In good hands
These immigrants craft the foundations of your favorite restaurant dishes
Their faces may not look familiar, but you know their work. They represent the heart and soul of the dining boom in Washington — and in restaurants across the country. “They do the tedious, day-to-day tasks that have to be consistent,” says Garrison chef-owner Rob Weland. “It’s an art, like a lot of things in cooking.”
And, to paraphrase a song belted out on Broadway every night to thunderous applause: They are all immigrants — they get the job done.
Meet a polish pierogi maker, tortilla trio, injera expert, lai mein master and beloved pasta mama.
Above: Sophia Para, of Sophia’s Place in Baltimore, learned to make pierogi from her mother in her native Poland, but she didn’t initially plan to capitalize on her talents.
Sophia Para, pierogi maker
Walking around Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, past the boutiques and seafood restaurants and the taverns selling cans of Natty Boh, it can be easy to forget that this area — along with the adjacent Canton and Highlandtown — was once known as Baltimore’s “Little Poland.” Until, that is, you find yourself at the counter of Sophia’s Place, inside the historic Broadway Market.
The small deli and grocery sells imported Polish pickles and sweets, and a refrigerated case is packed with smoked sausages and cheese. But the most popular items, by far, are the pierogi, which are made by hand only a few feet from the counter.
Sophia Para typically produces 100 to 120 dozen of the filled half-moon dumplings each week. Most work is done on Fridays, when the place’s 63-year-old owner has an assistant to help her roll and fill the dough. But, she says, she sometimes comes in on Sundays, the one day the market is closed, “because it’s easier” to work without having to stop to sell sausages or the traditional pastries called paczki.
Para, whose warm smile peeks out from under a blond bob, learned the art of pierogi-making from her mother in her native Poland. Yet she hadn’t planned to capitalize on those talents when she arrived in Baltimore in 1985 at age 32. Para got a job running a stand at Broadway Market selling dairy products from a local farm. It was not very busy, and “it was so small, so I was thinking, ‘maybe I will switch it to the Polish deli,’ ” she says in a lilting Polish accent. She began stocking Polish goods and, in 1990, began selling small amounts of handmade pierogi.
These days, when she prepares batches of them, she’ll make 10 dozen at a time. She regularly stocks six varieties, including ones stuffed with cheese, sauerkraut, potato or a combination of ingredients. Cheese are the easiest: She lays out little rounds of dough, puts sweetened farmer’s cheese in the middle — “I add a little sugar to it” — folds and pinches to seal. A batch “takes an hour, an hour 20 minutes,” she says, which includes making “a really good dough” with butter, eggs and flour.
That dough “has to be thin,” Para says. “Pierogi don’t taste right when they have a lot of dough. That’s the big difference when you taste the ones that come out of a machine.”
Of course, they’re not all as easy as the cheese kind. One of her most popular pierogi contains a mixture of sauerkraut and mushrooms, and the preparation of that filling slows the whole process down: “You have to soak the mushrooms, and sauerkraut needs more time to squeeze,” to remove excess water, Para says. Sometimes, it can take her up to 12 hours to make a week’s pierogi — and even more at this time of year, when some customers buy 10 or 12 dozen at a time for their Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners — so Para tries to make more in advance. “Sometimes I run out of the most popular,” Para says apologetically.
In an average week, around three-quarters of the pierogi will be sold by the dozen from the deli’s refrigerator, where they sit on plastic-wrapped foam trays. The rest are pan-fried to order with bacon and onions for customers sitting at Sophia’s lunch counter or tables.
— Fritz Hahn
Sophia’s Place. 1641 Aliceanna St., Baltimore. sophiaspolishdeli.com. 410-342-6105.
Above: When Yesenia Neri Diaz, center, made tortillas as a girl in Guerrero, Mexico, a machine was not within easy reach the way it is at Espita Mezcaleria in the District, where she works with Maria Galicia, left, and Sandra Garcia.
