ArePa George

Facebook Empanadas and the American Dream

Walking to catch the North Avenue bus, I curse myself for always being late. It’s a pleasant enough winter day, especially for Chicago. The sun is shining. Snow coats the ground. Still, the cold lingers, prodding me to zip my winter jacket as I not-so-patiently wait for the bus.

I look out the window. Remnants of what Humboldt Park used to be and what it’s becoming pass me by. There’s old buildings, businesses with bars on the windows. There’s a Family Dollar, a Burger King, and a laundromat. Newly constructed high-rise apartments, complete with balconies, overlook a park once synonymous with gang violence. A Puerto Rican restaurant and a Spanish grocery store are colorful reminders of the Latin American culture that staunchly ingrained itself in Humboldt Park long before the gentrification began to seep in. I arrive at my stop, pleased at the realization that I’ll only be a few minutes late.

I open the door to ArePa George, the warmth of the restaurant and Juan Betancourt’s smile quickly washing away the Chicago cold. Juan and I shake hands, and he points me to a table in the front, telling me to make myself at home while he grabs his sister Nathalie. As I remove my scarf, I glance around the restaurant. It’s relatively small, but comfortable. On yellow-painted walls hang colorful decorations – pictures of mountains, a painted wooden map of South America, and a Colombian flag. Upbeat Spanish music plays softly.

Colombian-inspired decorations hang on Arepa George’s bright yellow walls

Juan and Nathalie grew up in Armenia, Colombia, a small city nestled in the Andes best known for its coffee production. They spent their childhood riding horses, exploring local coffee farms, and having cookouts in the mountains. With a mom as an architect and a dad as an engineer, Juan admits that they had a very good life in Colombia, “But my mom’s dream was always to come to the U.S. so we could have ‘The American Dream’ you know?” Their parents divorced, and a few years later their mother met a Colombian man that lived in the United States. Eventually they married and in 2005, 10 year-old Nathalie and 13 year-old Juan moved to Chicago to fulfill their mother’s dream.

Not being able to imagine moving to a new country without knowing the language, I ask them if they were nervous. “No,” Juan replies, “I was excited because I always wanted to come. I used to see all the movies, like Home Alone, so I was excited to see the U.S.” He remembers going downtown Chicago for the first time and being amazed at how beautiful it was. “It was different from Colombia” he continues, “but it was nice.”

Juan adds that being a teenager, the transition was harder on him than on Nathalie. She admits to picking up English quicker than him but remembers being more shy. “I’ve always been the shy one, you know, you’re always afraid you’re going to say something wrong.” Through bilingual programs like ESL (English as a Second Language) and working as a lifeguard at the local pool, the pair picked up English quickly. “I think you just have to be thrown into it,” says Juan, “You do what you have to survive, so you do what you can.”

Years later, Juan graduated from a university in Iowa with a degree in mathematics. He returned to Chicago to look for jobs, and soon found himself teaching math at a high school in Humboldt Park. Driving through the area on his way to work, he began to notice how the area was changing, and took note. He started saving as much money as he could, remembering his dad’s dream to open a restaurant in Colombia.

Nathalie was working for the pool when she went to a Colombian restaurant for empanadas – craving the fried turnovers stuffed with meat and cheese her mother had made for her as a girl. “They were horrible,” she remembers, “They were like, frozen and had so many potatoes. They weren’t Colombian.” She vented about them on Facebook, claiming that her mother made the best empanadas. “And right away, people started asking me if she sold them. I asked my mom, and she said yes, and I just put the prices in the comments, and everybody started ordering.” The first order was sixteen empanadas for one of Nathalie’s friends. The word spread, and soon the orders grew to hundreds of empanadas at a time, all made by Juan and their mother in her home kitchen. To keep up with the demand, Nathalie started taking orders at work, texting Juan as they came in throughout the day. After work, she’d drive all over the city to deliver them. Eventually, the empanada orders grew so big they made and sold over one thousand empanadas on Saturday...and one thousand more that Sunday

A Colombian empanada stuffed with cheese and sweet plantains, served with a side of aji

After the success of the empanadas, Juan knew he was going to open a restaurant, and he started buying machines, tables, and decorations; storing them in his bedroom. Eventually, he had everything he needed to open a restaurant except a location. So he started looking. He looked for three years before settling on his current location in Humboldt Park. He had witnessed first-hand how the area was changing. It was close to downtown, and there were no Colombian restaurants in the area.

