April 8, 2013
The companies say they expect strong demand as the Hispanic population continues to grow in the U.S.
The Beech-Nut/Goya product line includes oatmeal/banana and rice/mango cereals and jarred food with guava, mango, apple mango, and a sweet potato, carrots and squash medley among other flavors and preparations.
They’re expected to be available in stores nationwide by the end of June.
Beech-Nut says the products will be made at its plant in Amsterdam, west of Albany.
Amsterdam-based Beech-Nut is owned by the Swiss company Hero Group. Goya’s headquarters are in Secaucus, N.J.
March 8, 2013
HAVANA (AP) — Tobacco: It’s what’s for dinner.
A team of Croatian chefs whipped up a pungent meal Thursday, infusing the flavor of the tobacco leaf synonymous with Cuba into baked stone bass filets, bread and butter, a rich demi-glace sauce, even ice cream.
The result was a tangy heat that one taster likened to ancho chili powder, and a powerful finish with all the nicotine kick of a chubby Montecristo cigar.
“Wow, buzz city!” said Gary Heathcott, a public relations worker from Little Rock, Arkansas, who also writes for Smoke magazine. “The first buzz I ever received from biting into fish.”
Grgur Baksic, owner and executive chef of the Gastronomadi dinner club in Zagreb, led the demonstration before a standing-room-only crowd of aficionados at a Havana convention center as part of Cuba’s 15th annual Cigar Festival.
It’s a six-day bash that brings together hundreds of cigar sophisticates from around the world, and culminates Saturday night with a gala and auction of humidors worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A dozen cameras following their every move, Baksic and two other chefs carefully wrapped the bass filets in tobacco and banana leaves, with a sprinkling of garlic and honey to draw out the smoky flavor.
As the mild white fish baked for about a half hour, they demonstrated how stirring tobacco sauces into butter can create a sharp spread for bread and crackers, and used a torch to dry out liquid-infused tobacco salt that can be employed in just about any dish.
“It’s like how you can put chili on a sweet or a sour, you can put honey on a fish and on a fruit and on a meat,” Baksic said. “Something that is good is always good. You cannot make a mistake.”
Baksic said Thursday’s demonstration was the result of two years of trial and error. He said they unsuccessfully tried American, European and African tobacco varieties before settling on Cuban tobacco, which he called the finest in the world. The chefs warned tasters not to eat the leaves themselves, which would be hard on the stomach.
“Why rosemary? Why chili? It’s about variety,” Baksic said. “We are a little bit crazy. Our company are gastro-explorers, so we are always looking for what … is not normal for other people.”
Some at the demonstration found the ice cream, a creation by Italian chef Bruno Luciani, overwhelming. What started out as a smooth, milky sweetness soon set throats on fire.
“I think they (nonsmokers) might find it a bit strong, and also they might actually get high,” said James Suckling, an American food, wine and cigar critic living in Hong Kong. “So probably in small doses they might find it amusing.”
Suckling, like other cigar aficionados sitting on a 16-member tasting panel, gave themeal good reviews, however.
“At first I didn’t really get much flavor and I thought it wasn’t up to much,” he said. “But then I started tasting the fish … and it has a very spicy, almost intense black-pepper taste. And then you get the nicotine and it’s like you’ve been chewing tobacco.”
Heathcott put it more succinctly: “It grabs you by the throat.”
February 1, 2013
HAVANA (AP) — A half-century later, Jose Rafa Malem remembers the balmy breezes blowing through the bar’s arching porticos, the grain of the tall wood stools, the whiff of Pedro Domecq brandy on his father’s breath.
And how could he forget the tangy ground-beef-and-tomato-sauce sandwiches synonymous with what was then one of Havana’s hippest hangouts, playfully dubbed Sloppy Joe’s? “I ate so many, I got tired of them,” said Rafa, a 59-year-old Havana native who grew up to become a bartender.
Soon, Rafa will be able to relive those boyhood memories as the original Sloppy Joe’s reopens in Havana’s historic quarter, giving residents and tourists from all over the chance to belly up to the same bar that served thirsty celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway.
It’s part of an ambitious revitalization project by the Havana City Historian’s Office, which since the 1990s has transformed block after block of crumbling ruins into rehabilitated buildings along vibrant cobblestone streets.
The effort has helped finance Cuba’s socialist present by drawing tourists fascinated by its pre-socialist past, from colonial palaces of the 18th century to celebrity hangouts of the 1950s.
