Queer joy is the main course at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Upstate New York
By Von Diaz
June 3, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
HUDSON, N.Y. — Lil’ Deb’s Oasis sits at the edge of downtown in Hudson, a peaceful Upstate New York town best known for antiquing, vintage clothing, proximity to apple-picking and bucolic riverside views. Hudson was founded by Dutch colonists in the 1700s on the native lands of the indigenous Mahican people, and much of the colonial architecture remains.
In contrast, Lil’ Deb’s is a sensory explosion of queer exuberance and kitsch. Festooned with a coral pink-and-aqua awning, the restaurant’s exterior features a mural of dragon fruit, papaya and avocado. Inside, it’s decorated with faux and live tropical plants and whole fresh pineapples. An effigy of the holy virgin anchors an altar to the left of the bar, while a television plays videos of drag performances to the right. A shimmery, purple, beaded curtain sets off the open kitchen. Lights and faux flowers hang from the ceilings, and lime-green tennis balls are in large bowls, on garlands and on the legs of chairs. The lighting is hot pink and purple, and upbeat music plays loudly. Merchandise for sale includes shirts that read, “Thank You for Being So Hot!” and a sticker that reads, “IF U GAY, PERFECT.”
As singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello writes in a tender foreword to the restaurant’s new cookbook, “Please Wait To Be Tasted,” “You walk in and you’re greeted by beautiful faces, future celestial bodies, the feeling of naughty and nice.” She lives in the area and has been dining there since 2017. “I have personal feelings about that restaurant, as a place I feel comfortable and human,” she says.
This ambiance may seem more akin to a gay tiki bar: audacious, lively and super fun. But herein lies the beauty and uniqueness of the place. For decades, LGBTQIA+ folks have been relegated to convening in illicit spaces: gay, lesbian and drag bars that open only late at night.
Deb’s is not a gay bar; it’s a restaurant. Food is the focus, and the menu is innovative, experimental and incredibly memorable. And as its name suggests, Deb’s is a place where people from all walks of life convene, where the only thing that’s illicit is how sinfully sumptuous the food is, where the staffers can take pride in preparing meals that are as unique as they are and where deliciousness becomes an extension of queer resistance.
Another longtime fan of Deb’s is Elazar Sontag, the restaurant editor at Bon Appétit, who has been writing about the intersection of queer culture and food for much of his career.
“It is an explicitly queer space in every single way,” he says. “But they also are turning out some of the best food in this country. And they're doing it with such intention. Every single dish is telling a story.”
More is more
On a warm Thursday evening, Carla Perez-Gallardo — the creative director, executive chef and co-founder — wears a road-cone-orange bandeau, matching shorts and lime-green platform Crocs, with her short black and blond-streaked hair tied up in two high pigtails. Perez-Gallardo is also a performance artist, and their eclectic wardrobe, much like their approach to food, flouts convention.
They opened the restaurant in 2015 with collaborator Hannah Black. Perez-Gallardo — inspired by their grandmother, who was a private chef in New York City — trained on the line in Hudson-area kitchens, notably at Panzur with chef Rei Peraza. Black did a year apprenticeship at Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico, and the two met while working on a Vietnamese food truck in the Catskills region of New York. The food at Deb’s is seasonally focused, its menu a bricolage of the chefs’ backgrounds: Perez-Gallardo’s Ecuadoran palate combined with the Japanese macrobiotic cooking their family prepared for health reasons, plus Black’s southern Alabama roots. But above all, their approach is about layering colors, flavors and textures, with a signature “more” concept: As they put it in their cookbook, “More herbs! More salt! More acid! More spice!”
Their goal was to make tropical comfort food that merged their backgrounds and expansive palates, although they also hoped to preserve the spirit of the building. It was once Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant and run by Debbie Fiero as a diner where locals went for late-night bacon and eggs and one could “peel for a meal,” Fiero says, if short on cash. Black and Perez-Gallardo were later joined by Wheeler Brown, who started as a server, then became the general manager and eventually developed the wine program. This year, Black and Brown stepped away to pursue other projects, handing the torch to Perez-Gallardo to preserve and expand their collective vision.