When I asked Juan what the hardest thing he faced opening his restaurant was, he hesitated before responding that leaving his job ended up being the most difficult decision. “You know when you’re comfortable with your job, your paycheck and all of those things? I thought it over and decided ‘You know what?’ I’m going to leave it, I’m going to start my own thing.” He signed his lease in Humboldt Park and shortly after opened ArePa George in 2017.

At first, it was just Juan. He answered the phone, tended the tables, cleaned, cooked, and managed the finances. He would buy the ingredients he needed each morning before the restaurant opened. At first, Nathalie only worked on weekends, facing the difficult decision her older brother had made months earlier. Her other job was a secure job, and she was in school. But in September of 2018, she made the decision to quit and start working for Juan full-time.
Glancing at each other, they both agree that it was a great decision. Nathalie quickly realized how much her brother had been doing to keep the restaurant going. Laughing in disbelief at the memory, she caught my eye before declaring, “I don’t know how he did it without me.”

Since its opening, ArePa George has done very well. Inspired by his experience as a bus-boy at Fogo de Chao, Juan wants all his customers to feel taken care of. Regulars are treated as if they’re at home and are prodded to explore new dishes as they come out. Initially, their menu was built around authentic Colombian recipes from their mother – tostones, or fried green plantains, arepas, and of course, the empanadas. But eventually, as the restaurant began to grow, so did their menu. They began noticing the number of vegan and vegetarian customers that would come in and realized that often their only vegetarian option – like many Latin American restaurants – included beans or cheese.

Brother and sister Juan and Nathalie smile in front of a map of Colombia

A few years after the Facebook empanadas, and before meeting Juan or Nathalie, I walked into ArePa George with my roommate. I was excited to try a local restaurant that had been featured in the Chicago Tribune, and she was excited to introduce me to arepas and Colombian empanadas – insisting that Colombian empanadas were much better because of their corn flour crust. And since I’d never had an arepa, she patiently explained that arepas were essentially thicker and sweeter tortillas usually filled with meat. Before looking at the menu, we agreed to split an empanada and a chicken or beef arepa – unless they had a particularly appetizing vegetarian option.

Glancing around the cheery restaurant for the first-time, we had a seat at a table near the front and picked up our menus. Empanadas came stuffed with shredded chicken or beef, cheese, plantain, or a combination of cheese and plantain, and came with a side of aji to dip them in. Our waitress, who I later learned was Nathalie, came by our table and suggested we consider the papa rellana, one of their most popular side dishes. She gushed, claiming that the papa rellena was delicious, made of breaded potato stuffed with chicken and cheese.

Beyond ordering a simple arepa with butter or cheese, the menu was filled with a variety of stuffed arepas - shredded chicken, ‘ropa vieja’ style shredded beef, colombian chorizo, or a combination of all three, combined with Colombian tomato-based creole sauce and melted cheese. I scanned to the bottom of the list. Not only did a vegetarian arepa exist, it sounded delicious.

