Articles in Restaurant

Jordyn Lexton, founder of Drive Change. Credit: Katherine Leiner

“Snowday,” the first food truck from the social enterprise Drive Change, showed up this spring at Brooklyn Bridge Park for the annual NYFEST soccer tournament. The sky was blue, relief from the unremitting winter finally in the New York City air, and the soccer players and their families were famished. I bought grilled maple cheese sandwiches for my son and granddaughter and found the food inspired, with what Drive Change calls “a side of social change.”

Drive Change hires and trains formerly incarcerated youth to prepare and operate the nonprofit’s food trucks. “Our values are rooted in the belief that young people with criminal histories can live crime-free, bright futures full of opportunity,” founder Jordyn Lexton said. “Our trucks are our vehicles for social justice — allowing young people to have hands-on experience and develop transferable skills to become leaders in today’s society.”

Lexton went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. During her spare time, she volunteered at Middletown Correctional Training School, a juvenile detention center. After she graduated from college, she went on to teach English to adolescent men at Rikers Island’s East River Academy high school in New York City. She worked in difficult facilities known as “the Sprungs,” four trailers housing youths who were not yet sentenced. “So many of these kids were full of such potential,” Lexton said. Yet she saw a cycle: New York is one of the states that automatically tries 16-year-olds accused of committing crimes as if they were adults. Of the 13,000 students she taught, 67% of them returned to jail or prison three years after release.

Against that wearying backdrop, a culinary arts program stood out. “It was remarkable to witness how much pride these young people felt being able to cook and present food they had made. And within that devastating environment, feelings of this kind were hard to come by.”

That got Lexton thinking about food as a way of reentry for young people who rarely can find good jobs during parole, and when they do, find it difficult to hang onto them because they are untrained.

Lexton began to research ways to reduce recidivism by working in the reentry world at the Correctional Association of New York, the Center for Employment Opportunitites, CASES and Work For Success, a Gov. Andrew Cuomo jobs initiative aimed at lowering the rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated people. She took a job as manager of a Kimchi Taco food truck. Two years later, Lexton started to piece together a plan of action. While traveling in Canada, she tasted a taffy-like maple confection called sugar on snow. “I’m going to open up a sugar on snow truck,” Lexton recalled thinking. “A food truck can hire, train and empower” formerly incarcerated young people, she thought. The program also had an opportunity to turn the spotlight on New York City as one of the few regions in the U.S. that automatically incarcerates and treats 16-year-olds as if they’re adults.

Culinary artists among the team

Lexton then composed a top-notch team that included Annie Bickerton, who oversees operations, and two culinary artists, Roy Waterman and Jared Spafford. The team developed an eight-month mentorship program, including two months paid training, four months (higher-paid) employment and a two-month transition with continued employment and a job placement strategy for young people coming home from the system. Training covers small business management, accounting, social media marketing and essential licensing such as a mobile food vendor’s license, a food handlers’ license and a G-23 license to operate propane for mobile cooking. Other New York City food trucks have already expressed interest in hiring program graduates.

Drive Change, which is still seeking funding, recently received a good-sized grant from the mayor’s office and the city of New York. The grant subsidizes some of the wages, which cover $8 an hour for each employee. Drive Change adds $3 to bump the hourly wage to $11.

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The Snowday food truck. Credit: Andrew Lipton

As of this spring, eight young men (seven of whom are home after having been incarcerated) have been hired to head up and brainstorm the operation:

Spafford, who comes to Drive Change from Marlowe and Daughters and Flying Pigs Farm, had no background inside corrections but was looking for a more meaningful contribution to society. His working title is culinary arts director, developing the menu, and sourcing and prepping the ingredients.

Waterman serves on the front lines as a mentor and chef. He knows from his own experience how hard it is to get a job after having been inside. “Everything looks great until I have to fill out the infamous question on the form, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

Roles change daily, but one worker  is in charge of the maple grilled cheese. Two more take care of the kitchen prep. Another, who has been home since 2009, is a mentor in charge of developing curriculum for Drive Change. Still another, who came to Lexton’s program from the Doe Fund says, “There’s nothing that brings people closer than food. Food transcends everything and doesn’t hold anything against you no matter what your history is.”