On this particular night, Perez-Gallardo steps behind the line to prepare a new side dish. They blanch sugar snap peas, which are at peak season, shocking them in ice once they turn verdant green, then blistering them on a flat-top griddle. They transfer a few scoops to a shallow plate and sprinkle them with a housemade furikake of toasted nori and coconut, nutritional yeast and salt. Then comes a second layer of snap peas and another layer of furikake, because, more is more.
An hour before service, the kitchen is in good shape. Lo Vera Tur, a prep cook who’s trying out that day, is finely chopping chives. Fish Chiu, a line cook, puts out the staff meal — a luscious chicken coconut curry with poblano peppers, potatoes and turmeric. Grace Brannigan, the kitchen manager, ensures the restaurant’s extensive sauce and garnish collection is ready before jumping on the line. General manager Julia Johnson — a classically trained cellist, drummer and songwriter — pulls out a bottle of Skins orange wine to begin writing a “wine poem.” The purpose is to break down the barriers of language around wine by tasting it collectively, then riffing off whatever comes to mind.
Soon, customers start trickling in, the music bumping. Naturally, this is not a suit-and-tie restaurant, and the cooks don’t wear chef whites nor the servers a uniform. Instead, staffers wear what they want: There’s a lot of color and exposed skin, crop tops, sheer fabric.
The meal starts with cured local trout: thinly sliced fish, rhubarb, cucumber, green almond and shiso. Next, sweet plantains in a cilantro yogurt crema with a luxurious flavor and mouthfeel. The chorizo laab, a take on the traditional Thai dish of minced-meat lettuce wraps, is topped with fried onions and pickled red chiles. A salad tosses crisp butter lettuce and other seasonal greens in a vegan koji coconut ranch with radishes and crispy bits. The surf and turf is an umami-rich combination of briny cockles in a passion fruit and fermented chile sauce, with thick chunks of bacon. A blooming onion a la Outback Steakhouse gets dolled up with pickled jalapeño, mint and lovage aioli.
On this Thursday, the beloved signature whole fried fish is porgy, served over greens, pea shoots and herbs, enveloping the table with aromatic steam, and the server encourages you to drench pieces in ginger vinaigrette and eat it with your hands. The tender fish flesh peels away easily from the bones, and the crispy head and cheeks are like chicharrón. But the showstopper is a fried soft-shell crab served alongside an herbaceous potato salad with seared fiddlehead ferns and a curry leaf aioli. It’s reminiscent of a pairing you might find on the North Carolina coast, taken to another dimension.
A guide to joy
Deb’s is part of a growing number of LGBTQIA+ restaurant spaces with queer-identified chefs at the helm. Kristen Kish of “Iron Chef” has Arlo Grey in Austin, there’s Miss Ollie’s in Oakland, Calif., and Saint John’s Bar & Eatery in Seattle. But many are in cosmopolitan cities, while Hudson is, perhaps, an unexpected destination.
If you can’t make it to the restaurant, “Please Wait To Be Tasted” will transport you. Much like the restaurant is more than a restaurant, the cookbook is more than a cookbook. It’s a manifesto on the politics of queer identity and food, layered with meaning and an acknowledgment of intersectionality; food, like identity, is layered, complex and multifaceted. Its concept of “tropical comfort” is rife with contradiction, suggesting that the heat and sensuality of the tropics can sit alongside feelings of discomfort, acknowledging that the “tropics” epitomizes paradise yet struggles with inequity and the impacts of colonization. The text is also instructional, explaining how to fillet a whole fish, ferment and pickle, and use layering to achieve unorthodox flavor combinations.
Because Deb’s is so beloved, its cookbook is also an archive of an utterly unique place and a declaration of the value of queer hospitality. Above all, it’s a guide to creating wild and exciting meals, an invitation for cooks, regardless of skill or background, to embody radical joy. It raises the question: Can a carrot be gay, or a papaya a lesbian? More important, the food at Deb’s invites people to imagine what kinds of dishes a queer cook might create; how having the permission to be unconventional and deeply sensorial might lead to dishes that embody a community rooted in surviving discrimination and proudly grounding itself in an identity all its own.
A neon sign outside the bathroom says “All The Bodies,” Sontag points out. “This is a space that declares exactly what it is the moment you walk in," he says. And that’s something that I think so many queer people crave in everyday life. It’s knowing exactly where they stand and knowing exactly how your surroundings feel about you. And you get that every single time at Deb’s.”