A vegetarian arepa filled with fresh vegetables, cheese, and sweet plantains

Although non-traditional, Juan and Nathalie wanted their vegetarian arepa to reflect the flavors they grew up with. Filled with cabbage, carrots, avocado, broccoli, sweet plantains, and feta cheese, the vegetarian arepa is now the most popular arepa on the menu. After trying it  for myself, I can attest to its popularity. It overflows with crunchy, flavorful vegetables that provide a refreshing respite from a cuisine otherwise dominated by mushy, albeit flavorful beans. Sweet plantains and salty feta cheese work together smoothly, balancing and complementing the freshness of the vegetables in a way meat cannot. And despite not containing any meat, the flavors remain true to Colombia. One weekend, Juan convinced a particularly meat-loving customer to try the vegetarian arepa. Despite the fact that they had come in specifically to order the sancocho trifasico, a complex traditional soup made with not one, but three types of meat, they gave it a try. Not only were they convinced, they proclaimed that they were transformed to Colombia with one bite, and immediately ordered another.

The empanada we ordered came out proudly wearing a Colombian golden yellow crust that distinguished itself from other, lesser empanadas. Hot and fresh from the fryer, the crust was crispy, flaky and faintly sweet. The cheese enveloped the sweet plantains in a melted embrace. Green aji was served on the side, its acidity and complexity a welcome interruption from otherwise rich flavors. It was an empanada that begged you to order hundreds of it on Facebook, an empanada that coaxed Juan and Nathalie into living their American Dream.

Nathalie and Juan came to the United States because of a dream their mother had and were able to start ArePa George because of her empanada recipe. After talking to them, it’s evident how grateful they are. At one point in our conversation, I ask Nathalie how much  moving to the United States has meant to her. She pauses to think before replying, “Coming from Colombia, we’ve seen a lot of the less fortunate. Like homeless people. Or kids that have lost their father or parents due to the war that’s still going on with drugs and all of that.” She stops, glancing at Juan, and continues, “So we see that and here, I just feel so privileged to be able to eat what I want every day, you know? It just humbles you. We are very humbled to just be able to be here and have this business and be able to share our culture.”

ArePa George gets busier and busier, and eventually I feel guilty taking any more of Juan and Nathalie’s time. I order a Facebook empanada and decide to walk home, thankful that Juan and Nathalie’s American Dream tastes so delicious.

Visit:
the Restaurant
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11 AM – 6 PM, Sunday 11 AM – 6 PM
Location: 1552 N Kedzie Ave Chicago, IL 60651
Phone: (773) 969-7945
Delivery: Grubhub, Doordash, or Postmates
Find Arepa George on Instagram, Facebook, and Yelp!

About the Author
Makala Bach is a Chicago transplant so obsessed with food she became a food scientist. She spends her days in lab daydreaming of becoming a food writer and can be found trying to convince everyone she meets that beans are underrated. Follow her on Instagram.

Antojitos Del Peru

Welcome to a taste of Peru at Antojitos Del Peru, located in Lenexa KS, a suburb of Kansas City. Owner and Chef, Norma Palomino will welcome you to experience her authentic Peruvian foods.

The Beauty of Peru

If you have not been to Peru, it is a country of dramatic and diverse people, landscape, and food. Chefs from around the world are inspired by the cuisine and how it draws from the three main geographical areas – the Pacific coast, the Andean highlands and the Amazon rain forest. Peru has 90 different microclimates. Farmers work to preserve traditional ways of agriculture.

In Peru, you will not only find Machu Picchu- one of the new seven wonders of the world, but you can trek up the highest sand dune in the world, view Rainbow Mountain, float the Amazon river which starts in Peru or visit the Cotahuasi Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world.

The road from Peru to Kansas City for Norma

The road from Peru to Kansas City was not paved with gold for Norma Palomino, owner, chef and bartender of Antojitos Del Peru. It was, however, paved with great determination and persistence. Today, she takes great pride in bringing a taste of Peru to residents of Kansas City.

Norma’s parents were from the small town of Abancay, near Cusco. They then moved to Lima, the capital.

As a young mother, Norma realized that her work opportunities in Peru were limited and would not provide the life she wanted for her family.

In 1994, she set off for the US on foot and traveled through Central America to arrive in New Jersey, where extended family members lived. This was a truly herculean endeavor, but she made it by sheer determination.