“For the people of this city, I think it’s very interesting and very important to rescue a place that has so much history and is so recognized around the world,” said Ernesto Iznaga, manager of the born-again Joe’s, which will be run by state-owned tourism concern Habaguanex. “To restore it to how it was before.”
Sloppy Joe’s was founded in 1918 by a Galician immigrant named Jose Abeal Otero who purchased a grocery store in Old Havana after years of tending bar in New Orleans and Miami. Legend has it the sobriquet comes from the place’s grubbiness and Abeal’s American nickname, Joe.
Rafa’s father was a close friend of longtime bartender Fabio Delgado and took his boy there on Sunday afternoons beginning in the late ’50s. During the day, Rafa said, Joe’s was a mellow family joint where kids slurped ice cream and Coca-Cola while mom and dad chatted over more potent spirits.
Employees made sandwiches to order behind the black mahogany bar, polished to a high shine and purportedly once the longest in Latin America at about 59 feet (18 meters).
After dark, the place filled up with Americans on vacation.
Abeal’s affable personality and familiarity with English from his years in the States helped make Joe’s a favorite among tipsy Yanks as far back as the Prohibition era of 1920-1933, along with the nearby El Floridita bar, the reputed birthplace of the daiquiri cocktail, and La Bodeguita del Medio, home of the minty, rum-infused mojito.
As much as any other place in Havana, Joe’s exemplified the island’s lure as a playground for Americans.
“No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe’s,” novelist Graham Greene wrote in his 1958 spy-farce “Our Man in Havana,” ”because it was the rendezvous of tourists.”
It was a stylish clientele compared with the flip-flop and tank-top tourists who swarm Cuba and other Caribbean islands today. One illustrated color postcard from the era shows gentlemen in fedoras and pinstripes laughing on barstools alongside white-gloved ladies. Many were wealthy, famous and looking for a good time.
Frank Sinatra. Ava Gardner. Nat King Cole. The list of patrons reads like a Who’s Who from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Rafa said his own brushes with celebrity included Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and Cuban crooner Benny More. Swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, who reportedly got in a fistfight at the bar with an overly admiring fan, was enough of a regular that Joe’s named a cocktail for him.
Ownership later passed to another “Joe,” Jose Garcia.
But last call came in 1965 as Fidel Castro’s communist government was nationalizing nearly all private businesses, and Joe’s has been shuttered for nearly five decades.
When restoration work began in 2010, laborers discovered that the wood floors, rotten from humidity and years of neglect, had collapsed into the basement. The wooden bar, meanwhile, had splintered into three pieces.
“It was in ruins,” Iznaga said.
He and his crew have spent two years bringing the watering hole back to life. To keep Joe’s as faithful to the original as possible, they’ve examined historic photos and talked to old-timers like Rafa who remember the way it was.
Messy ground-beef sandwiches will be on the new menu, naturally. Iznaga said they apparently originated as an Abeal family recipe, though others have also claimed they invented them.
Also on the menu will be the Errol Flynn, an icy vodka and tomato-juice concoction garnished with a celery spear. Among the few changes is that the new bar will be air-conditioned for the comfort of sweaty patrons.
At the intersection of Animas and Zulueta streets on a recent morning, dozens of workers buzzed about painting and finishing the bar’s wood surfaces. A Sloppy Joe’s sign hung from the building’s corner, wrapped in plastic and ready to be unveiled for opening day.
Construction setbacks have delayed the re-opening from Iznaga’s original target around New Year’s, and the first fingers of Havana Club rum will likely flow sometime in February.
Across the Florida Straits, where rum-runner and speakeasy operator Joe Russell named his own bar Sloppy Joe’s in the 1930s at the suggestion of his friend Ernest Hemingway, operators are delighted that the original is being reborn.
“It’s exciting because obviously our history is tied into their history,” said Donna Edwards, brand manager at the Key West Joe’s, which recently celebrated 75 years at its current location. “Hemingway and Russell, they would frequent Sloppy Joe’s when they were in Havana. It’s a piece of history, and our history is now coming to life again.”
December 13, 2012
The Salt Lake Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — “Incubator kitchen” is not in Webster’s Dictionary. But if it were, it might use words like “fantastic foreign food” to describe a program that seeks to teach refugees and others how to succeed in the restaurant business.