Yesenia Neri Diaz, tortilla maker
In the mornings, Yesenia Neri Diaz makes masa. The 28-year-old cook at Espita Mezcaleria in the District’s Shaw neighborhood arrives at the restaurant at 6 o’clock, while it’s still dark outside, and begins to clean hundreds of pounds of corn that soaked overnight. Out of diners’ sight, in a hot kitchen, she runs it through a mechanical grinder and then adds oil, water and salt to form the dough that, over the next few hours, will be flattened into about 3,000 tortillas.
Her days are filled with the faint percussive sound of tortillas hitting the griddle. Flap. Flap. Flap. She runs the dough through a press with a die that forms it into perfect rounds. One hand cranks the machine. The other drops the tortilla onto the hot surface.
Diaz is fast, producing about one tortilla every second. The tortillas take about 10 seconds to cook, and then there’s another rhythm: the metal-on-metal sound of her spatula flipping them over for another 10 seconds before ultimately collecting them. Later, they’ll get a few more seconds on the comal right before they are served to guests.
This is not the way her family made tortillas in Guerrero, Mexico, where she grew up.
“It’s different here,” Diaz says, in remarks translated by Estella Xoc, another cook, and Alexis Samayoa, the restaurant’s executive chef. The difference isn’t in the recipe but in the process: In Mexico, her mother would “cook corn in the house and clean the corn, and then go to a machine someplace to make masa” every three days. There was never the convenience of a machine that was always within arm’s reach. Once Diaz became old enough to help, she says, she “would make [masa] together with my mother.”
That’s what made Samayoa hire her.
“When I taught her how to do the nixtamalize” — the process of soaking the corn in an alkaline solution, making it easier to grind and more digestible and nutritious — she had done that, too, Samayoa says. “So she took the lead, and that was it.” Two other cooks — Maria Galicia and Sandra Garcia — work with her.
Diaz does one of the most important jobs in Espita’s kitchen. Her masa goes into many of the restaurant’s offerings, including the chips that are dipped into every bowl of pistachio-tomatillo salsa and the tacos filled with maitake mushrooms. She also makes masa into other shapes, such as the thicker, rimmed cakes for sopes or the larger, crispy tortillas for tlayudas. But 16 hours of her week in the full-time job are spent just on tortillas.
It’s repetitive work; sometimes her wrists hurt. And she looks forward to 2 p.m., when she gets off work, so she can spend time with her 8-year-old daughter. But she’s proud to be here.
“This country gives you lots of opportunities,” she says.
— Maura Judkis
Espita Mezcaleria. 1250 Ninth St. NW. espitadc.com. 202-621-9695.
Above: Sara Gebrehanna is one of two people who make more than 700 pieces of injera daily at Hiwot in the District, but she doesn’t tire of it. “This is my life,” she says.
Sara Gebrehanna, injera maker
Many Ethiopian restaurants don’t make their own injera, and there are reasons for that.
The consistency of the batter must be just right. Fermenting the batter requires time and patience. And each thin and spongy round bread, one of the staples of Ethiopian food, must be cooked individually.
Sara Gebrehanna knows all these challenges and doesn’t bat an eye.
“For us, it’s easy since we’ve been doing it for so many years,” Gebrehanna says of the injera production she runs out of Hiwot, the restaurant on Georgia Avenue in Washington’s Brightwood Park neighborhood that she owns with her husband, Fikre Wodajo.
Gebrehanna, 39, learned to make injera from her parents, Zenebech Dessu and Gebrehanna Demissie, when she was about 15. The couple, who emigrated from Ethiopia in 1990, recently closed the Shaw restaurant named after Gebrehanna’s mother, Zenebech. Gebrehanna is hoping to expand her injera capacity at Hiwot to fill the wholesale gap left by Zenebech’s departure. (Money to complete construction underneath Hiwot and hire additional staff has been hard to come by, but Gebrehanna says she would like to be ready in about six months.)
In the meantime, she is one of two people who make the injera at Hiwot. Each day, the team can make upward of 700 pieces, working overnight and in the hours before the restaurant opens.
Two different injera are made at Hiwot. The first consists of all-purpose flour, white sorghum and white teff; this is what Gebrehanna sells to fellow Ethiopian restaurants Dukem, CherCher and Das. The second, darker variety, which is sold exclusively at Hiwot, contains whole-wheat flour, red sorghum, black teff and barley. (They taste the same, but Gebrehanna said some people say they digest the whole-wheat type better.) The flours and grains are mixed with a little yeast and water and whirred in standard blenders. The batter is then transferred to plastic containers for a minimum eight-hour fermentation at room temperature.