Norma’s siblings re-located to the Midwest and encouraged Norma to move to Kansas City, as they felt it would be an appropriate place to raise her children. In 2003, once again, Norma traveled cross-country to resettle in Kansas City.

Shortly after arriving in the Kansas City area, Norma was faced with the challenge of supporting her family when her husband, Autberto, suffered an accident and could not work.

Norma had always enjoyed preparing meals for family and friends, and they relished her cooking. In due course, they were persuading Norma to start her restaurant business and share the delight of Peruvian food.

So, What Is Peruvian Food?

Peruvian food is a fusion of cultures, well before fusion foods became all the rage. It is based on the cuisines of the Inca, Spanish, Africans, Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese.

One of the stalwarts of Peruvian cuisine is Ceviche. Originated in Peru, Ceviche is a wonderful combination of raw fish marinated in lime juice and ginger. Variations of ceviche are available comprised of different seafood and different condiments such as lemon juice or soy sauce.

Potatoes are an ancient staple of Peru. There are over 4,000 different varieties, and the Peruvians use potatoes in many forms. Popular dishes are Papas a la Huancaina, sliced potatoes topped with mildly spicy cheese sauce and garnished with sliced hard-boiled eggs: Papa Rellena, mashed potatoes filled with ground beef, hard-boiled egg, olives, onion and raisins, rolled in seasoned flour and fried (similar to the Spanish croquetas). Papa Rellenas are served with Salsa Criolla (julienned onions marinated in lime, tomato and cilantro). Another standard is Causa, mashed potato cakes filled or topped with seasoned chicken and mayonnaise.

Corn also figures prominently on any Peruvian plate. Yellow, purple and white are just a few corn colors of the more than 55 varieties of corn grown in Peru. Famous for their giant corn kernels, corn is served as an appetizer, part of the meal or even in desserts, such as Mazamorra Morada, a purple corn pudding.

Another well-known food from Peru that is not on the Antonjitos Del Peru menu is cuy al horno (roasted guinea pig). The cuy, or guinea pig, is a traditional dish eaten in Peru during important festivals, and served crispy complete with head, legs and eyes. It is healthier with a lot more protein and less fat than llama meat (also not on the menu).

What makes the dishes Norma prepares so delicious is her mastery in blending the commonly used Peruvian spices and seasonings which are exotic to the American palate.
These include Huacatay known as Peruvian black mint with a flavor profile similar to a blend of basil and spearmint and Paico with a flavor profile with notes of mint, citrus and pine. Lending heat to proceedings are a variety of indigenous chili peppers such as Amarillo, Rocoto and Panca.

When you visit Antojitos del Peru, you will find many traditional Peruvian dishes. Norma’s favorite entrée dish to prepare is Lomo Saltado, the national dish of Peru. This is comprised of marinated beef sautéed with tomatoes, onion and soy sauce. Served with French fries and rice, this dish is a true testament to the fusion of Amer-Indian and Japanese flavors.

Another classic dish is Aji de Gallina, shredded chicken in a spicy sauce made of crushed walnuts and Parmesan cheese.
And, to end the meal with a scrumptious dessert, Norma’s favorites are Leche Asada and Alfajor. Leche Asada is a delicious custard style dessert made with milk, sugar and eggs, while Alfajores are delicate cookies made with flour and cornstarch and filled with dulce de leche.

And no, Norma has not forgotten about the drinks. If you move to the bar, an impressively crafted Pisco Sour is on tap. Pisco is a Peruvian grape brandy and is mixed with lemons, sugar water, egg whites, ice and finished with bitters to make a Pisco Sour.

However, if you are more interested in non-alcoholic drinks you can find a number of options such as Chicha Morada, a Peruvian beverage made from purple corn, sugar and spices, Jugo de Marucaya or passion fruit juice, Inca Kola a yellow soft drink and Postobon, an apple flavored soda.

The Path to Perfection

Norma is quite modest about her journey. Her initial food experience began in Lima where she worked in an Italian pastry shop for 12 years and took baking classes. Norma makes all the desserts served at her restaurant!