Oh, and one more thing — it requires a commercial kitchen where trainees can hone their skills.
Salt Lake City and The Leonardo museum are salivating to serve up such a facility for the program initiated by Salt Lake County Refugee Services and the International Rescue Committee. As early as Dec. 11, the City Council could consider funding construction of a commercial kitchen that would be built in the basement of The Leonardo.
“The council is very enthusiastic about the program,” Councilman Kyle LaMalfa told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/Xn5HIM). “The opportunity at The Leonardo is timely and an efficient use of government money.”
LaMalfa imagines immigrants cooking up exotic dishes for one of the many festivals held at City Hall’s Washington Square, across the street from The Leonardo.
The council is considering a grant of between $155,000 and $250,000.
By itself, the city’s grant would not cover all the costs of the incubator kitchen. But the program has other donors to help fund the enterprise that would cost about $300,000, according to program organizers.
It would be the first museum/incubator-kitchen partnership in the country, said Leonardo spokeswoman Lisa Davis. The Leonardo, a private nonprofit corporation, always has sought to incorporate food as part of its cultural mission.
“We think there would be a lot of synergies,” Davis said. “For The Leonardo to be a public platform for people and culture — it’s a win-win.”
The Global Kitchen Alliance program, spearheaded by ZeMin Xiao and Natalie El-Deiry, is looking at several options for its commercial kitchen space. But Xiao, the county’s refugee services liaison, said the city’s proposal will get serious consideration.
Refugees and other immigrants arrive in this country knowing recipes from around the world, she said. But while they may know how to cook, they are unaware of state and federal laws surrounding food handling, and likely know little about the complexities of running a business in this country.
Although the food and restaurant business is one of the easiest to enter for immigrants, it also is one of the most difficult in which to succeed, Xiao said, noting that about 90 percent of new restaurants fail. The Global Kitchen Alliance program takes its clients through a variety of steps over months — or even years — to maximize the success of their endeavors.
“It’s a hands-on program,” Xiao said. “Instead of people investing all their savings and jumping into something, this gives them trials so they can see if it’s something they really want to do.”
Participants get a food handler’s license, learn to prepare menus, and get instruction on marketing and cash flow-strategies, among other things, said El-Deiry of the International Rescue Committee.
Would-be chefs start small by preparing food for festivals and The Downtown Farmers Market or packaging dishes for sale to local restaurants.
The Global Kitchen Alliance has developed some curricula and is working on others, El-Deiry said. The program is being modeled after La Cocina, a successful incubator kitchen in San Francisco.
La Cocina has been successful in helping many immigrants become restaurateurs and foodwholesalers, Xiao noted. It also has been a boon to San Francisco’s restaurant scene.
“It’s a great economic development tool for the city,” she said. “The benefits are incredible.
August 6, 2012
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Archaeologists say they have found traces of 2,500-year-old chocolate on a plate in the Yucatan peninsula, the first time they have found ancient chocolate residue on a plate rather than a cup, suggesting it may have been used as a condiment or sauce with solid food.
Experts have long thought cacao beans and pods were mainly used in pre-Hispanic cultures as a beverage, made either by crushing the beans and mixing them with liquids or fermenting the pulp that surrounds the beans in the pod. Such a drink was believed to have been reserved for the elite.
But the discovery announced this week by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History expands the envelope of how chocolate may have been used in ancient Mexico.
It would also suggest that there may be ancient roots for traditional dishes eaten in today’s Mexico, such as mole, the chocolate-based sauce often served with meats.
“This is the first time it has been found on a plate used for serving food,” archaeologist Tomas Gallareta said. “It is unlikely that it was ground there (on the plate), because for that they probably used metates (grinding stones).”
The traces of chemical substances considered “markers” for chocolate were found on fragments of plates uncovered at the Paso del Macho archaeological site in Yucatan in 2001.
The fragments were later subjected to tests with the help of experts at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, as part of a joint project. The tests revealed a “ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage,” according to a statement by the university.
“These are certainly interesting results,” John S. Henderson, a Cornell University professor of Anthropology and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate, said in an email Thursday.
Henderson, who was not involved in the Paso del Macho project, wrote that “the presence of cacao residues on plates is even more interesting … the important thing is that it was on flat serving vessels and so presented or served in some other way than as a beverage.”
“I think their inference that cacao was being used in a sauce is likely correct, though I can imagine other possibilities,” he added, citing possibilities like “addition to a beverage (cacao-based or other) as a condiment or garnish.”