Why call the truck “Snowday”?

“Snowday to us reflects the liberty of a day that integrates community, a day where folks don’t go to ‘traditional’ school or work but still get out in the world and explore — connect with nature and each other — and learn,” Lexton said. “Snowday is bliss, it is freedom.”

On the subject of sugar

All of the food on board the truck has a maple syrup component to honor Lexton’s first inspirational taste of sugar on snow. How about sugar being the object of food activists’ ire?

“The menu may not be health food targeted — we are not serving juice and chopped salads — but everything is locally sourced directly from New York state farms,” Lexton said. “Sustainability and healthy product are central to our mission — even maple syrup, which one could argue is high in sugar, is a natural sugar that has proven natural health benefits. Schools may avoid sugar, but they are mostly avoiding processed products and trying to get folks to learn about how to cook better for themselves and learn about where their food comes from — two things we pride ourselves on at Drive Change.”

On this particular Saturday, the inviting menu included:

Maple grilled cheese sandwiches, with the cheese from Hammond Dairy; little skievers with greens from Hudson Valley duck farm; apples from Migliorelli Farm; and bread from micro farming sourdough starter at Last Chance Foods. Even the water was locally sourced.

All summer long, the Snowday truck will be on Governor’s Island in New York on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Main photo: Drive Change founder Jordyn Lexton on the Snowday food truck. Credit: Tal James Luther

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A scene from

It was the knife work. The way he smeared a dab of sauce across the plate with the back of a spoon. Jon Favreau’s moves were too smooth. The actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-blockbuster-director, is also a professionally trained chef? No way. I began looking for the “tells” of a body double.

“Chef,” Favreau’s new film, shot in one month, is a trip back to his indie-film roots when 18 years ago the work-a-day actor wrote himself out of that rut with the cult hit “Swingers.” Directing “Iron Man” catapulted him onto Hollywood’s A-list, wattage that is evident in the “Chef” cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman.

But what makes this fairly predictable father/son feel-good road trip so engaging is the authenticity of the kitchen scenes and those chefy moves. Unlike most food flicks, “Chef” is not food porn. Favreau’s chef Carl Casper handles food with skill and respect — and you leave the theater desperate for a melty Cuban sandwich, sweet plantains and a cold beer.

“Ever since I read [Anthony Bourdain’s memoir] ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ I have been intrigued by the chef world,” Favreau told the sold-out audience opening night at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas. He dashed off the screenplay in a couple of weeks, congratulating himself for such an original story — a celebrated chef, trained in the French culinary tradition, who decides to chuck it all to cook the food he loves out of a food truck … and ends up with a rock star career.

Favreau soon learned his “original” idea mirrored the life of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. One afternoon, Favreau stopped by the raw space in Koreatown where Choi was pacing out a new restaurant, Pot, his ode to Korean cuisine. Favreau’s plan was to make Choi a consultant on the film and avoid a lawsuit for stealing his story.

“He just showed up by himself,” said Choi, who joined Favreau for the opening night Q&A. After they talked, “he got in my car — which surprised me because it’s a beat old car — he just followed me around all night.”

Six hours on the town with Choi

Kogi BBQ trucks made Choi a Los Angeles hero and paved the way for his other places in the area: the college casual Chego; 3 Worlds Cafe in South L.A.; the neighborhood bistro A-Frame; Caribbean-flavored Sunny Spot; and his late night lounge, Alibi Room. That night, Favreau made the circuit with him. “I just showed him little bits and pieces to see if he thought what we were doing was interesting,” Choi said. “I was just trying to show him what I was about. Chefs are really transparent. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

Favreau agreed, saying, “Roy showed me everything. We were out for six hours that night. I tasted a lot of food. And it was amazing food. That’s the thing, you want to eat it all.”

Favreau sent Choi the script. “You know, I’m a fairly successful director and Roy started going after it,” Favreau said. “He red-lined the whole thing.” Chefs don’t wear their whites to the farmers market, Choi chided him. “And here you have the chef smelling the ingredients. You’re not Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ” Choi said.