When it comes time to cook the injera, Gebrehanna will prepare up to 10 ungreased round griddle pans, the kind that can also be used for crepes. On a recent afternoon, she set up one lone pan in the shoe box-size kitchen to demonstrate her process and — though she might reject the term — her prowess.
Even using a humble metal can crushed to a precise angle for pouring (a small plastic pitcher is indeed demonstrably less neat and accurate), Gebrehanna moves with considerable grace — as if she were handling a paintbrush instead. Her arm circles the pan from the outside to the inside in one continuous twirl, leaving no speck of hot surface uncovered. She pours about 10 ounces of batter onto the griddle for each injera.
Gebrehanna waits a few seconds for bubbles to begin to appear on the surface, then covers the injera with a metal dome to trap the steam and keep the bread soft and pliable. After two or three minutes, she removes the cover and snatches at the lacy edges of the hot injera with her bare (Teflon-coated?) fingers. She slides the bread, about 17 inches in diameter, onto a woven grass round specially imported from Ethiopia and then transfers it to a tray. Subsequent breads are piled on top and will cool for several hours before being packaged.
Does she ever get tired of making injera?
“Not really. This is my life,” Gebrehanna says. Her children, ages 7 and 9, will learn to make it, eventually: “They don’t want to eat any other food.”
And that doesn’t seem to bother her at all. She, too, eats it every day.
“It’s our culture,” Gebrehanna says.
— Becky Krystal
Hiwot, 5333 Georgia Ave. NW. hiwotethiopianrestaurantdc.com. 202-722-2455.
Above: For Lin Han, who is from a family of cooks and chefs in Hong Kong, becoming a noodle chef “struck a balance between a reasonable salary and respectable career.”
Lin Han, noodle master
It’s a simple window that looks out onto Sixth Street NW, but in a way, it’s also a stage. Chinatown Express is the theater. “Fresh Noodle Made on the Spot,” the lettering on the window, is the name of the show. For 15 years now, Lin Han has been its star.
“He’s the best one to do the noodles, the dumplings, the steam buns,” says the restaurant’s owner, Lui Shing. But really, “He’s a noodle guy.”
The noodles are what stops people in their tracks on the sidewalk and draws them to his window to watch. Lin makes them every weekday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then again from 5 p.m. until about 8. The lai mein are hand-stretched in a series of balletic motions — the production that Lin has been repeating all these years.
He takes a lump of dough made from water, oil and Korean flour, which he and Lui say is the best for lai mein. He pulls it into a rope, and twists that rope around itself. Then he grabs it and rolls it in flour. After several rounds of this, he holds dozens of strands of noodles about two feet long in his hands: Enough for about two bowls of the restaurant’s signature dish, its noodle soup. The noodles are also fried with vegetables and roast pork or duck, among other options.
Lin, 55, who is often seen in a tall white chef’s toque, is not a man of many words. But in remarks loosely translated by Lui and his son, John, he tells his story: He is from Hong Kong, from a family of cooks and chefs, and he trained at a culinary school there. Becoming a noodle chef “struck a balance between a reasonable salary and respectable career,” he says. He was recruited by the elder Lui on one of his many trips to Hong Kong for the restaurant job, and settled in Arlington 15 years ago with his wife, two sons and one grandson. Sometimes he gets tired, repeating the same motions over and over again, but the longer he has made the noodles, the easier it has gotten. The idea to put him on display in the window was the elder Lui’s.
But Lin doesn’t consider himself to be much of a performer. When people are watching him through the window, he focuses on his work and doesn’t always acknowledge their presence. Sometimes they tap on the glass, as if he were a lobster in a tank, but he just keeps working. Mostly, they stop and take photos, or just watch the acrobatic process of a lump of dough turning into a pile of lai mein. Children, especially, are enthralled. Occasionally, people will clap.