The plate fragments date to about 500 B.C., and are not the oldest chocolate traces found in Mexico. Beverage vessels found in excavations of Gulf coast sites of the Olmec culture, to the west of the Yucatan, and other sites in Chiapas, to the south, have yielded traces around 1,000 years older.
But it does extend the roots of Mexican cuisine, and the importance of chocolate, further back into the past.
“This indicates that the pre-Hispanic Maya may have eaten foods with cacao sauce, similar to mole,” the anthropology institute said in a statement.
July 10, 2012
GALIA GARCIA PALAFOX
MEXICO CITY (aP) — Their images may strike fear but when Crazy Clown, Black Fury and Big Mama step into the ring their cause is just: bringing Mexico’s beloved lucha libre wrestling to the capital’s poorest neighborhoods, orphanages and prisons.
In front of shacks or jammed onto the staircases of crumbling buildings, men, women and children who don’t have the money to buy a 300 pesos ($22) ticket to see a professional wrestling event at one of Mexico City’s big arenas can cheer the Caravan Super Tarin traveling wrestling show, which on weekends gives free performances filled with kitschy glitz, masked avengers and snarling “rudos.”
The Caravan Super Tarin is one of the larger street wrestling troupes that play Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods and one of the few that give shows free of charge. While the burgeoning street wrestling phenomenon may lack the big name stars of Mexico’s television networks, it makes up for it but it bringing lucha libre back to its roots in Mexico’s barrios, where people still revere the legendary “El Santo” or “The Saint,” and wrestling is the second-most popular sport after soccer.
At these barrio brawls children jump into the ring and women join the fray, smacking wrestlers with brooms. The fighting sometimes spills into gardens and people’s houses, and spectators will pass their preferred fighter a chair, a board, a lamp or any other handy object and tell them: “Hit them with this!”
The impact of the lucha libre in Mexico goes beyond that of other countries, incorporating Mayan mythology and becoming a recurring theme in its movies and culture. Wrestlers campaign with politicians and fight for low-incoming housing projects and other social causes. Superbarrio Gomez, donning red tights and a red-and-yellow wrestler’s mask, became famous as a social fighter following Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake, leading protests and rallies as he set out to fight corruption and injustice.
The Caravan Super Tarin will set up its makeshift wrestling ring on potholed streets, plazas or public markets in hardscrabble neighborhoods across Mexico City and its surrounding areas, wherever they are wanted. They’ve even wrestled for communities at trash dumps.
The wrestlers get into their costumes in tiny spaces, sitting on packing crates or in the homes of locals. A show can feature 70 wrestlers.
The matches serve a dual purpose: to entertain residents and to provide an opportunity for lesser-known or young wrestlers to catch the eye of a promoter.
“I have dreams of wrestling with the great ones, but I’ve been at it for three years and haven’t received the opportunity,” the youngest wrestler, 16-year-old Black Fury said from behind his mask, insisting on keeping his street identity a secret.
At a recent show children laughed and screamed when the snarling and beefy Big Mama — in real life 34-year-old Alejandra Montes, who sells kitchenware in Mexico City’s tough La Merced market — charged onto the ring in a red and white skirt with red hearts. They cringed at the powerful Crazy Clown with his horned Harlequin headgear and bright spandex costume.
Street wrestling can also provide a home for lucha libre outsiders, such as the one-armed Leonardo Rocha who has wrestled for most of his life despite a birth defect that left him with a shortened limb. At the caravan, the 47-year-old Rocha puts on his black tights and wrestles as “Desafio,” which translates as “Challenge” or “Duel.”
“There are times when there is a lot of work, and others times when there is little. Right now the political campaign is under way so there are a lot of opportunities,” Rocha said before Mexico’s July 1 presidential election.
The leader of the caravan is Rafael Rojas Tarin — or Super Tarin — who heads the street vendors association that sponsors the shows.
For five years, Super Tarin’s caravan has traveled Mexico’s capital. Rojas Tarin originally was not a wrestler, working instead as an event organizer. But little by little he became more involved in the shows themselves until he found himself inside the ring as Super Tarin.
The caravan provides some economic support to its fighters, but none gets the 500 to 2,000 pesos ($40-$160) fee a local wrestler can command for a paid match. Sometimes fans will bring the wrestlers plates of food as payment.