Jon Favreau and Roy Choi talk to a sold-out crowd at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Credit Chris Fager

Jon Favreau, left, and Roy Choi talk to a sold-out crowd at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Credit Chris Fager

Choi insisted on more than script changes. He would sign on to help only after Favreau went to cooking school. “My first day studying at the culinary academy was learning how to tie your apron. It is almost a martial art. Where you tie it, how tight,” Favreau recalled. “Roy told me you can tell whether you are a chef by how you hold a towel. And the whites. Keeping the whites clean.”

On the set, Choi showed up every day that involved cooking. The food couldn’t just look good; it had to taste good too. Choi created every dish that appears in the film and insisted that his food not be treated as a prop. The cast and crew would eat it. “Nothing was wasted,” Favreau said. “He kept everything up to restaurant standards. That pig we cut up? We parceled it out and gave it to the crew. Respect for the food permeated the culture on the set.”

As an actor, Favreau schooled himself in Choi. “I watched Roy and emulated everything he did. Every tattoo on chef Carl was approved by Roy,” he noted. The makeup artists added “burns” on his forearms, the mark of a working chef. “I worked from the inside out,” Favreau said.

Favreau’s last chef test

His final exam: joining Choi’s prep crew when he did a three chef tasting menu with Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. “No one knew I was there,” Favreau said. “At the end of the night they noticed me and they were busting my balls. David Chang noticed my whites were dirty.”

Slowly, Favreau found his way from acting like a chef to feeling the part.

“Once I realized his heart and his mind and his soul were open to [being a chef], that’s half the battle,” Choi said. “His movements changed once he got down with how a chef’s mind is working with so many different things going on. We have eyes in the back of our heads. By doing that, his body language changed.”

There was no body double.

Main photo: A scene from “Chef” with Emjay Anthony, left, and Jon Favreau. Credit: Open Road Films

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Adele Yellin, Grand Central Market owner, left, with Lydia Clarke, one of the owners of DTLA Cheese. Credit: David Crane

Tourists, particularly food tourists, are easily fooled by Los Angeles. They stuff themselves on the obvious Hollywood and Beverly Hills dining bling, missing what makes the locals smack their lips.

This city of 10 million souls wrapped within a dense-pack region twice that size sustains immense immigrant populations. Along with their dreams, L.A.’s newest citizens arrive with treasured recipes. Restaurants serving authentic dishes from China, Japan, Iran, Russia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, France, Spain — you name the country — are scattered throughout the Southland like so many diamonds tossed out a car window.

Grand Central Market’s gems

You need more than a map to track down L.A.’s hidden culinary treasures. And now, against long odds, the city has that missing piece. Grand Central Market has become a showcase for the culinary diversity of Los Angeles, the old and the new. When all 50-some spaces are filled this summer, it will house an eclectic collection of restaurants, market stalls and artisan purveyors — without the too-cool-for-school attitude that diminishes some other city food emporiums.

A kombucha peddler, artisan cheese monger, a deli serving house-cured pastrami, a butcher selling acorn-fed pork, a wood-fired pizzeria? Absolutely. But here, the tattoo-and-suspender crowd shares a cavernous cement hall with family businesses hawking Armenian kebabs, Michoacán tacos, Oaxacan moles, Hawaiian barbecue, Japanese bento boxes and a fresh fruit market with piles of gingergrass and cactus pads alongside a towering stand of green sugar canes.

Saturday afternoons at the 100-year-old landmark market are buzzing. Young families, gaggles of teenagers and downtown’s elderly residents rub more than elbows as they push to the front of the crowd at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. Young hipsters wait an hour to order breakfast sandwiches at the Eggslut counter. Guatemalan grandmothers and their families commandeer folding tables and chairs to feast on a spread from Sarita’s Pupuseria.

“A year ago, Saturdays were dead,” says David Tewasart, working the counter at his popular Sticky Rice Thai Street Food. “I was the first new place to sign on. It was risky. They had a hard time finding the early people.”

