Food has always been political, but the current state of the union is prompting some food industry folks to bring politics front and center. That’s the case with the new D.C. restaurant Immigrant Food, which opened last week a block from the White House.
For the new restaurant, Argentinian Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger and Venezuelan Enrique Limardo — the duo behind Seven Reasons, crowned the №1 restaurant in The Washington Post’s Fall Dining Guide — team up with Peter Schechter, the former director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Center, who came to the U.S. by way of Italy and Latin America.
Schechter dreamed up the concept last year as a way to honor his immigrant parents. He said the partners were in before he could even finish his pitch. “We looked to what Nike did with Colin Kaepernick, and what Patagonia is doing [with climate change]. It’s increasingly imperative that businesses lead the way,” Schechter said.
While Immigrant Food takes a decidedly more casual approach than Seven Reasons, it also directly challenges the Trump administration’s stance on immigrants. And yet few need a reminder that restaurants have always been about immigrants. Just last month, Brett Anderson fawned over D.C.’s dining scene by listing 10 establishments that make it a great restaurant city. Nine of them are helmed by an immigrant or first-generation American.
Immigrant Food debuted on the day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on DACA in a space adorned with traditional rugs, woven basket lanterns, and photos of immigrants eating and sharing meals. A soundtrack might include Bollywood music, rhumba, Senagalese pop, or Algerian acoustic guitar. The menu of fusion bowls displays culinary hybrids: The Columbia Road bowl borrows flavors from Ethiopians and Salvadoreans, two of DC’s most populous immigrant communities. Berbere-rubbed steak and lentils represent Ethiopia, while Salvadorean flavors come from queso fresco, alguashte (a pepita-based sauce), and pickled loroco flower buds.
Immigrant Food is a natural progression for Limardo, whose cooking has always been political, if less obviously so. At Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, his first post in America, Limardo supported indigenous communities in the Amazon by weaving ingredients like termites, lemon ants, and wild cacao and guava into his dishes. His kitchens have long been home to young Venezuelan cooks seeking asylum in America, and now, at Immigrant Food, his crew is made up of Venezuelans, Africans, Americans, Salvadoreans, and Mexicans.
The restaurant’s menu also highlights its five immigration-focused NGO partners: Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, Ayuda, Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Central American Refugee Center, and Court Appointed Special Advocate Association. At check-out, diners can donate funds to an NGO of their choice, and they’re directed to volunteer opportunities within each organization. In the evenings, too, the restaurant will open its space to the NGOs for English language classes, workshops, and legal clinics.
“I came to America without knowing anyone. I had no network at all. I was in a dark hole,” Limardo said of his first six months in America in 2015. He counts himself lucky, though: In four years, he earned prominence in Baltimore and then in D.C. Esquire just named Seven Reasons the country’s best new restaurant.
Limardo’s cooking has always told the story of immigration. “For me, my food needs to be fusion. I do not believe in barriers,” he said in a 2018 interview at Alma. Fast forward to Seven Reasons, where Limardo’s dishes reflect the diversity of Latin America with nods to Spanish, Italian, Indian, and Chinese cooking.
The immigrant ethos is supercharged in his bowls at the new restaurant. “For the menu, I started with a piece of paper listing countries, continents, ingredients, and flavor profiles. It was massive and chaotic,” Limardo said. “When I sat down to figure out how to combine elements, I thought about how Italian food is well-known for tomatoes. But tomatoes come from the Americas. If you look back in history, everyone and everything migrated. Everything is connected at a certain point. I started drawing lines across the paper, and the paper became a spider web and then a menu.”
D.C. diners seem to welcome a politically charged lunch. Schechter calls Immigrant Food a “fighting name.” And even if immigration policy shifts and becomes more humane in the future, he believes that the restaurant will still resonate with the public.
“Maybe, one day, we don’t have to be such vocal advocates,” he said. “But the idea of helping immigrants and drawing visibility to the cause has enormous staying power.”
Heated sat down with a few diners, along with two Immigrant Food cooks, to talk about why they chose lunch with a side of advocacy.
Occupation: Account executive for a tech company
Order: Vigilante Nicaraguan blend coffee
Immigrant story: I’m African American.
What brought you here? I’ve been walking by the restaurant for a few weeks and wanted to stop by and check out the menu. For starters, they have foods from different cultures, which is important in a melting pot like D.C. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that was diverse, and it prepared me for life. I had classmates from Korea, south of the border, from all kinds of different places, and I got to learn about those cultures. I also saw that the restaurant supports CASA. My mom works with CASA through her job in Fairfax County, and for my 21st birthday party, I threw a fundraiser for CASA.
Occupation: Line cook at Seven Reasons and Immigrant Food
Bowl: Lima to Beijing
Immigrant story: I was born in Pennsylvania and have Polish, German, English, and Italian heritage. My grandfather’s mother emigrated from Italy after WWI.
What brought you here? Immigration enriches our culture. It’s something I’ve always believed in. Also, the food. It’s a unique take on combining flavors and ingredients. I’m still working my way through the menu, and I’m trying to look at what’s going into the bowls and understand how two countries have connections and crossover.
Wendy Dimas, Amma Boateng, and Jennifer Kabore
Ages: Forever young, 23, and 21
Occupations: We work for the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign. It’s an advocacy program to end malaria.
Bowls: Viet Vibes, Greco Milano, and Viet Vibes
Immigrant stories: My parents immigrated from El Salvador to Los Angeles in 1979. They were refugees.; I’m from Ghana.; I’m Burkinabé, so from Burkina Faso.
What brought you here? We thought it was a ramen place when we came in, but we stayed for the representation and diverse menu. Yeah, we came for ramen but stayed for diversity.
Occupation: Consultant at World Bank
Bowl: Mumbai Mariachi. I love spicy food and the three chiles [on the menu] caught my eye.
Immigrant story: I’m Scotch-Irish.
What brought you here? I was curious about the name. Not to be glib, but I appreciate that you can learn more about a culture or place through food. And in the social context of the White House right down the road, one motivating factor [for eating here] was that I wanted to support the restaurant. It’s hard opening a new restaurant.
Occupation: Consultant at World Bank
Bowl: Greco Milano
Immigrant story: I was born and raised in Greece and have been in D.C. for four years.
What brought you here? As an immigrant, it’s a tough climate, and the administration does not make it easy. At the end of the day, we’ve got to help each other. Through all these different cultures, there are lots of things to discover. I feel that food is an easy way to introduce people to the unknown. It’s an easy way to break down a barrier, and I like that because food is a huge part of my culture.
Occupation: Kitchen manager at Immigrant Food
Bowls: The two vegetarian bowls, Beirut and Beyond and Bay of Bengal, are my favorite. The flavor combinations are so intense.
Immigrant story: I was in culinary school in Venezuela and got an internship at Alma Cocina Latina [in Baltimore]. When I finished the internship, they offered me a job. I applied for political asylum in 2016. I’m still waiting.
What brought you here? The social component is the most important thing. We’re helping lots of people, many of whom don’t understand the immigration process. We offer them the help they need through our NGO partners. [In doing so,] we say that we care about immigrants.