With encouragement from her family and friends, Norma (Normita to friends) decided to share her love of Peruvian food.
In 2014, she started her restaurant in a much smaller space. She quickly discovered the need for a bigger space for large family gatherings and that she had an unaccommodating landlord, so it wasn’t long before she was looking for an alternate venue.

Moving in 2017, the restaurant she has today is decorated with Peruvian style colors and décor. Norma’s focus was to create a warm and welcoming place where her guests would feel comfortable experiencing a taste of Peru.

When you walk through the door, you will find a melting pot of Kansas City locals – people from Central America as well as many Norte Americanos. During lunch, patrons come from neighboring businesses. During weekend evenings, you can often find it looking like date night. And, Sundays, large family gatherings following church are common. Sometimes, Norma reports, the families are standing outside just waiting for the doors to open.

She is passionate about every Peruvian dish created. The food is made each day from scratch, using the finest ingredients. It may take a little more time to prepare a favorite meal, but it is worth the wait!

This determined lady does not stand still and has yet another Peruvian restaurant concept in mind. Her children, Thomas and Susanna, work with her today. Thomas is encouraging Norma to open an upscale, gourmet concept which he will help operate. So, you should expect this new concept to open sometime during 2020. In the meantime, Norma is frequently asked if she would franchise her concept so others across the country could enjoy her creations. At the moment she is content to keep her focus on the Kansas City market. For others who might contemplate opening a restaurant, her advice is to just tell yourself you can do it and then do it!

Norma loves to introduce Peruvian food to those who have not experienced it. She is happy when her guests walk away happy and return for another taste of Peru. You can be sure I will be one of the returning guests!

Norma, daughter Susanna and granddaughter Amy

Norma, granddaughter Amy and grandson John Paul

Norma and son Thomas

Visit:
Antojitos Del Peru
7809 Quivira Road, Lenexa KS 816—220-1723
Hours:
Monday - Closed
Tuesday – Thursday 11am - 9 pm
Friday – Saturday 11am – 10 pm
Sunday 11 am – 9:30 pm


About the Author
Susan K Spaulding loves to share the stories of others and believes that each of us has a powerful life story to tell. Sharing the stories of immigrants who are now successful restauranteurs is inspiring and mouthwatering. Susan is part of a multicultural family with a Japanese brother-in-law, a Canadian sister-in-law and a Peruvian sister-in-law along with the many multi-cultural family members. She enjoys giving diversity a voice and making connections around the globe.

Sources: Norma Palomino

The Taste of Africa

If you’ve ever visited the city of Syracuse, even briefly, there are a couple of things you would likely notice right away: the school spirit at Syracuse University, and that lake effect is not a myth. Something you may not readily notice, however, is what a diverse and eclectic city Syracuse is. People from all over the world have migrated here and many have opened stores and restaurants that highlight their culture. One such restaurant is Taste of Africa in north Syracuse just outside of downtown.

Walking in, you are greeted by lively African hip hop music and a decor that showcases the African people, exotic animals and the culture. The restaurant opened for the first time in 2011, when owner Ullys Mouity decided to bring more of the flavor of the African community to Syracuse. Unfortunately, with the little experience Ullys had in the restaurant business, Taste of Africa did not succeed the first time around. Undeterred, Ullys sought help from his family, and in 2017, re-opened to find success.

Ullys was born in the Republic of Congo and lived there until he and his family fled to Gabon during the war. As a child in Congo, he watched his mother and grandparents cook for the family. Ullys explained that while the elders prepare the meals, everyone has their role in the kitchen. He and his siblings would go to the market for fresh produce; and while his mother cooked, they would hand her anything she needed. Ullys didn’t start actively cooking until he moved to Gabon. Here, he had a dear friend who had lost his mother and father in the war, so as the eldest child he had to take over to cook for the younger siblings. Ullys saw this as an opportunity to bring friends and family together. He and his buddies would go to each others’ homes a few times a month and cook together. Through these acts of kindness and friendship, he learned how to prepare delicious meals for large groups.