Rocha said people always assume that rivals in the ring are also rivals in real life, but that’s not so.
“To be a good rival you have to be a good friend,” Rocha said.
April 28, 2012
For The Associated Press
Stir-fry and salsa aren’t traditional companions on the plate, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a little common ground.
As a wok cooking teacher, I’m constantly looking for new ways to use my wok, including with cuisines other than Asian. And it turns out the Hispanic world has a wealth of ingredients and classic recipes perfectly suited to this cooking style.
Though I grew up in Hong Kong — where I watched local cooks use huge cast-iron woks to prepare classic street foods such as choutofu (stinky tofu), stuffed peppers, curried octopus and roasted chestnuts — I now live in Miami, a city rich with Cuban culture. I’ve noticed many similarities in cooking techniques, ingredients and seasonings between the cultures.
Cuban-style paella, for example, is similar to Asian fried rice. Even the paella pan resembles a wok.
Look more broadly across Hispanic cuisines and examples are plentiful. Churros and Chinese crullers are both crispy deep-fried dough sticks. Fillings for quesadillas, fajitas and tacos are basically stir-fried beef, chicken or pork.
In Peru, which has a sizeable population of Chinese immigrants, there is even an Asian-Peruvian fusion dish known as chifa, a mash-up of the term “chow fan,” which refers to Chinese fried rice. Chifa — basically fried rice with native Peruvian ingredients, often leftovers, and soy sauce — has become an integral part of Peruvian cuisine.
One of the most common ways to cook in a wok is to do so briefly at very high heat. This is why ingredients often are cooked in batches according to how long they should take. For example, vegetables go in until just tender, but still lightly crisp, then are removed from the pan. Next, the meat is cooked until nicely seared, then everything is combined.
This same approach works with Hispanic ingredients. It can be as simple as stir-frying some onion, peppers and other vegetables, then setting those aside. Add some thinly sliced beef, pork or chicken with Hispanic seasonings and cook that. When the meat is ready, combine everything and use as a filling for tacos.
But woks can do more than stir-fry, and that versatility is what makes them so useful for other cuisines. Because of their shape and wide opening, woks are great for deep frying, steaming, stewing, toasting spices and nuts, even baking.
For example, a wok can fry up churros as easily as wonton-wrapped dumplings or spring rolls. It also can be used to fry plantains. And in both cases, the attachable wire rack that clips to the side of the wok is excellent for draining excess oil from the fried foods.
Don’t have a paella pan? Use a large wok. It also does a fine job with arroz con pollo — brown the chicken, cook the sofrito and tomato sauce, then add the rice and other ingredients. I’ve even made tortilla omelets in my wok. Start by stir-frying the vegetables in the wok, then add the mixture of egg and cheese. Set the entire thing in the oven (set on a wok ring) and bake.
A cast-iron wok over gas heat is the best choice. But in a pinch, a large cast-iron skillet can be substituted. A stainless or carbon steel wok also can be used, though you may find you need to use more oil to prevent sticking. Never use nonstick woks for high-heat frying; they aren’t made to tolerate extreme heat.
Because speed is essential when cooking at high heat in a wok, it’s important to have all ingredients prepped ahead. If you are using a small wok or a skillet, you may need to cook the meat in two batches. Avoid crowding the pan, as this cools it. The meat also should be cooked in two batches if your stove is electric, which does not maintain temperature as well as gas.
Stainless steel spatulas with a wooden handle and curved edge work best with steel or cast-iron woks.
This dish is best served with rice, especially red or brown. Start the rice cooking as you prep your ingredients so everything is ready at the same time.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
April 25, 2012
CAROL ANN ALAIMO
Arizona Daily Star
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The path to greater harmony between Mexicans and Americans runs through the kitchen of a local eatery, according to an hombre who should know.
Syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano, who makes his living poking fun at culture clashes between the neighboring nations, predicted in Tucson last week that Sonoran hot dogs will one day take los Estados Unidos by storm, promoting good will far and wide.
Tucson “is one of the greatest places in America for Mexican food,” said Arellano, a Californiafood critic and editor who writes the irreverent “¡Ask a Mexican!” column carried by dozens of alternative news outlets nationwide.
“Wherever I go in the United States, I talk about El Guero Canelo,” Arellano said, a reference to the Tucson eatery renowned for its Sonoran hot dogs.
