This Young Midwest Chef Put a Taco Bell Favorite on His First Menu. It Is Extremely Good.
Avishar Barua's reimagining of the Cheesy Gordita Crunch is a smash hit at Service Bar in Columbus
Avishar Barua was born in Columbus, Ohio to immigrant parents, then only recently arrived from Bangladesh, and back in those early days, the family did not have a lot of money to throw around. Mostly, they ate at home, but whenever his mother and father were feeling flush, whenever there was—quite literally—some loose change lying around, the family would go out, typically for fast food.
One of the 31-year-old chef's most vivid early food memories, he will tell you, is Taco Bell. There were other restaurants in the rotation, Wendy's for sure, this being Columbus, which is where Wendy's comes from. But Taco Bell was the one Barua liked best, and as early as five years old, he remembers the crunch of those hard shell tacos, which he could eat four to a sitting, much to the amusement of his parents, who say that never saw him quite so excited to eat anything else, not even his own mother’s cooking.
Here we are now, a couple of decades later, and Barua is the Executive Chef at Middle West Spirits, in the Short North district of Columbus, running a sophisticated restaurant, Service Bar, inside the well-awarded distillery, a restaurant that in one short year has become quite popular around Columbus, a city increasingly known for turning out very good food.
From the beginning, the menu has been pure, elevated fun. Crispy ribs served with pickled, charred broccoli and an upgraded General Tso’s sauce, pork rinds sent out with fire-roasted pimento spread and a barrel aged hot sauce, smoky chicken wings dripping with Alabama white sauce. Then there is the whole chicken service, for your consideration, split out into two parts—a tandoori roasted breast, along with chai brined—and then fried—legs and thighs, served with a Bengali-style chicken curry (murgir jhol), a vegetable masala, and piping hot naan bread, flecked with caramelized onion. This is food for America in the 21st century, casting about the various regions for inspiration, out to the borders and beyond, even as far as ancestral homelands. One of the most fascinating dishes, however, tucked away at the bottom of the menu, is something that sounds very much like something you might scarf down at Taco Bell, after a reckless night out.
Barua calls it the Cheesy Brisket Crunch, but here is essentially Taco Bell's Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and that's no accident—the young chef has gone to extraordinary lengths, it turns out, to faithfully recreate one of his favorite items on the menu at the popular fast food restaurant, bringing a gift for technical wizardry and an obsession with perfection to the process. Served two to an order, displayed proudly in their little holders, your attention is immediately drawn to the exterior—a soft, perfectly-fried paratha, listed as Bengali fry bread, colored red-orange with Kashmiri chili powder and turmeric.
And that's just the kick-off. Next comes a crispy-fried corn tortilla shell, sourced from the best tortilleria in Columbus. That gets popped inside, to be filled with a generous portion of 18-hour, oak-smoked brisket—not too lean, not too moist, just the right balance. Tying it all together is a pepper jack queso; there's also an intricate Venezuelan salsa verde known as guasacaca, plus—naturally—finely shredded ribbons of both iceberg lettuce, and extremely orange cheese, to top the whole thing off.
You’d likely eat more than a couple of these cheesy crunches, if you could—they are as formidable as they are delicious. The restaurant has sold 6,000 of them in the first year ($17, for an order of two). The first time I tried one, I knew I'd be back for more, but first I needed to know everything about them, and the man committed enough to take a fast food basic, tear it apart, and then spend what was clearly a great deal of time and effort reinventing the thing. This didn't feel like the sort of clunky mess you'd get from a novice food truck, or something on one of those jokey stoner menus—this was the precise work of some kind of mad scientist, who should probably be in a lab somewhere, discovering cures for things. Questions? I had a few.
“I was supposed to be a doctor, and I didn’t really have a choice,” Barua tells me when we're able to catch up, just a few days later. From the moment he began to learn more about food in college, where he obtained two degrees, one in biology, the other in psychology, he had been drawn to cooking. Ultimately, food became the place he imagined himself spending a career. Not the sort of medicine that fixes people's physical problems, he admits, but still very much a kind of cure. He loved the way food brings people together, people of all kinds, how it engages each one of the senses, and how it messes with peoples minds, makes them think, teaches them things—isn't that a kind of healing?
Plus, there were kitchens, filled with all sorts of cool machinery to tinker with—for Barua, that seemed like the ultimate job perk. Who wouldn’t like spending their life getting paid to play around with a machine that blows water at potatoes and peels them for you?
His parents would need some convincing.
“After the two degrees at Ohio State, which I call real college, my parents said, if you’re going to choose this terrible thing to do that’s not going to make any money and you’re going to starve, you had better go back to school for it.” Now, he laughs. Back then, the whole thing was a little bit tense.
