Que Chevere

No matter how early I get to Que Chevere, there always is a line of hungry pedestrians waiting outside for arepas. Often, it is the only food truck with a line of customers during the early stages of an event. No matter the weather; rain, intense Arizona desert heat, or the cold, Que Chevere has always been well worth the wait.

Their Story

Que Chevere is a family owned and operated Venezuelan food truck. They opened in 2015 and have been serving the Valley since. Maria and Orvid are the married duo behind the food at Que Chevere. Maria immigrated from Barquisimeto, Venezuela in 2003, and Orvid is a second generation American. Maria originally came to the US to participate in a high school exchange program for a year. At the end of her exchange year, Maria decided to stay in the US as Venezuela’s situation deteriorated and the economy crashed. She then decided to stay for college on a student visa. It was during her time at Mesa Community college that she met her husband and now chef team-mate, Orvid.

Prior to starting Que Chevere, both Maria and Orvid worked desk jobs. MAria worked in graphic design, while Orvid dealt with mortgages at a bank. During their time together, Orvid fell in love with the savory latin food that Maria and her mother made. “By 2005 she started cooking for me, every year after that I’d tell her, ‘Start a restaurant’.... like for ten years”. Orvid said eventually he decided to drop everything and do just that- start a restaurant. Orvid had full faith in the potential of Maria’s family recipes, so much so, that he pulled out his 401k, quit his job at Chase and purchased a food truck to start selling her arepas.

In the beginning, Orvid and Maria were encouraged to sell something “familiar” to their audience along with their arepas. Many people recommended tacos or even changing the ingredients to a more Americanized style. Despite criticism, Maria and Orvid chose to stay true to their roots and create true Venezuelan food. Today, they continue to use the same family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Orvid expected Maria’s savory Venezuelan food to sell, but what neither of them were expecting, was the impact they’d have on Arizona’s Venezuelan community. Orvid found that no matter what event they participated in, nor what part of Arizona they went to, Que Chevere always attracted a group of Venezuelans. Due to Arizona’s lack of a cultural center for Venezuelans, Que Chevere has become a sort of traveling “Little Venezuela”. Truly becoming the heart of Arizona’s Venezuelan community.

The Food

Que Chevere offers a variety of arepas and other traditional Venezuelan food and drink. The arepa is a traditional bread made from corn flour, water and salt, then cooked ‘till the outside is crispy but still has a soft interior. It is often paired with fillings like perico; a tomato and egg mixture, beans and meat, and fresh cheese.

I first ordered the Arepa Reina. The traditional arepa is stuffed with a savory chicken spread and a large helping of mashed avocado. It is then served with a side of salty-sweet plantain chips. A humble, but delicious meal.

Next, I ordered the Arepa Pabellon. With this arepa, every bite is a symphony of flavors. The arepa is packed with black beans, queso, pulled beef and plantains. The beef in this arepa was soft and juicy, and oozed out each time I took a bite. The best part of this arepa is the way the savory flavor of the meat and beans hits you first, but as you bite there is this amazing sweet aftertaste from the plantains. Its is nothing short of heaven.

It is impossible for me to go to Que Chevere and not order their tequenos, which is just one of many secret menus options. Tequenos are best and most easily described as Latin America’s mozzarella stick, but so much better. With tequenos, queso de mano (a venezuelan fresh white cheese)is wrapped in dough and then fried to a golden crisp. They are crunchy on the outside and have a cheesy salty-sweet taste. Here it is paired with a specialty sauce, but Maria and Orvid’s tequenos are just as good on their own.

The last thing I ordered from Que Chevere was their homemade Chicha. Chicha is similar to the Mexican Horchata in that it is a spiced rice milk drink. Chicha, however, is much thicker and is heavy with a cinnamon flavor. The sweet rice milk is served chilled on ice and was the perfect way to end my meal from Que Chevere.

