Add Immigrant Food to your list for D.C. Restaurant Week! Or make my copycat recipe featured in this January edition.
Welcome back and happy January! This month has been super long and a bit hard, but we’re now at the end. And I’m celebrating kicking off 2021 (mostly) successfully by allowing myself to order takeout at least twice during the ever-delicious Restaurant Week. I’m sure many of my readers in D.C. are contemplating which restaurants to order from (or you already may have enjoyed a meal!), but let me implore you to read the story behind a resilient restaurant with a noble cause and then promptly schedule an order for their dinner deal. And if you can’t decide on what to order, rest assured you will find a copycat recipe from me below to satisfy any additional cravings.
This month: I struggled for a bit to find someone who was available to talk with me and then I saw promotions for Restaurant Week and it all just clicked. The restaurant I most wanted to order from during this amazing promotional event was the perfect subject, and I was lucky enough that they were happy to participate! Scroll down to read more on Immigrant Food and their inspiring mission, and how they’ve been impacted by not only the pandemic but prolonged downtown D.C. closures. Finally, I would still love to hear from every one of you on what you expect to see in the new year.
Some background: In a monthly newsletter, I combine a DC local’s story behind their favorite recipe(s), or ones that whip up some nostalgia, with photos and prose of my attempt at replication. These recipes vary in difficulty, but they are always ones close to the heart. This newsletter is sent on the third Sunday of each month as the name suggests.
A fun note: Make sure to mark this email as NOT spam, move it to your inbox or add my sending address to your address book to avoid the newsletter regularly ending up in the abyss. Sometimes Mailchimp email campaigns go straight to spam.
Meet Téa and Immigrant Food.
Téa is the co-owner and director of communications and outreach at Immigrant Food, a downtown D.C. establishment that doubles as an organization meant to increase awareness and education of immigrant communities in the nation’s capital. The cause-casual restaurant offers a unique experience with two menus: one full of cuisine-fused bowls, sandwiches and drinks, in addition to an engagement menu, which customers can choose options from volunteering, events to donations. Chef Enrique Limardo and co-founder Peter Schechter, among the others on the team, come from an immigrant background and all, while being policy wonks, decided to celebrate all that immigrants have to offer by combining education and food into one restaurant. They “offer fusion bowls that crashed together the best of each gastronomy,” while “raising public awareness of [NGOs’] work and support them by channeling donors, volunteers and providing space to meet special needs.” Even though the restaurant was opened during an administration with anti-immigrant rhetoric at a high, Téa promises that they will not become complicit during the new administration since now it’s more important than ever to talk about the contributions immigrants can bring to America.
Immigrant Food opened up about five months before the pandemic was in full effect in the U.S. The restaurant was opened to acclaim since its fusion bowls came with a cause, but the pandemic started to hit Immigrant Food early because of its not quite residential location. To their left, the White House, and to their right, international institutions whose workers had already experienced some of the worst of the pandemic and were already working from home, so foot traffic decreased significantly. Then, in March, things got really difficult as most people avoided downtown D.C. while telecommuting, and the restaurant only had a 3-mile delivery radius, making it difficult to push their takeout options to Washingtonians. Téa says that as a new business without much brand recognition or a loyal customer base, Immigrant Food suffered.
Nov. 7 was one of the best days for their business as loads of people stopped in for sandwiches while celebrating the election called for Joe Biden near the White House. Téa says some tables even ordered champagne. Unfortunately, their location also has posed some problems as the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol caused road closures as the National Guard moved in to make sure the Inauguration went smoothly. Téa says they struggled to get to the restaurant through several checkpoints and couldn’t even get food properly delivered. Some Washingtonians may have seen on social media that the team at one point loaded up suitcases full of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, chicken and more and rolled them through the streets to their door. Immigrant Food wasn’t able to deliver much in those weeks, and despite the Inauguration typically being a big business boost for the city and its restaurants, none really saw the added revenue due to closures. But she’s optimistic things are looking up with vaccinations and more.
The story behind the recipe.
Because of it being fairly new to the D.C. food scene, Immigrant Food hadn’t participated in a previous Restaurant Week. Téa says they gave it a shot to bring in new customers since they hadn’t got a chance to get well-known before the pandemic hit. She also says the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, who runs Restaurant Week, has made it easy for restaurants around the city to participate this winter with seamless communication and special offers. One thing the team has learned from 2020 is that it’s hard to plan ahead, but if given the chance, they’ll likely participate in Restaurant Week again.
Deciding on the special menu involved including some fan favorites, like their ode to the banh mi, the Old Saigon sandwich, and their Asian chicken wings, but Téa says they crafted a new bowl as well to welcome Kamala Harris back to D.C. as the vice president,
and she highly recommends it to any first-time customers. The aptly named Madam VP Heritage bowl is the result of kitchen staff getting together to create a celebratory bowl full of Indian and Jamaican influence, to reflect Harris’ background. As someone who just ordered dinner and crafted my own copycat recipe of the bowl, I must say their food is delicious, fresh and innovative. The harissa hummus is to-die-for smooth and spicy, while the Old Saigon is deliciously crunchy, buttery and salty.
This bowl truly has everything, too, and that comes from the world’s biggest sweet and salty fan. The pineapple chunks on top perfectly balance the salty rice and smooth curry,
with a fresh bite from the spicy peppers (which I translated to jalapeños) and chopped cilantro on top. The fried plantains were the icing on the metaphorical curry cake and added another hint of sweetness. Overall, I’d give this bowl a 10/10 (and my effort to recreate it probably an 8 since I’m sure it’s much better straight from the source) and I will be regularly making it from now on.
In addition to the bowl on their dinner menu, Immigrant Food is offering free Agua de Jamaica with lunch orders and an added bottle of wine with any dinner orders. The wine comes their large selection of wines from off-the-beaten path wineries, like in South Africa and the Balkans, but is still just as delicious as your stereotypical Italian and Californian wines (with a more attractive price tag as well). As an added revenue source during the pandemic, the restaurant launched some corporate events as well, including wine tastings hosted by a sommelier in California that features their unique wines shipped straight to customers.
The pandemic has caused many setbacks for the restaurant, including layoffs, but eventually they rehired back employees on commission as delivery drivers so they could reach customers in places like Bethesda. They also launched more delivery-friendly options, like their now-popular sandwiches.
Other pandemic adjustments have included changing how they fulfill their “second beating heart,” or their mission, as Téa says. Now, instead of being able to offer and rent out their space to NGOs, Téa says Immigrant Food has a virtual engagement menu and helps with virtual events through sending out a monthly newsletter that included five ways to engage with immigrants. On top of that, they continued to run their digital magazine Think Table that makes wonky policy, typically hard to digest from Think Tanks, more engaging in everyday terms. They go in depth on specific issue and talk with experts, and past issues have included farmers, sanctuary cities and immigrants and the election, which involved a talk with Rep. Pramila Jayapal. The restaurant has also dabbled in DIY home cooking kits and different events involving food, comedy and expert panels.