At the age of 21 Ullys moved to the United States, pursuing an education in graphic design and architecture from Onadoga Community College. He began working at an engineering company here in Syracuse and still works there today. In his down-time, Ullys works alongside his wife, his brother, and his four children in the family-owned restaurant. Ullys recognizes the importance of family, and teaches his children much about their heritage and their cuisine. He and his wife share most of the cooking at home, but make sure their children have a role as well, just like he did growing up.

We started with the plantain appetizer. The waitress, who is also Ullys’s daughter, said they are a must when you come to Taste of Africa. The plantains were perfectly crunchy on the outside and beautifully soft and pillowy on the inside (like your most ideal French fry, only thicker). The balance of sweet and salty was perfectly accompanied by their special sauce called Pilli-Pilli. I asked Ullys what’s in this sauce that makes it so good and he told me it’s made from small peppers blended with fresh tomatoes sautéed in vegetable oil and a “special ingredient” he just wouldn’t give up no matter how hard I tried to find out.

As a pescatarian, I had to try the fish special, Samaki, which is a grilled tilapia with tomato sauce. The fish was thin, flaky, and had a slight crunch from the griddle on the outside, but moist and tender on the inside. The tomato sauce was slathered over the top, and had a rich deep umami flavor. I just had to know what was in it. Ullys revealed that it’s an easy sauce of tomatoes, garlic powder, onion powder, tomato paste, and a seasoning called Sazon you can buy at the store. He gave me a packet to take home and you better believe I am going to use it in my next dish, whatever that may be, because it is just that good.

Luke, the meat-eater, ordered the beef shish kabobs. Now, this man loves a good piece of steak, so when he told me the kabob was cooked with a perfect sear on the outside and a generous amount of seasoning on the outside, I had to believe him.

Finally, what I deem the most important part of the meal, are the sides. Luke and I shared an order of cassava, fried rice, and chapati.
Cassava is made from Cassava leaves or yaka leaves, pounded up with onions garlic, sardines and peanut butter. Trust me, I was surprised when I heard this list of ingredients. But, it was wonderfully salty, slightly briny, and savory.

The fried rice here is seasoned with the same seasoning as the tomato sauce, Sazon.

And the Chapati is a light wheat flat bread brought by Indian immigrants to Africa, similar in consistency to a thin pita. It was lightly flavored and a great vessel for soaking up all the saucy goodness.

Taste of Africa is a unique and satisfying culinary experience. From the distinctive cultural ambience to the rich and abiding flavors, you can taste the deference to family and African tradition in every bite. I was heartened to have discovered this rare little treasure right in my own city and eager to uncover more of them.

Visit
Taste of Africa
820 Danforth Street
Syracuse, NY 13208
United States
(315) 378-4152

About the author:

Tatiana Inkeles is originally from South Florida and currently living in Syracuse New York. She graduated from  Syracuse University in May of 2019 with a bachelor of science in Nutrition sciences. She is a huge foodie and loves finding new places to eat. She'll be applying to medical school this spring and can't wait to find more places to eat near her new school!

https://www.linkedin.com/mwlite/in/tatiana-inkeles-b90351136

Selam Ethiopian Kitchen

Upon entering Selam Ethiopian Kitchen, the richness of the rosemary in the air is rivaled only by that of the red walls that define the cavernous dining room. Groups gather around large, round dishes of injera adorned with delectable toppings of meats, vegetables, and legumes.

For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, injera is a large type of sourdough flatbread upon which thick stews, or wat, are served. This style and method of eating is, to say the least, hands-on. Diners take the injera in their hands, which the chef referred to as “natural forks,” and scoop bites of whichever wat strikes their fancy. As if a painter’s palette, the injera is host to a range of colors, aromas, and – you guessed it – flavors: orange lentils, green lamb, brown chicken, and white cheese decorated my dish, though the palette’s contents are at the artists’ discretion.