The Future for Que Chevere

What started off as nothing more that a man's love and belief in his wife’s cooking, has grown into a widely loved food hotspot here in Arizona. It is with great pleasure that I have been granted permission to reveal that Maria and Orvid have recently purchased a restaurant front in Downtown Mesa, and will be opening in early 2020. Their storefront will feature items previously only available on the secret menu such as Venezuelan hamburgers, empanadas, cachapas and pepitos. They will continue to operate the food truck ,but will now also serve out of their new brick and mortar restaurant, spreading their culture and cuisine to more people.

Visit:
Que Chevere
Que Chevere’s weekly stops can be found on their website and Instagram.
Instagram: @quechevereaz
BRICK AND MORTAR COMING SOON - 142 W. MAIN ST. MESA AZ

About the Author
Joslin Renee is a journalism student at her local community college. She has always had a love for other cultures and the people that come with it. Joslin aspires to become to become an investigative journalist and political activist in the future.

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

Fresh Pot Café

So Fresh, So Clean

I stood entranced as I watched owners/chefs/spouses Blanca Mullo and Marco Garrido working some magic in their sparkling-clean kitchen, whipping up dishes from their native homeland of Ecuador. The smells of fresh herbs and spices filled the air, and when I say “fresh,” I mean just-picked-out-of-their-garden fresh. Mullo and Garrido grow mint, oregano, thyme and other ingredients in their home garden to use in their dishes and also sweeten several with local honey. You can’t get more fresh than that.

They didn’t know I was coming beforehand, so after catching them by surprise, I’m sure their kitchen is always this immaculate. This is also evidenced by their perfect 100 health score I noticed they had gotten on their last inspection. Mullo said after first immigrating to the United States she began working in housekeeping, cleaning in hotels as well as houses. I’m sure she excelled because if this restaurant is any indicator, she truly is a queen of clean in addition to Ecuadorian cuisine.

Bringing That Zero-Degrees-Latitude, Hard-Working Attitude to Chattanooga

With the equator passing through at zero degrees latitude, the Republic of Ecuador in South America is literally a translation of “Republic of Equator.” In an unassuming strip mall in the Chattanooga, Tenn., incorporated community of Hixson, at a latitude of 35.13948 degrees, Mullo and Garrido decided to open their Ecuadorian restaurant in 2014.

Mullo grew up in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador and the country’s most populated city. When she was a child, her mother owned a grocery store that eventually also became a restaurant. She and her siblings would help her mother in the store and restaurant after school in the afternoons and do their homework in the evenings. Mullo said her mother is a very hard-working, successful and ambitious person, and she has been a major influence on her life.

Mullo married Garrido when she was 18 years old. Together they opened their own restaurant in Quito while continuing to help her mother with hers. During Mullo’s childhood and early adulthood in Ecuador, she said her life was not difficult. However, that changed with the depreciation and eventual collapse of the sucre, which was Ecuador’s currency until the year 2000.

On January 9, 2000, Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad declared the U.S. dollar as Ecuador’s official currency. The Ecuadorian sucre had fallen victim to rampant inflation that had increased rapidly in the preceding years, so Mahuad decided to switch the country to a more stable currency. However, this dollarization hit the country’s economy hard. Overnight, the sucre became mostly worthless and those who hadn’t already invested their sucres into U.S. dollars in advance lost most of their money.

Mullo said most common people didn’t know the switch was coming and were caught by surprise. “It disappeared from the morning to the night … One morning we had the sucre, and the next morning it didn’t exist,” she said. “Nobody knew [ahead of time] except the government and the banks. The businesses became broke.”

Then-President Mahuad faced civil unrest with demonstrations by the public, and a military coup forced him out of office on January 22, 2000, just 13 days after the currency switch. Mahuad’s Vice President, Gustavo Noboa, was then appointed as Ecuadorian President, but he continued with the dollarization of the economy Mahuad had started. Because mostly only the government and the banks knew of the official switch and it hit the general public without warning, there was some shady business going on with embezzlement of U.S. dollars and currency exchanges from some in government and the upper classes who were tipped off ahead of time. The lower and middle classes were hit the hardest with the surprise, though the whole country suffered to varying degrees with the decline of the sucre.