When owner Adele Yellin and her husband Ira bought the market and surrounding buildings in 1984, “the core of the city was rotting away,” she says. “Ira believed if we invested in the core, we could revitalize the whole city.”

When Yellin’s husband died suddenly in 2002, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall was shining brightly on nearby Grand Avenue and economic development had started to spread throughout downtown. Grand Central Market, however, remained a gritty warren of food stalls on a stubbornly ungentrified stretch of Broadway lined with inexpensive tiendas (stores) serving Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“We weren’t serving the food that the new people wanted,” Yellin says. Revitalizing the market without turning out the family businesses that were her legacy tenants seemed impossible.

Belcampo is a new stall next to La Casa Verde, a legacy fresh fruit and vegetable vendor. Credit: Chris Fager

Belcampo is a new stall next to La Casa Verde, a legacy fresh fruit and vegetable vendor. Credit: Chris Fager

Redeveloping without losing its roots

Well into her retirement a decade later, Yellin gathered her courage to redevelop the market without losing its traditional flavor. She gambled on a pair of local food artisans — Joseph Shuldiner, founder of The Institute of Domestic Technology, and Kevin West, author of the preserving book “Saving the Season” (Artisan) — to be her talent scouts.

“The market was Adele’s vision,” West says. “We just made the introductions to chefs and other food artisans to help her realize that vision. L.A. is crawling with food talent. There was a tremendous response to her idea of a gathering place for the many cuisines and cultures that make up the city.”

Yellin championed emerging food innovators and entrepreneurs instead of established businesses, and has emerged a hero to the local food movement. She still has yet to spruce up the place beyond a utilitarian coat of white paint. She wants no “fancy schmantz,” she says.

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Serving fresh pressed vegetable juices at new vendor Press Brothers Juicery. Credit: Chris Fager

Valerie Gordon was the second new arrival at Grand Central Market, opening a salad and sandwich lunch counter featuring the petit fours and chocolates that have made Valerie Confections a favorite at L.A.’s farmers markets. (Her cookbook is a finalist for a James Beard Award.) In keeping with Yellin’s mission of uniting the old with the new, Gordon created a brownie made with mole sold at Valeria’s, a neighboring Mexican spice stall.

Wariness from the original vendors vanished as business boomed for everyone, Sticky Rice’s Tewasart says as he dishes up his spicy Tom Yum Goong shrimp soup full of big chunks of mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots. I sighed with my first bite of Crying Tiger skirt steak; just the right balance of vinegar and spices. His sticky rice? Chewy and sweet, washed down with coconut water sipped from a straw dropped into a freshly cut coconut.

“It’s been wild,” Shuldiner says with a hint of sadness that his work is winding down. This summer, with the opening of the last few new stalls, the market will inaugurate evening hours for the first time in its history. Cocktails will be served.

Asked whether the market is finished, Yellin smiles. “There is the basement.  I’d like to bring artisan food production into the city,” she confides.

Main photo: Adele Yellin, Grand Central Market owner, left, with Lydia Clarke, one of the owners of DTLA Cheese. Credit: David Crane

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Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  “Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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Poster for the 1949 film

You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.

Asian fusion: From the old country to the new

To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.

In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.

Slow and fast food

Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.

But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.

“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.

Cafe El Pópular

Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.

Cafe el Pópular's bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe el Pópular’s bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.

The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder,  his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.

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Chicken chop suey at Cafe Manuel. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Nowadays, a  new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.

Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Illustration of Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”

Something’s fishy here

There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.

But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.

The gastronomic reach of Paris

It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.

The Gastronomic Reach of Paris. Credit: L. John Harris

Illustration of Paris Gastronomic Reach. Credit: L. John Harris

You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.

The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”

Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.

Forks and rakes

Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)

The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.

There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.

Historical rakes and rascals

Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.

The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.

I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.

Meanwhile, back at the café

Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”

Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?

Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

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Via 313's Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there were two kinds of pizza: round and square. The “square” variety was technically rectangular, a deep-dish pizza with a crispy crust and sauce on top of the cheese. Given a choice of shapes, I almost always wanted square.