“I look forward to the day when people will know Tucson for its Sonoran dogs and not for its wacky school board,” he added, sending a ripple of laughter through a diverse group that turned out to see him at the University of Arizona.
Arellano was in town promoting his new book: “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”
The satirist couldn’t resist wading into some local controversies, such as Tucson Unified School District’s dismantling of its Mexican American Studies program, and a board member’s bumbling appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
“I know there’s a lot of good in Tucson,” he said. “Unfortunately, you are now suffering under the rule of idiots.”
Arellano’s new book is billed as an exploration of “the history and culture of Mexican food in the U.S. from the 1880s to the 1990s, when salsa overtook ketchup” as America’s favorite condiment.
It contains a wealth of trivia, such as where Taco Bell got its recipe and how Doritos were invented.
And it debunks some age-old gringo myths, like one that claimed vultures would bypass the bodies of fallen Mexican soldiers because their remains were too spicy.
Arellano, who lectures on Chicano and Chicana studies at Cal-State Fullerton, said the growing popularity of Mexican food bodes well for future relations between Anglos and Latinos.
“A lot of times food is the first part of a minority culture that the majority culture will accept,” said Arellano, 33, whose website proclaims him “the proud son of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom was illegal.”
He said history suggests today’s frictions between Americans and Mexican newcomers will fade away.
In generations past, he said, Irish, Italian and Slavic immigrants to America suffered discrimination but eventually were embraced by their adopted country.
For Mexicans, the Sonoran hot dog can only help speed that process.
“Once Americans discover it,” he said, “they’ll go crazy for it.”
April 8, 2012
The Birmingham News
HOMEWOOD, Ala. (AP) — This little burro is ready to kick, y’all.
Southern food goes south of the border when the ownership group behind the Birmingham-based Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q chain debuts its newest concept Tuesday in Homewood — a Southern-influenced Mexican restaurant with the tongue-in-cheek name of Little Donkey.
The menu features such culture-blending dishes as chile-spiked fried chicken, hickory-smoked barbecue tacos and oven-roasted Gulf shrimp seared in Lodge Cast Iron skillets and served with house-made salsa and guacamole.
“This is authentic Mexican food that has a Southern soul to it,” is the way Jim ‘N Nick’s commissioner of culture Sam Burn describes it.
Located in suburban Birmingham, Little Donkey moved into an old Alabama ABC store, which has undergone a yearlong makeover in its transition from liquor store to 140-seat restaurant.
Only the shell of the old building remains, as designer John Michael Bodnar, a partner in the Fresh Hospitality Group that owns Little Donkey, has reinvented the space using recycled pine, pressed tin, glazed windowpanes and stained concrete floors.
“We didn’t want the restaurant to be 100 percent where you walked in and it felt like a Mexican restaurant,” Little Donkey co-owner and creative director Nick Pihakis says. “We wanted to have touches of that and the actual feeling that you were in the South. We are merging the two cultures.”
Pihakis, who, with the help of his father, Jim, founded Jim ‘N Nick’s in 1985, says his inspiration for Little Donkey goes back about five years, when he visited San Francisco’s La Cocina, a nonprofit incubator kitchen that helps low-income and mostly Hispanic food vendors launch and grow their businesses.
Pihakis spent some time working alongside the vendors in the La Cocina kitchen and getting a crash course in how to prepare authentic Mexican street food.
Joshua Gentry, who has been with Jim ‘N Nick’s for nearly a decade, most recently as supervisor of the Birmingham market, is the new restaurant’s chef and managing partner.
Pihakis and Gentry spent the past couple of years traveling to Mexico to develop and fine-tune the menu, which they were still tweaking as late as last week.
Having been in the restaurant business since he started washing dishes at 14, the 38-year-old Gentry says he has worked alongside Mexicans for most of that time, and he wants the Little Donkey menu to reflect and respect their culture.
“This is kind of personal for me,” Gentry adds. “The techniques that we know are Southern, and that means smoking meats. But we are not going to take those meats and smoke them with Southern flavors. We are going to smoke them with Mexican flavors.”
All but four of the 24 members of the Little Donkey kitchen staff are Hispanic, including kitchen manager Ender Rodriguez, Gentry says.
“I’m not at all afraid — matter of fact, I’m slightly proud of the fact — that I don’t mind looking at them and saying, ‘Could I be doing this a better way?’” Gentry says.