But even when Lin’s one-man show doesn’t get a round of applause, he still brings a bit of a showman’s flair at the end. If he sees someone who is watching him intently, he’ll hold up the finished batch as if to say: Ta-da! Sometimes, at the corner of his mouth, you’ll see a hint of a smile.
— Maura Judkis
Chinatown Express. 746 Sixth St. NW. chinatownexpressdc.com. 202-638-0424.
Above: The secret to good pasta? “The hands,” says Maribel Salamanca of Hank’s Pasta Bar in Alexandria.
Maribel Salamanca, pasta mama
When Hank’s Pasta Bar moved into the space formerly occupied by Villa d’Este, it took over a prime corner location at North Saint Asaph and Montgomery streets in Old Town Alexandria. It also inherited one other very important asset: Maribel Salamanca.Salamanca first learned to make pasta at Villa d’Este, where she worked for approximately two decades, almost as long as the Italian restaurant had been open. The Hank’s team was not interested in letting such experience go to waste, especially since owner Jamie Leeds wanted to devote the new establishment to pasta, which was Salamanca’s specialty.
Salamanca, 55, mostly made stuffed pastas at Villa d’Este: cannelloni, manicotti, ravioli. Coming onboard with Hank’s, where she is affectionately known as the Pasta Mama, meant she had almost an entirely new repertoire to learn.The Hank’s menu has around a dozen house-made pastas, both hand-cut and extruded, on the menu, among them fettuccine, bucatini, pappardelle, mafalde and tortellini. Most of it, about the equivalent of 300 orders per day, is made by Salamanca. (Someone else comes in later in the day to help with evening service.) She has yet to tire of it and doubts she ever will.The secret to good pasta?“The hands,” Salamanca says in halting English with a shy smile, holding them up. They’re not long and lean, but small, solid and strong — capable of both kneading dough into submission and then handling the finished pasta with a feather-light gentleness. When the native of El Salvador came to America almost 30 years ago, she used them to clean houses.
Salamanca’s dexterity is especially evident when it comes to the filling, sealing and cutting of Hank’s butternut squash ravioli. On a recent afternoon in the run-up to the lunch rush, she shows a visitor how it is done.The pasta dough starts with a mix of flour, eggs and melted butter. Salamanca quickly dispatches 60 eggs, cracking each with two whips of the wrist on her stainless-steel workspace.
They’re poured into the kitchen’s 60-quart Hobart stand mixer, along with 15 pounds of flour and 3 pounds of melted butter. Salamanca cranks the massive bowl into position and turns on the mixer, stopping to check the dough once to make sure she doesn’t have to add any more flour or eggs to get the texture right. When it’s done, the dough is smooth and soft. It is then turned out onto the stainless-steel table, and Salamanca proceeds to divide it into nine portions, each of which she kneads and rolls into a tight oblong shape and wraps in plastic.
With a wooden rolling pin worn to a perfect patina by a decade of use, Salamanca begins to flatten a portion of dough. Next, she feeds it into an electric pasta roller, a huge improvement over the hand-cranked model she had at Villa d’Este. The dough is cycled through the machine several times until it’s almost translucent, as Salamanca deftly pulls it out, occasionally draping it over her arms like a stole.
With half the length of pasta covered to keep it moist, Salamanca uses a pastry bag to pipe rounds of the squash filling at even intervals in two rows. She folds over the top portion of the dough to cover the filling, sealing the edges with egg whites, and suddenly it looks like little egg yolks tucked in for a nap.
She gently pats around each mound of squash to seal the dough, deflating air bubbles with a bamboo skewer. Finally, she cuts the ravioli with a fluted pastry wheel, taking multiple passes at each piece to keep the edge of the dough fairly close to the filling. In total, a few dozen take only a matter of minutes.
Salamanca transfers the perfect little packets to a semolina-dusted tray. The movement is almost loving, as if she were putting a baby in a bassinet. After all, the ravioli is her favorite dish.
Why? Perhaps that’s no surprise. According to this darling of the kitchen, it’s because the ravioli are sweet.
— Becky Krystal
Hank’s Pasta Bar. 600 Montgomery St., Alexandria. hankspastabar.com. 571-312-4117.