After moving to California as an adult, I thought it was odd that pizza came in only one shape (round), but until recently, I never realized that the square pizza of my childhood was unique to Detroit.

My pizza epiphany came during a visit to Texas a few months ago. My husband and I were exploring the hipster bar scene on Austin’s Rainey Street when we spotted a food truck called Via 313. (313 is Detroit’s area code.) Sure enough, the truck was serving up “Detroit-style pizza” to hungry bar-hoppers.

I thought this was a fluke until I learned that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, locally famous for its regional Italian and American pizzas, also offers a Detroit-style pie.

Motor City pizza in Texas and California? Further investigation was clearly in order. How did this regional style of pizza originate, and why is it suddenly appearing in other parts of the country?

A crusty tale

It all began in 1946 with a Detroit tavern called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Soldiers returning home from World War II had developed a taste for European foods, so Buddy’s owner August “Gus” Guerra created a square pizza based on a Sicilian recipe. Because square pizza pans were hard to come by, he improvised with heavy steel trays used by Detroit’s automakers to hold car parts.

Buddy’s Pizza quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and competing Detroit pizza joints, such as Cloverleaf and Shield’s, adopted the tavern’s unique pizza style. Buddy’s now has 11 restaurants in the Detroit area and still makes its pizza using Guerra’s 1946 recipe.

Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations for Buddy’s Pizza, described the defining features of Detroit’s original square pizza. “We place the pepperoni under the cheese, in part to flavor the crust, and so it doesn’t burn during the cooking process,” he said. “We use brick cheese from Wisconsin (a medium-soft cheese similar to a white cheddar), and we place the sauce on top of all the ingredients.”

The result is a pizza with a light-textured crust and caramelized cheese around the edges.

National recognition

More than six decades after Buddy’s introduced its trend-setting pizza, a Detroit-style pie scored top honors at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Pizza Maker of the Year award went to Shawn Randazzo, a Cloverleaf veteran who launched Detroit Style Pizza Company later that year. Randazzo now owns three pizzerias in the Detroit area.

Although that would have been enough for many restaurateurs, Randazzo has a grander vision in mind. Through his Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Program, Randazzo is helping entrepreneurs across the country introduce their customers to the Detroit style of pizza.

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Shawn Randazzo of Detroit Style Pizza Company shows off his prize-winning pizza. Credit: Courtesy of Detroit Style Pizza Company

“My big eye opener came in 2009 when I entered my first pizza competition at the [North America] Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, which had over 70 competitors from across the country,” he said. “I was just a five-hour drive from Detroit, but I was the only competitor who had a square pizza with cheese to the edge. I couldn’t believe it.”

When Randazzo’s pizza won the top prize, he realized that most of the world was missing out on one of America’s great regional pizza styles.

So far nine pizza makers have completed the Detroit Style Pizza Maker program, and Randazzo has consulted for dozens of others, including clients from Thailand and Korea. Program graduates have opened pizzerias in Virginia and Kentucky, and one is currently setting up shop in Maine.

Making it right

“An authentic Detroit-style pizza requires a dough recipe that has a much higher hydration level than typical pizza dough,” Randazzo explained. “In bakers’ percentage, water content should be around 70% or more, which aids the fermentation process. The high water content also helps produce a light and airy crust.”

Pizzas assembled in the traditional pepperoni-cheese-sauce arrangement are baked at 525 F in seasoned pans made of rolled black steel. (The original Buddy’s pans were made of blue steel, but the manufacturer stopped producing them a few years ago.) If the positive feedback he receives from former students is any indication, the Detroit pizzavangelist’s efforts are working.

“I believe at the rate it’s been going,” Randazzo said, “Detroit-style pizza will become just as popular as New York and Chicago styles.”

Taking it on the road

Around the same time that Randazzo was wowing pizza competition judges in Ohio, Zane Hunt and his brother Brandon were cooking up a Detroit-style pizza concept of their own. In 2010, the Detroit-area natives rolled out their first Via 313 food truck in their adopted home of Austin.