Just like at Jim ‘N Nick’s, every dish at Little Donkey is made from scratch — from the soups and salsas to the tacos and tortas.
It’s the only way to do it, Pihakis says.
“This food is very sensitive, and if it’s not made fresh every day, you can really tell the difference,” he says. “So it’s pretty labor-intensive on the front end.”
All of the breads for the sandwiches are baked in-house, as well, and the tortillas are not only pressed on site, but the corn for the mesa is ground on the premises, too.
“It’s the full cycle,” Burn says. “We grind the corn into meal and then we turn that meal into masa. Then we take that masa and press it into tortillas and cook our tortillas to order.”
As much as possible, Little Donkey gets its produce and meats from family farmers and local and regional food purveyors, including tomatoes from Mt Laurel Farm in Shelby County, eggs from McEwen & Sons in Wilsonville, pork from Drexel Johnson Farms in Elba and beef from White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga.
Pihakis and Gentry came up with the name for their new restaurant when they discovered that burrito, in Spanish, means “little donkey.” It was too perfect.
“Every time I would say it to somebody, they would laugh,” Pihakis says. “I thought that’s got to be the name of it if it makes people feel good right off the bat.”
That feel-good theme is also reflected in Little Donkey’s bar program, which was concocted by mixologist LeNell Camacho Santa Ana, who, before joining the Little Donkey team, grew up in Alabama, lived a couple of years in Mexico and ran a boutique liquor shop in Brooklyn.
Beside local beers from Birmingham’s Avondale Brewing Co. and Good People Brewing Co. and Jim ‘N Nick’s own Reverend Mudbone’s in-house brand, the bar menu features 10 Southern bourbons and an equal number of Mexican tequilas.
Camacho Santa Ana also created a cocktail especially for the restaurant. The Donkey’s Daddy is a bourbon and tequila drink mixed with house-made hibiscus syrup and key lime juice.
“My thought was trying to combine the love of our tequila and then our second love of bourbon and give them both an equal chance to shine,” Camacho Santa Ana says.
Nonalcoholic aguas frescas, which are fruit drinks popular in Mexico, include fresh-squeezed limeade and horchata, a milky drink made of rice, cinnamon, vanilla and crushed almond that goes well with spicy foods.
The Fresh Hospitality Group plans to open a second Little Donkey in downtown Tuscaloosa, next door to where it is opening its newest Jim ‘N Nick’s at the end of this month, Pihakis says.
Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews
April 2, 2012
BARBARA ORTUTAY,AP Technology Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Throw away all those soy sauce-stained takeout menus.
Online deals site LivingSocial is unveiling an Internet food-ordering service. Hungry customers will be able to use it to order tacos, burgers or Pad Thai from participating restaurants over the Internet for pickup or delivery.
Aptly called “Takeout & Delivery,” the service replaces LivingSocial’s instant-deals site, which offered real-time discounts with tight time constraints. LivingSocial says that service was a testing ground for its new, food-focused offering.
The service is launching Thursday with more than 2,700 restaurants in 26 U.S. markets, including Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco. The two largest, Los Angeles and New York, are coming later, along with the rest of the markets that LivingSocial serves.
LivingSocial will compete with Seamless.com and GrubHub others that let people place food orders online and avoid the phone. Demand for such services has grown as people conduct more of their lives online.
Greg Mazanec, general manager of LivingSocial’s new service, described phone takeout orders as a “sometimes painful experience” that requires fishing for a menu in a drawer, giving out credit card information and often getting put on hold and speaking to someone who is distracted.
Mazanec said restaurants won’t have to pay to join LivingSocial’s service, but they will give LivingSocial an unspecified cut of the revenue they bring in through the site. Mazanec said the amount is negotiated with each restaurant.
People using the takeout and delivery service must have a LivingSocial account, which is free to set up. That’s because they will pay with a credit card on file. They don’t have to sign up for the company’s daily deals emails.
Jesse Mencow, manager of a Tex-Mex restaurant called California Tortilla, said the service helps simplify ordering for takeout and deliveries. The Tex-Mex restaurant has been testing the service along with other restaurants in Washington D.C., where LivingSocial is headquartered. Mencow said the service has helped attract new customers.
LivingSocial’s biggest competitor, Groupon Inc., also has been looking into ways to expand beyond its daily emails. It has an instant-deals service called Groupon Now and recently launched an online scheduling tool that lets customers book appointments with small businesses more easily.