I was greeted by the restaurant’s chef and namesake, Selamawit “Selam” Abebe, and owner, Solomon Abebe. They are a lovely couple, both warm and welcoming. As I had fasted in anticipation of the meal, the savory fumes taunted my appetite – onion, peppers, and seemingly countless spices made for a very distracted interviewer. In speaking with Solomon, it was his attention to these ingredients (and authenticity) that blew me away. All of their vegetables are organic, and all of their spices (and even butter) are sourced from Ethiopia itself. Especially considering that meat is often consumed raw in this cuisine, it must be high-quality and fresh. And who better to source it than an experienced butcher such as Solomon. Upon entering the establishment, one passes a small butcher’s window that he still operates, carving meats for both the customers their own kitchen. To quote Solomon, “this is the best food you can get in the whole United States.”

In addition to (and a function of) top-shelf ingredients, Solomon takes pride in their expert preparation, particularly that of the injera, made of fermented teff flour and indubitably the staple food of Ethiopia. If prepared improperly, this bread may result in bloating and an upset stomach, but certainly not at Selam Ethiopian Kitchen. Indeed, customers, particularly the robust market of 20,000+ Ethiopians in the area (according to Solomon), often stop by to pick up only the bread to take home for their own cooking and pleasure. All in all, this competitive advantage relative to other local establishments is not a result of fortuity, but rather experience, expertise, and extensive due diligence. Solomon recounted that prior to opening shop, he and his wife surveyed other restaurants in the area and conducted their own market research, rating every dish at every restaurant on their radar. As such, it’s no surprise that they’re well-aware of their superior quality, vending their bread both locally and internationally.

Like many immigrants to the United States, Solomon’s story is one of determination and hard work in the face of adversity. Aged 23, he fled Ethiopia in 1985 after famine struck the country in 1983, displacing millions internally and thousands externally. As a refugee in Sudan, he worked as a cook at the U.S. Embassy, teaching himself to cook what he described as “American food” – omelets, casseroles and the like. At 32, he fled Sudan in 1996 as civil war ravaged the country, arriving in Chicago and settling in the Uptown area. Solomon enrolled in pharmacy school, driving a taxi when his studies permitted. All the meanwhile, he and Selam enjoyed cooking at home, eventually deciding to open a small butcher shop. It was there that Selam began to cook more and more for their customers, inspiring the couple to open a restaurant after receiving glowing feedback and ringing endorsements for 7 years. All the meanwhile, the couple grew their family from 2 to 6, their children now aged 19, 15, 8, and 4, helping around the restaurant on occasion. Selam Ethiopian Kitchen has now been open for a couple of years, growing its customer base of those seeking healthy and authentic food that meets Solomon and Selam’s highest standards.

Discussing food and cooking with Solomon, I saw his face light up as he boasted (as humbly as one can) that their food is “very healthy [and] very delicious.” Indeed, food is about much more than satisfying hunger in his eyes: “we try to make happiness by eating our food…you have to get something out of it…happiness and health.” When asked about the challenges of running a restaurant, a notoriously tricky business, Solomon remarked that it is an all-consuming occupation that requires attention all day every day. That said, there’s no doubting his dedication, ability, and care to bring a piece of his homeland to his new home here in Chicago.

It was a distinct pleasure to meet and speak with Solomon and Selam. For anyone interested in a varied platter (as I was), they offer a diverse “meat sampler” with doro wot, yebeg wot, yeberé wot, and zizil tibs, all of which were delicious (their signature dish is their short ribs, or goden tibs). I can’t recommend enjoying their exceptional food enough!

Visit:
Selam Ethiopian Kitchen
4543N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
773.271.4300

Hours
Tuesday - Thursday: 11AM - 11PM
Friday - Sunday: 11AM - 2AM

The author is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.

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.