“When I moved to Austin in the summer of 2009, I was on a quest to find foods that reminded me of home,” Zane said. “Brandon was still in Detroit at this point and we often talked about finding that one spot that served the pizza of home. He moved here a short time later and we ate at about 150 pizza places over the course of a year. Along the way it was becoming obvious that the pizza we loved in Detroit didn’t exist here.”

Determined to bring Detroit-style pizza to Austin, the brothers began a trial-and-error process to perfect their recipe. “Our dough mixture changed more than 75 times,” Zane recalled. “We were like mad pizza scientists.”

Less than a year after they launched Via 313, they added a second trailer to the fleet.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Zane said. “Here we are in 2014 and the style has gained serious steam around the country. It makes us proud to know we’re part of spreading the word outside of Detroit.”

A San Francisco convert

Tony Gemignani, 11-time World Pizza Champion and owner of three San Francisco pizzerias, didn’t grow up with Detroit-style pizza. But he has become an enthusiastic convert.

Gemignani serves a Detroit-style pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, and teaches restaurateurs and home cooks to make it at his International School of Pizza, also in San Francisco. He’s also launching a Detroit-style pizza concept at the D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.

He first sampled Detroit-style pizza 16 years ago while doing a commercial for a Detroit pizza chain, and his interest in the style was rekindled years later by a student in one of his American pizza courses. Gemignani went back to Detroit to research the type, and ultimately added a Detroit-style pizza to the menu at Tony’s.

When pressed by his students to compare Detroit pizza to other styles, he describes it as a sort of Chicago-Sicilian hybrid. But even that isn’t quite right. “When it comes to the process, everything’s a little different,” Gemignani said.

The best way to show people what makes Detroit pizza unique, he said, is to have them taste it. In a recent class that included two die-hard New York pizza fans, Gemignani added two more believers to the Detroit pizza cause. “They were really skeptics about it, but then after they ate it they said, ‘Man, this is [expletive] good!’ ”

He then asked the students how they would classify the Detroit-style pizza. Sicilian? Pan? “No,” they said. “This is in its own category.”

Editor’s note: Black steel pans and pizza-making kits are available through the Detroit Style Pizza Company’s website. This fall, Tony Gemignani will release a cookbook that includes recipes for Detroit-style pizza.

Top photo: Via 313’s Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

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Foie and Foi. Credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: So you want to hang out in Parisian cafés and cultivate the artful, virtually mythic, lifestyle portrayed in films, novels and the media? Bienvenue (welcome)! But indulging in the pleasures of a café lifestyle can be tricky business, fraught with linguistic, social and gastronomic pitfalls. A basic knowledge of what I call Café French™ will give you the simple linguistic and stylistic tools (vocabulary, gestures, fashion tips, etc.) necessary to make the Parisian café your own. With my unique learning system — Café French™ — you can avoid the petty humiliations and disappointments many Americans report after visits to Paris.

The French café as institution

Our first lesson begins, naturally, with the French café itself, a centuries-old social and gastronomic institution that derives its name from the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa, via the Turkish kahve. The oldest surviving café in Paris, Le Procope, dates to the 17th century. Although still functioning in all its romanticized glory as a magnet for artistic types and modern versions of my favorite café character, the 19th-century flâneur, the French café is, like so many French institutions today, in crisis. Crisis (crise in French, pronounced “kreez”) will be the underlying theme of Café French™ Lesson One.

Adam Gopnik, perhaps our most exuberantly articulate Francophile (and an “ex” Parisian expat), has dubbed the French café the “highest embodiment” of French “commonplace civilization.” The café is, he seems to be saying, so embedded in quotidian French life that for the French it simply is. Well, that’s all well and good for the French, but for Americans it’s not so simple.

While the Parisian café itself is arguably, echoing Gopnik, the highest embodiment of the French café, the numbers are sadly dwindling — from as many as 45,000 cafés in the 1880s to something like 7,000 today. Nevertheless, Americans continue to flock to the venerable survivors such as Le Select, Café de Flore, Les Philosophes, Les Deux Magots, La Rotonde and Le Procope.