“I got into the Culinary Institute of America, but I wanted to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could.” Instead, he opted for an apprenticeship-type program through a community college at home in Columbus, one that had him working part-time, right away. Early on, Barua showed a good deal of potential—one of the top chefs in town, at that time his boss, muttered one day that he was going to either end up riding Barua’s coattails, or run him down, he couldn’t figure out which. You should be in medicine, he told Barua. Cooking is for idiots.
The Columbus restaurant scene of roughly a decade ago was smaller than it is now. Barua, having never lived anywhere else besides Ohio's state capital, thought he might try his luck in New York. Finding himself very interested in Danny Bowien's work at that time, he found out that Mission Chinese Food, then on Orchard Street, was looking for cooks. So he asked, and they said no, they weren't interested in people who did not live in New York City. He said he'd come work for free, and they said call us when you get here.
“So I went,” says Barua. "The second day of the stage, the Department of Health showed up, and we were assured that everything was going to be fine. Ten minutes later, they said everyone out, this place is shutting down. I’d just moved from Columbus, I’m on a friend’s couch, I had no savings, what the hell do I do?”
The rest of his time in New York was slightly less dramatic, but not by much—he was able to work briefly at Mission Chinese, quickly working his way into a paid position, before the restaurant shut down again. After that, he ended up befriending a fellow Bengali, a bartender at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50, managing once again to land a paid position in the kitchen, after doing some convincing. Soon, however, life and family would call him back to Columbus, but Barua, clearly a quick learner, didn't have much trouble finding work. Columbus was changing, growing very quickly, there were so many new restaurants, and so many people needed in kitchens. Service Bar opened just a year or so ago, with Barua in charge from the get go. Judging by the popularity of the restaurant, and the notices they've received in just a short time, Columbus really likes his cooking.
They ought to. It's very good, and it's fun, too—serious, but with zero pretense. Barua is back there, night after night, making kimchi, curing his own pastrami, slow-smoking brisket, breaking sea bass down into patties for his thrice-breaded, panko-crusted fish filet sandwich, which tastes just like the McDonald's one, if it were spectacular, instead of just occasionally comforting. He can often be found obsessing over the house French fries, two kinds, fat ones and thin ones, the latter rustic, handmade versions of the McDonald’s shoestring fries, both sous vide brined for ninety minutes and triple fried, for the perfect, crispy on the outside, mashed potato on the inside situation, which is a state of enlightenment too few french fries are ever really allowed to achieve. The crowning glory, however, is perhaps the Cheesy Brisket Crunch, which Barua was only happy to talk about.
"The paratha is my mom's recipe. Everyone says their mom is the best cook, mine actually is," Barua laughs. "My mom would make these every Saturday for us, and I was always so interested in her technique—it’s almost like a laminated dough." They started out doing them by hand, but when you are selling thousands of these things, you need a dough sheeter, so they got one. The chili and turmeric that color the bread were the final landing place after a great deal of trial and error; the orange-red tint, says Barua, is meant to evoke Taco Bell's Doritos Locos shells.
"We don’t nixtamalize our corn," Barua admits, almost disappointed. "We tried. We use local tortillas, from Koki's, that we fry—we had to make a special taco-shaped thing to fry them in. Everything's a pain in the ass for us."
The brisket is smoked over oak, and sometimes pieces of the distillery's used bourbon barrels, then finally cubed, ever so precisely—"It should have some bite to it, it shouldn't be dental floss," Barua notes. There is, of course, the pepper jack queso—he grew up eating a lot of pepper jack cheese, and he loves it. "The consistency is of pretty crappy queso," he says. The cheese, sourced from a local co-operative, is anything but.
The sauce, Barua picked up from repeated trips to a Venezuelan restaurant in town that he likes, and for the longest time he was eating guasacaca, without knowing exactly what it was. Traditionally made creamy with avocado, Barua's version utilizes parsley, cilantro, green chilies for a bit of heat, and lime juice. Kewpie mayo, used sparingly—"there’s no mayonnaise on earth that compares, it’s very dear to my heart"—gives the sauce just the right amount of creaminess. The guasacaca, for him, evokes the old salsa verde you used to get at Taco Bell, and it's flat out delicious. On the top goes finely shredded lettuce, and more cheese, the smoked cheddar, again from the local dairy co-op, which puts fast food shredded cheese to shame, while also being incredibly orange.
On a recent, freezing cold Sunday night, the house was packed—Columbus likes this place, this food. And his family? Are they still worried he'll end up starving?
"This is the first restaurant job where my parents have actually come into the restaurant—they’ve been back, several times, and they’ve brought people in, too," says Barua, proudly, laughing about that first time his mother came in for dinner, when she walked back to the kitchen to let him know that he'd burned the charred, pickled broccoli that comes out with the ribs. It helps, he says, that we're changing the way we look at food, as a profession. It helps that being a chef is now considered a more attractive career.
"I think they still are hopeful that I will change my mind, and become a doctor. But now, I've gone too far," he says. "I’ve put in the time. I've got all the scars."