Chefs have always known where to look for inspiration, namely the restaurants that dot the fringes of a metropolitan area where families from all corners of the globe try to re-create their native dishes with a limited pantry. Chefs, in short, serve as the cool hunters of flavor for diners in tonier Zip codes.
The pupusas at Momofuku CCDC at CityCenterDC? The Peruvian chicken at Rose’s Luxury on Barracks Row? The chicharrones with house-made hot sauce at Roofers Union in Adams Morgan? They all sprang from chefs who appreciate the flavors and ingredients deeply ingrained in other cultures.
Always on the prowl for inspiration, or just a new dining experience, chefs will wander into the places that casual diners blithely walk past. Marjorie Meek-Bradley, the toque behind Ripple and Roofers Union, nicked her idea for chicharrones from a Columbia Heights pupuseria. Aaron Silverman, the leader of that three-ring circus known as Rose’s Luxury, used to love noshing on leftover Peruvian chicken after he returned to his parents’ house, exhausted from a day on the line at 2941. Momofuku culinary savant David Chang grew up in Northern Virginia but got his first eye-opening taste of pupusas in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
Chang has been playing with pupusas for years, first experimenting with them behind the scenes at Ko in Manhattan. But it wasn’t until he had cooks from El Salvador in his kitchen at Momofuku CCDC that he felt comfortable enough to even consider serving the stuffed masa cakes on Mondays. The child of Korean immigrants, Chang is clearly sensitive to any whiff of cultural appropriation; he wants to do right by Salvadoran pupusas, no matter how basic the rounds might look to the casual observer.
Karla Rochac, a Salvadoran cook at Momofuku CCDC, displayed a deft hand at forming pupusas during the staff’s family meal, and once Chang and his team developed their preferred fillings, the chef wanted to turn production over to Rochac. “I said, ‘Listen, Karla, if we get this figured out, we’ll just have you do this, if you want,’ ” Chang told me recently.
Part of the reason I love Chang’s pupusa story is that it doesn’t stick to a traditional hero-celebrity chef narrative. You know: a Korean American chef who creates fusion pupusas not only to honor his own culinary background but also to elevate a Salvadoran cuisine often relegated to second-class status. No, Chang was willing to push his luck even further with authenticity hounds by incorporating, essentially, a spinach-and-artichoke dip into one of his masa pockets.
“Like you’d get at a TGI Fridays,” Chang notes. “How can you not like hot mayonnaise, spinach and cheese?”
Whenever people begin to look down their strong, aquiline noses at cheap eats, or even at the food found at chain restaurants, I will now remind them of Chang’s story. Sure, like everyone else, chefs have their own biases and patronizing attitudes toward what they view as inferior food, but they also have an ability to set their prejudices aside when confronted with a dish that somehow transcends its D-grade ingredients. Like spinach-and-artichoke dip. Or Salvadoran snacks prepared with five cents of rehydrated masa harina and a small handful of fresh crumbly cheese.
My primary role as the $20 Diner is to find good, cheap restaurants to share with readers. My secondary, often-unstated role is to track dishes and flavors that start to sneak into the mainstream dining community. Remember the bone-broth craze that had aging boomers asking the nearest butcher for bovine knee caps? Koreans have been simmering cow bones for generations, long before Kobe Bryant decided such a soup could extend his career.
So what should D.C. diners be looking for as 2016 starts to unfold? Some predict vadouvan, a French seasoning based on a complex South Indian spice blend, will become the next chef’s darling. Silverman already has a chilled vadouvan curry with sweet potatoes and caramelized bananas on his menu at Rose’s; likewise, chef Cedric Maupillier has engineered a squash vadouvan at Convivial in Shaw. And to complete the trend trifecta, Westend Bistro offers a vadouvan-curry-dusted skate wing.
But does a spice blend qualify as a trend-worthy dish? Is it really something that will draw diners away from their regular haunts? Color me skeptical. I’m also skeptical that so-called off-cuts and offal, the staples of budget-minded cuisines around the planet, will attract the young and hungry to pricier restaurants, as some predict.
From my vantage point, I think — perhaps “hope” is the better word — that chefs will focus their attention on some long-neglected cuisines, particularly West African. If dining at Chez Dior in Hyattsville has taught me anything, it’s that the acidified onion sauce at the base of Senegalese cooking is a versatile ingredient, capable of assuming multiple identities to better suit an available protein. I mean, if Chez Dior’s kitchen can top its arm-drip burger with the provocative sauce, why can’t other chefs do the same in the name of gustatory adventure?
As U.S.-Cuban relations improve, American diners might also benefit from a bizarre transition period in which Cuban natives may flee their nation before the current refugee benefits in the United States dry up. Presumably, such an influx might lead to more cooks entering America and more (and better) Cuban restaurants for all of us. I’d love to see more places like Columbia Heights’ Mi Cuba Cafe on our streets.
Even better, I’d love to see more chefs take their line cooks to Mi Cuba, where they could experience a kitchen that sweats every last detail. That kind of influence may not be detectable on a menu at a splashy new Shaw restaurant, but it would certainly improve our dining experiences, from top to bottom.