It’s 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and Melissa Fox, a multi-tasking self-taught chef, moves swiftly around her restaurant kitchen, checking on the items of the menu to be served later that evening. All the food is under way: the empanadas are neatly stuffed and folded, the habanero peppers boil gently, the beef and pork ribs simmer away.
“My upbringing was very Latin,” she said highlighting that entertaining, holidays, food and good manners were always a priority. Growing up in a household with a mother from Nicaragua and a father from Nebraska, Fox sees herself as a “crossbreed”. It is this mix that’s at the essence of what she brings to the table: traditional dishes like the costillitas –pork ribs– inspired by her mother’s heritage and served in traditional Nicaraguan clay pots but adapted to the North American palate. “Basically I took what I grew up eating, modernized it and made it healthy.”
Leveraging her Hispanic heritage, Fox is doing what other young chefs in New York City have discovered these past few years: Latin American food is so much more than rice and beans; done right, it can be fresh, inventive and has a loyal audience. In a city where 28% of the population is Hispanic, Latin food abounds, but it’s usually carelessly thrown on a plate, from a hot bar at a deli or at a greasy spoon. A new wave of Latin eateries in New York City all born within the past five years celebrate the wealth of flavors and techniques that exist in Latin American cooking and illustrate how the Latin culinary culture slowly inches into mainstream as the Hispanic presence continues to expand in the U.S.
Across the East River in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn chef Sasha Rodriguez merges Italian and Latin American flavors at her restaurant Miranda. A Queens native of Dominican descent, she pleases the brunch crowd with dishes like Mangú-mashed green plantains- and Fried Eggs, a staple breakfast dish served throughout the Dominican Republic. “Her grandmother taught her how to make it,” said her husband and owner Mauricio Miranda. “She [her grandmother] laughed when we told her how much people like it.”
Like Chef Rodriguez, Fox’s food has also gathered a following at her rustic enclave, A Casa Fox, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Framed in brick and wood, it’s the kind of place that transports you to an aunt’s house in a quaint colonial town in Latin America.
Although Fox was born and raised in New York City, she cultivated her love of entertaining in Nashville where she went to college. Here, she would save her money to buy cheese and cured sausages for cocktail parties she threw in her room. Years later, as a film executive in Los Angeles, she would host breakfast meetings in her tiny apartment.
“I got to New York on September 11th with hopes of starting over and ended up crashing on friends’ couches for two weeks.” She then started cooking for friends, the word spread and before she knew it she was managing her own catering business. She would run all over the city, bags full of pots and ingredients and prepare feasts for clients inside their homes. Now here she was, 8 years later, cooking and managing her own restaurant, relying on her Latin roots to set her apart from the rest.
However, Fox is not alone. Dominican chef Máximo Tejada runs two very popular restaurants in the Lower East Side, Rayuela which he started two years ago and its sister establishment Macondo, which he opened a year later. Departing from the concept of “Estilo-libre latino” – Latin Freestyle – cuisine, Tejada has brought traditional dishes like paella and ceviche, and fused them with unexpected Latin American flavors from tomatillo poblano aioli and roasted sweet batata. “While the basic structure of the traditional dishes will be maintained, the actual ingredients may be unconventional and may come from several different countries.”
Getting ready for the two big parties that will fill up most of the restaurant that night, Fox stands before her chalkboard of specials. In pink chalk, she announces that dessert will be chocolate empanada with dulce de leche. “I used to serve guava and white cheese empanadas, but nobody ordered them. They were so Latin,” she said.
Karina Taveras is a cook who loves to write and a writer who loves to cook (with sazón!). Her stories have appeared in Saveur magazine, Islands magazine and the NY Daily News. She’s the Publisher and Executive Editor of Latinfoodie, a bilingual blog about food and travel. Her earliest food memory includes pairing saltines and condensed milk to fuel an afternoon of hopscotch in the yard. She lives in NYC with her husband and dreams of living by the sea.