Crise de foie

It would be an exaggeration to say that abusing the Parisian café can kill you. But for the uninitiated and unwitting it may not be far from the truth. Think about it: All the glorious French consumables associated with the café are either high in alcohol (wine, absinthe); caffeine (coffee, tea); butter fat (croissants and triple-crème cheeses) and sugar (pastries and tarts); or animal fat and salt (charcuterie, foie gras). This is French gastronomic heaven translated into a nutritional version of Russian roulette!

Let’s focus for a moment on foie gras (pronounced “fe-wah grah”), that quintessential Gallic delicacy popular in cafés that means, literally, “fattened liver.” It is made from the livers of force-fed ducks (canard) and geese (oie, pronounced oy, like the Yiddish oy vey). Eighty-five percent of the calories in foie gras are from fat. As delicious as it is, woe to those who overindulge in foie gras!

* Gavage in English also refers to the technique of feeding newborn infants having problems swallowing milk or formula by inserting a tube down their nose and into their stomach.

* Gavage in English also refers to the technique of feeding newborn infants having problems swallowing milk or formula by inserting a tube down their nose and into their stomach. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Usually found at cafés in the form of a spreadable mixture, pâtépâté de foie gras de canard (or, d’oie) — it is served with slices of toasted bread and, commonly, with small pickles called cornichons. More expensive and richer still is foie gras served whole, either cooked or not – foie gras entier (the “entire” liver).

Like the Parisian café, foie gras is also in crisis. The controversial process of manufacturing foie grasforce-feeding corn to ducks and geese to fatten their livers — gavage (“ga-vage“) — is being challenged, particularly in the United States where animal welfare activists have virtually shut down this age-old technique. But even in France there is growing concern about the animal welfare dimension of the foie gras industry.

Just as stuffing feed into a duck or goose can expand their livers to the bursting point, the same is true for café-goers who gorge on those very same livers. Excessive foie gras consumption can unleash what the French call a crise de foie, literally a “crisis of the liver” (see top illustration). From mild symptoms of dyspepsia (indigestion) to acute bilious conditions, such liver maladies (les maladies du foie) can be serious, even fatal.

Crise de foi

It’s curious, if not confusing, that the French word foie is phonetically identical to the French word for faith — foi. A crise de foi — crisis of faith — is usually associated with a religious crisis, perhaps the belief that God is dead. However, in French existentialisme, the 20th-century philosophical school most identified with the celebrated café Les Deux Magots regular, Jean-Paul Sartre, one’s crise de foi can be totally secular in nature — the feeling that life is meaningless and absurd. This condition can lead to extreme acts of political, artistic and psychological violence, even suicide (in French, suicide, pronounced “Su-e-seed”).

One more fois

One more “fe-wah” to consider: the word for time — fois — as in “for a second time” or “the next time.” So, for example, if your first attempt at suicide fails, you can try for a second time — une deuxième fois. Or, if you are hospitalized for a crise de foie, you might be more modest when eating pâté de foie gras the next time — la prochaine fois.

But not to fear — Café French™ is here! Master the appropriate French vocabulary applied to the social, aesthetic and gastronomic codes embedded in French café culture and you can avoid the potential perils of the French café: rude waiters, snubs from locals, fashion missteps, indigestion and depression.

In my experience over the last several years, spending months at a time (mois à la fois) in Paris studying the art of the café, I have never experienced a crise — existential, gastroenterological or otherwise — only that bittersweet feeling of contentment (le contentement) tinged with nostalgia (la nostalgie) the French describe as la vie en rose — “life in the pink.”

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Selected Vocabulary

la crise            n.f        crisis

le foie              n.m      liver

la foi                n.f        faith

une fois          n.f        time

le temps         n.m      time

un café           n.m      café

le café             n.m      coffee

un suicide      n.m      suicide

le gavage        n.m      gavage

deux/ième     num.    two/second

entier              adj.      entire, whole

existential       adj.      existential

un flâneur      n.m      urban observer

la nostalgie     n.f        nostalgia, longing

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 Top illustration credit: L. John Harris

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