Mullo said her life after dollarization wasn’t terrible, it was just that their options dissipated after the sucre went away. Her family was not wanting for anything important like water and food. She realized that she had it better than other people in Ecuador because she lived in the city, and many Ecuadorians in rural areas had it much worse. While more difficult after dollarization, her life continued on and she did the best she could working hard during that Ecuadorian recession at the beginning of the millennium.

Three years later, in 2003, Garrido got a call about an opportunity to come to the U.S. for a restaurant job in Chattanooga and decided to take it. Mullo followed two months later after their daughter finished school. As Mullo worked her aforementioned housekeeping jobs before moving on to join Garrido in Chattanooga’s restaurant industry, continuing their culinary craft and supporting their daughter in college, they were brewing what would eventually become the Fresh Pot Café. They had plenty to bring to the table with their Ecuadorian culinary experience and knowledge of running their own business in this new location approximately 35 degrees latitude from where their culinary journey began.

Mullo said: “Chattanooga was the first city that we visited in the U.S. and it has been a beautiful experience. We were in Chattanooga for 10 years before we decided to open this restaurant. I love the city. It was a challenge, but we’ve embraced the difficulties and successes of our journey. We have been blessed. The people of Chattanooga seem to like Latino cuisine. We’ve had guests come from all over the country from Nashville to Chicago [in addition to being] so well-received by the city. We like to represent the Latino community as people who are very capable of success. We show that Latino immigrants come to this country, work hard and move forward.”

Mullo has frequently gone back to Ecuador to visit family, especially her mother. And while in Ecuador, she gathers traditional spices and other ingredients, bringing them back to add to the Fresh Pot Café’s authenticity of their Ecuadorian dishes. However, recent trips have not been so pleasant due to her mother’s illness. “Because my mother is very important to me, she’s on my mind quite a bit,” Mullo said. “Being far from her side breaks my heart.”

Because Ecuador is on the U.S. dollar as their official currency now, visiting Ecuador is even easier than most countries for U.S. tourists because there is no currency exchange. The bills are the exact same bills used in the U.S., though some coins are a bit different while holding the same monetary value. Ecuador is a beautiful country worth visiting for the sights, history, culture and food — and if you’re interested in seeing that southern/northern hemisphere equator water rotation trick. However, for Chattanoogans, we don’t have to go to Ecuador to get authentic Ecuadorian food. Mullo and Garrido have brought it to us, so I roamed over to Hixson to check it out.

Roamin’ with Roman Around Ecuadorian Cuisine in Hixson

Everything about this restaurant is low-key until you step inside: from the suburban strip mall it’s located in, to the name of the restaurant, which sounds like a coffee shop. It’s been going strong for about six years, and drawing in quite a crowd with a lot of positive buzz, despite its unobvious appearance as a restaurant that serves authentic Ecuadorian food.

Upon walking in, though, the Ecuadorian pride shines throughout. In addition to bringing ingredients from Ecuador for their dishes, Mullo and Garrido have a display case in front which showcases colorful keepsakes from their homeland. Artwork and photos from Ecuador line the walls along with an apron embroidered with the recipe for seco de pollo, an authentic Ecuadorian chicken stew. The Latino music playing through the sound system adds further immersion to the restaurant's ambiance.

Our server was very friendly, attentive and helpful with any questions we had about the menu. It was also nice of Mullo to talk to us about her life and her restaurant, and let me see the kitchen, even after we showed up unannounced.

The wall menu is written in yellow, blue and red chalk, which are the main colors of the Ecuadorian flag, along with the green and white on the coat of arms. However, the menu is quite eclectic and features some traditional North American café fare and pastas in addition to the authentic Ecuadorian cuisine. Being skilled chefs, they can cook anything and make it fresh and delicious, but the Ecuadorian menu was the treasure I was seeking.

Appetizers

To begin, and throughout my meal, I enjoyed their traditional Ecuadorian drink made of carrots, pineapple, passion fruit, oats and brown sugar. Oats are a base of several Ecuadorian drinks called colada de avena, refresco de avena or sometimes just “quaker” (named after the oat brand). This refreshing drink was nicely sweet, but not overly so, balanced by the oats and the earthiness of the carrots.

