His response was to bridge his varied interests and open a restaurant that not only offered food but enlightened customers about a pet cause and made it easy for them to make a difference, too. He felt he couldn’t do it alone, and the chef he knew best was spoken for. “José has been a very busy guy,” says Schechter of the founder of World Central Kitchen. Instead, Schechter recruited another talented multitasker, Venezuela native Enrique Limardo, the chef of the innovative Seven Reasons, to draw up a menu for the project.
The entrepreneurs’ handiwork, the 48-seat, fast-casual Immigrant Food, opened in November, “by chance” near the White House, says Limardo, whose nine fusion bowls are inspired by immigrants from around the world.
One combination, the rice noodle-based Viet Vibes, draws eyes to colorful mango cubes, kale, adobo chicken and broccoli, and engages the tongue with jalapeño slices, coconut chips and a “pho” vinaigrette, rousing as fireworks. The blend is nothing like anything I’ve had in Vietnam, but who cares? The bowl, which embraces Caribbean accents, is a blast. Another dish assembles a long list of ingredients that aren’t shy about announcing themselves — spicy steak, mango chutney coleslaw, feta and cilantro — plus roasted potatoes, corn and quinoa. The gathering goes by the name Mumbai Mariachi and tastes like a marriage between my favorite steak house and an Indian pick.
The milk-based drinks follow suit. “Across the Border,” dreamed up from cashew milk, cacao, allspice and more is basically chocolate milk for adults. The brown beverage reveals itself in sips, packing in a little heat (guajillo pepper).
Limardo researched immigration patterns and identified core ingredients from different countries to arrive at his final menu. Mumbai Mariachi, for instance, sprung from imagining what a homesick Mexican who found himself in India might cook up from the ingredients at hand, says the chef. Stockholm to Dublin brings together salmon rillettes, dried apricots, greens and pumpernickel croutons.
There are no DIY bowls at Immigrant Food. Limardo would like to think his blends are best because he’s thought them through. Trust his instincts.
Like the bowls, the setting is one-of-a-kind. Customers walk into the two-story, apricot-colored interior to find basket lights suspended from the ceiling and seating that embraces the expected high-top tables and street-facing ledges but also cozier couches. A handsome map of the world, carved from wood, encourages visitors to snap selfies. Basically, it’s a photo booth without walls. Next to the counter where orders are placed — and customers are given the option of donating to a nongovernmental group on a swivel screen — await T-shirts for sale.
“We wanted the restaurant to be celebratory,” says Schechter. The background music helps. Over the course of a meal, the 200-song soundtrack might include something from Japan, Bollywood, even Finnish rock. At the same time, says the co-founder, “We want people to stay, talk over lunch, make people think.” Opportunities abound to be informed or lend a hand. A quarter of the list is an “engagement menu” describing volunteer positions and information on social events, petitions and protests. Upstairs is a low-ceilinged loft where NGOs can meet free.
Warm, welcoming and transparent without being preachy, Immigrant Food replaces a business that couldn’t be more different: Eatsa, the high-tech eatery where customers used kiosks to place orders and the kitchen was hidden from view.
The founders of the eatery include Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, Argentine by birth and a partner in Seven Reasons. All three creators are first-generation immigrants. (Schechter was born in Rome to an Austrian father and a German mother who went on to become U.S. citizens.)
It’s too soon to tell if the newcomer will succeed from an advocacy angle — how generous, beyond the cost of a meal, customers might be with their wallets or signatures. Already, however, I can vouch for the food, which is alive with flavor and can result in lines at prime time. Indeed, on a mid-December visit, every seat inside was spoken for, and the only option was to eat lunch on the front patio. I’m happy to report I wasn’t alone.
At the very least, I’m signing up for more bowls.
1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-681-3848. immigrantfood.com. Bowls, $12 to $13.75.
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