Atlanta before settling in Denver to be close to their collegiate daughter. “Everywhere I went, I wanted to find Colombian food,” says Jorge. Jorge decided to attend culinary school in order to get the skills he would need to achieve his goal. While opening a restaurant seemed intimidating, a chef at the culinary school suggested that he first open a food truck in order to get a feel for the food industry. And the dream what was La Chiva finally came into existence.

La Chiva

While the name “La Chiva” has been humming around Denver for several years, the restaurant is only 8 months old. “Having the restaurant, it gives us the chance to explore other things and serve other foods that we just can’t from the truck” says Carmen.

Although both Carmen and Jorge are from Colombia, they grew up in different areas and their experience of food was very different. Carmen hails from a city called Cali, a city near the coast where the food is characterized by freshness and vibrancy. Carmen remembers enjoying a lot of fresh fruit and fish in her hometown. Jorge, on the other hand, comes from the capital of Bogotá, which is high in the mountains. The population there enjoys dishes that are heavier in carbs (mostly in the form of root vegetables, such as potato and yucca) and meat. Soups are also popular in this region. When opening La Chiva, they decided to represent recipes and dishes from all areas of Colombia, even researching recipes suggested by others, both native Colombian and visitor alike. “Culture influences a lot, not only what we’re trying to serve but how it’s being received and perceived,” explains Carmen, who represents the food she loves by using as much organic food as possible. She even grows her own herbs for the restaurant, some of which live on the window sill at the front of the restaurant. “I grow a lot of the herbs…I try to have that sense of freshness.”

La Chiva

Opening a Colombian restaurant was a brave endeavor indeed, considering the majority of Latin food eateries in Denver feature Mexican cuisine, which is a very different dining experience. But Jorge stands by his food. “I was confident that once people started tasting it, they would appreciate it a lot more and learn about it. Then, I would be OK.” While admitting that it was a risk, Jorge also knows that having a unique flavor would be an asset. “I certainly love it so I figure, why wouldn’t people love it?”

 La Chiva

The Meal

The meal starts with a Latin food staple: empanadas. Many Latin dishes that are well-known in America are usually as variegated among the Spanish-speaking world as barbeque recipes in the U.S., and empanadas are no exception. At their core, empanadas are a filling wrapped in dough. These fillings can be savory (meat or vegetarian) or they can be sweet (usually fruit or chocolate) and the choice of dough is meant to compliment the filling. While usually fried, these sumptuous Spanish bites can also be baked.

Tonight, the appetizers are beef and chicken empanadas. The meat is tender and well-seasoned, encircled in a crispy pillow of masa (corn flour dough), making for a very rich and decadent empanada. On the side is a simple vinaigrette, which cuts the richness and completes the dish by striking a perfect balance.

La Chiva
Meat Empanadas with vinaigrette

Reflecting Carmen’s desire for freshness, the menu at La Chiva boasts fruit beverages made with tropical fruits of the region. These frothy fruit blends cleanse and refresh the palate.

La Chiva
Front: Limonada Cartegenera, Back: Guava Juice

Arroz con camarones (translation: rice with shrimp) is a deceptively simple name for a very flavorful plate. The combination of yellow rice; plump, pink shrimp; and motley pick of vegetables makes this dish a celebration for the eyes and the taste buds. Spices from the rice combine with natural sweetness from the shrimp, peas, and carrots and earthiness from the onions and beans to give this dish a well-rounded flavor harmony.

The arroz con camarones is served with a side of both savory and sweet plantains. Plantains are plants that resemble bananas in appearance – they start out a vibrant green but turn yellow as they ripen. Both green and yellow plantains are cooked and eaten and while they are the same plant at different stages of ripening, the have an immensely different flavor.

Green plantains are usually fried twice and then dusted with salt. Their starchiness is closer to a potato than at banana at this stage and their taste and texture is similar to a thick French fry – salty and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Yellow plantains, on the other hand, are sweeter, yet still very starchy. They can be baked, but are also usually fried. The cooked yellow plantain tastes sweeter, like a caramelized banana with a toothsome texture, making it a harmonious side in both sweet and savory applications.

La Chiva
Arroz con camarones

The Bandeja Moñatanera (literal translation: “mountain tray”) is a traditional Colombian dish that arranges red beans, white rice, chorizo (Spanish sausage), sweet and savory plantains, arepa (flatbread made from cornmeal), chicharrón (pork belly), pork ribs, avocado, and a fried egg together. This dish is a deconstructed plate: the guest can combine each element in any way desired to experience a plethora of flavor combinations. The red beans are served in a deep, rich broth and the meats are charred and smoky with plenty of melty fat. The avocado and fried egg provide a complimentary creamy element, while the arepa is warm and homey. Any pairing of two or more elements creates a unique palate experience, new and exciting until the last bite.

La Chiva
Bandeja Moñatanera

Traditionally, flan is a Spanish dessert custard with a caramel syrup topping. The desserts served at La Chiva are specials – not on the regular menu. One of the special desserts tonight features this traditional favorite with a La Chiva twist: coconut flan.

The flan is a thick custard bursting with coconut flavor and a hint of almond extract. The warm, nutty flavor pairs with the milky consistency and light sweetness of the dessert – a rich, dark cup of coffee makes the perfect couple.

La Chiva

Culture

“Is it like you remembered?” inquires Carmen gleefully. The customer responds with an emphatic “Oh, yes!” and Carmen smiles brightly, then starts chatting in Spanish with another guest paying at the register. Jorge stands behind the kitchen counter, sporting his signature brown fedora. He waves at customers leaving the warm restaurant and venturing into the snowy and bleak evening air.

Indeed, culture is an important ingredient weaved into every recipe made here at La Chiva. A strong sense of connection with the community permeates this snug little restaurant, coupled with a comforting hospitality that breeds contentment – no wonder this restaurant is full when there’s 5 inches of snow on the ground. It’s an excellent place to find shelter from the weather – and also a strong cup of Colombian coffee.

La Chiva
Jorge and Carmen – Owners of La Chiva

VISIT:

La Chiva
1417 S Broadway, Denver CO 80210
(720) 389 9847

About the Author:
Colleen’s WordPress Blog
Born and raised a military brat, Colleen has always been passionate about cuisine and culture. Fascinated by infinite combinations of flavors, she uses every experience to influence her cooking and to hone her palette. Colleen currently resides in Denver, Colorado with her husband, Cecilio, and dog, Duncan.