My partner and I ordered two appetizers: the ceviche de camaron (shrimp ceviche) and the yuca frita (fried yuca).

Ceviche is common throughout Latin American cuisine with some variations, and this Ecuadorian shrimp version was an excellent one. The basis of curing the raw shrimp in a powerful acidic bath of lemon juice, tomato and onion perfectly “cooked” these plump shrimp to their proper pinkness and tender consistency. The shrimp were deveined with precision and each bite exploded with these strong acidic flavors and cilantro. Not only were they prepared without literal heat, but mild without capsaicin spicy heat as well.

A lemon wedge was included to add more citric acid if desired, and a couple of avocado wedges also marinated in this pool party. Crunchy fried plantains were served to the side with a crispy outer breading exterior and a firm interior. These medallions were prepared savory without much sweetness and spiced but not spicy. They were an excellent vehicle for eating the shrimp or for sopping up the sauce.

Next, I tried their fried yuca. Also called cassava, yuca is a starchy tuber that is popular in Ecuador and throughout the tropics — the starch can also be extracted to make tapioca. This yuca dish had a crispy fried exterior with pillowy-soft interior layers. It was served with a side of chipotle mayo for dipping to add some savory creaminess and a smidge of heat.

This was a delicious dish any french fry lover would devour. It’s also available with pico de gallo on the side if mayo is “no bueno” to you, but even the most hardened mayonnaise hater could enjoy this emulsion with its powerful punch of aromatics.

Main Course

We sampled four main entrées from the Ecuadorian menu: the arroz colorado (rice pilaf), the seco de carne (beef stew), the encocado de mariscos (coconut seafood) and the fritada (fried pork).

Pretty much all of the dishes were mild as far as capsaicin pepper spiciness, but a fresh, house-made hot sauce was available that packed some heat. Its tomato, pepper, onion and vinegar base had some viscosity to help it stick to foods, and it would be good with most of their dishes for those who want to add an extra kick.

The arroz colorado had some kick of its own and was the spiciest dish I sampled, though it wasn’t super spicy, and the hot sauce went well with this dish to crank it up even more. Its tomato-based sauce was similar to the hot sauce but with a robust presence of cumin. As is standard with rice pilaf dishes, the rice was cooked in broth, proteins, veggies, herbs and spices to fully impart each grain with maximum flavor.

I had the chicken and sausage version. It’s also available with shrimp, but I had shrimp with two other dishes. The sausage had a smoky flavor with a presence of garlic, and this sliced pork link was sautéed with onions to crisp the casing and spread its flavor to the rest of the dish. The chicken, rice, bell peppers, carrots and peas all intermingled together with the sausage, onions, broth and sauce as the dish was cooked into its fluffy pile of goodness.

Medium-boiled egg, raw tomato slices and naturally sweet fried plantains were served to the side and nicely complemented the pilaf. The plantain chunks were not breaded and prepared much sweeter than the medallions I had earlier with the ceviche. They had a soft interior, much like the consistency of their cousin, the banana, with the fried outside caramelized with their sugars.

I was considering getting the seco de pollo (chicken stew) because of the recipe on the apron I talked about earlier, but I was in a beefy mood that day and got the seco de carne instead — though I will definitely come back to try the seco de pollo.

This was a steamy stew with tender cuts of beef braised in a tomato-based sauce that had strong notes of cumin and mild heat. Caramelized onions, celery, bell peppers, carrots and peas were stewed with the beef and provided a pleasing array of flavors in addition to a wide spectrum of colors. It also had a large chunk of potato, which soaked in the stew’s piquant essence as it softened.

White rice was served to the side to further soak up every last drop of this rich stew broth. The dish also included lettuce and avocado — many of the Ecuadorian dishes came with avocado, which is great because avocado is “delicioso.”

While I enjoyed all of the dishes I tasted, I think my personal favorite was the encocado de mariscos (coconut seafood). This dish is available with salmon or shrimp, or both, so of course I chose both.

The salmon and shrimp were both cooked perfectly juicy with the salmon delicately flaking with my fork. They were smothered in a luscious coconut sauce that was very creamy with a bit of sweetness and shredded coconut topping it off. I really like how coconut pairs with seafood, which both geographically and gastronomically makes sense because the coconut palm tree grows so close to the ocean. Coconut goes very well with both light seafood flavors such as shrimp, as well as the stronger flavors of oily fish like salmon. This sauce was glorious and would be good on pretty much anything, so fortunately there was plenty to go around with the sides.

My starchy buddy, the yuca, made another appearance in this dish. Unlike the appetizer, this side was mashed yuca shaped into cakes. Strong flavors of garlic and onion were cooked into this buttery mash, pan fried with a slight crispiness on the top and bottom. They were very smooth, light and airy like a cloud, and saturating them with the coconut cream sauce was heavenly.

The broccoli florets were cooked until they were softened a bit while still maintaining their deep green and nutrients. I used these floret clusters to mop up any last remnants of the sauce so I wouldn’t be tempted to lick my plate.

Last but certainly not least was the fritada dish. The pork had a juicy, flavorful interior that was perfectly cooked to be tender to the bite with a nice crispy outside. This is done traditionally by boiling the pork in water, onion, garlic and spices, letting the water reduce until it all evaporates and the fat starts to render, and then finishing it off by frying in the pork fat. It was served with an abundance of sides, including pico de gallo and avocado, that made this dish a delectable adventure.

The first side I tried was what they called “giant white corn” on the menu. This corn was made “giant” by boiling in an alkali to puff the kernels out. In Ecuador and other South American countries, this is called “mote,” and it is similar to “hominy” in Central and North America. Making the corn alkaline gives a more delicate consistency and flavor than regular corn, which they then amped up the flavor with a chile powder mixture.

With the fritadas being the stars of this dish, the co-stars were definitely the llapingachos, which are Ecuadorian potato pancakes. These had a silky mashed potato interior with no lumps, mixed with cheese, onion and spices, and a fried crust on the exterior. They had strong flavor of onion and annatto, with the latter also giving them their bright yellow hue. The cheese gave a bit of creaminess and there was also a slight tinge of sweetness.

Moving to the sweetest end of the spectrum of sides was the naturally sweet fried plantain. This was the same plantain side that was on the rice pilaf dish I talked about earlier. It provided a great interplay of savory and sweet to give this dish a kind of dessert in itself. Speaking of dessert ...

Desserts

To wrap up the meal, we tried the bread pudding and crème brûlée. While neither dish is necessarily Ecuadorian, these were the only two desserts offered when I was there.

However, widely consumed throughout much of the world, bread pudding is truly a universal dessert, crossing all class and cultural boundaries — albeit with different ingredients and preparation methods. Fresh Pot Café’s version was flavored with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in its warm bread mixture. Topped with smooth vanilla ice cream and fresh-sliced strawberry to cool things off, it was a decadent yet humble dessert that really hit the spot.

I took the crème brûlée to go because I was so full I was about to explode, but I had a taste while I was there. It was a velvety smooth vanilla custard with the top caramelized into a slightly crunchy crystal candied sugar layer. Fresh strawberry slices were served on top.

Of the two desserts, this was more straightforward with its creamy vanilla flavor, a less complex and more, well, “vanilla” dessert compared to the bread pudding, but tasty all the same for those who want something simple and sugary. It was a sweet ending to this experience with Fresh Pot Café’s very sweet and talented chefs/owners.

Final Thoughts

I was very pleased with my experience at Fresh Pot Café, not only to eat the food, but also to meet the owners and learn about their immigration story. They are such nice and hard-working people who are giving Chattanooga a gift by bringing their cuisine and culture from their homeland, and the city is very lucky to have them here. They opened the Fresh Pot Café while I was living in Chicago, so this was my first experience at this restaurant after moving back. There will certainly be many more visits to come.

Visit:
Fresh Pot Café
5425 TN-153
Hixson, TN 37343
(423) 805-3773
Monday–Saturday: 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

About the Author

Roman Flis is a writer who focuses on food, culture, history and folklore with his “Roamin’ with Roman” articles. You can find more on his website romanflis.com, follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and email him at roaminwithroman@gmail.com.

JJ Tea House

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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