The fast-casual concept features an "engagement menu" where diners can sign up to volunteer for local NGOs that support immigrants. 

By Maria Yagoda
November 08, 2019
Elizabeth Sanjuan Photography

When Enrique Limardo was approached about designing a menu for a restaurant that planned to "reimagine the food of America's migrations," he was momentarily stumped. 

"This is going to be like putting together 20 different restaurants in one," the chef told Food & Wine. Limardo soon got on board; as an immigrant, he was drawn to the idea of mapping and celebrating chain migration through food. At the aptly named fast-casual concept Immigrant Food, which opens less than a block from the White House on November 12, the chef will serve a menu of bowls that blend the techniques and flavors of some of Washington D.C.'s biggest immigrant populations.

Accordingly, the menu is ambitious. The Viet Vibes bowl, inspired by Vietnamese and Caribbean cooking, features adobo-spiced chicken, spicy rice noodles, kale, mango cubes, peanuts, and spicy pho vinaigrette sauce. The Mumbai Mariachi bowl, drawing influences from Mexico, India, and Greece, blends spice-rubbed steak, chicarron pork rind sprinkles, kale, mango chutney coleslaw, and smokey mango chipotle sauce. 

To fuse cuisines that aren't often fused, Limardo looked "through every single country, every single ingredient, every single spice" and "put all of them on a massive paper, and started to cross them historically." He literally drew connections between migrations. 

Elizabeth Sanjuan Photography

He started with El Salvador and Ethiopia—the two countries with the largest immigrant populations in D.C.—and looked for ways to connect them. 

"If you hear it the first time, you would say that’s not going to match; but then you can find it," he said. "I got inspired by Ethiopian lentils—the flavor profile is a little sweet and spicy. I went to El Salvador and found they used a dressing made from pumpkin seeds. The flavor of the pumpkin seeds goes so well with the spiciness and sweetness of the lentils, so I put those together. If those could mix together, we can mix everything." (The ensuing dish, called Columbia Road, stars Ethiopian lentils, pickled Loroco flower buds, and Salvadorian cheese crumble.)

Limardo is opening the restaurant in partnership with Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger and political advisor Peter Schechter. Schechter, one of the first investors in José Andrés' restaurants in D.C., said he wanted to help push back against rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and "conceive of something that is a celebration of immigration at a time when immigrants are being attacked." He continued, "The idea was to open a restaurant that would really celebrate America’s story, which is the story of immigrants."

Elizabeth Sanjuan Photography

In addition to the food menu, which features a range of international teas and sodas, Immigrant Food will also spotlight an "engagement menu," where diners can sign up to contribute or volunteer with five local immigrant-service organizations, which include Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, Ayuda, Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition, CARECEN, and CASA. During off hours, the restaurant will lend its space to these nonprofits for hosting English classes, workshops, legal clinics, and more.

"When fast casuals tend to die out in the afternoon, we want to make our space available when there’s need from one of these organizations," said Schechter. "They’re super busy these days."

The space is certainly conducive to gathering. Designed by Maydan architect Michelle Bove and Sommer Moore of Design Case, the restaurant's materials, colors, and structures mirror the table cultures of the cuisines that are represented on the menu. The dining room has everything from low tables resembling what you'd find in the Middle East to café tables out of a European brasserie to an area for sitting cross-legged. 

Elizabeth Sanjuan Photography

The restaurant opens on the same day that the Supreme Court delivers its ruling on DACA. This was not intentional, but it is appropriate.

"We wanted to make a restaurant that reflects how cool immigrants are, and how fundamental they are to the economy, to the culture, to the lifestyle," said Schechter. "What this country is is only because of this mix of immigrants."

While Washington, D.C. was a natural first stop—it's been an effective incubator for fast-casual concepts, including Cava and Sweetgreen—the team hopes to open Immigrant Food concepts in other cities around the country, drawing menu inspiration from local immigrant populations and working with each city's specific advocacy groups. 

"We don’t only want to celebrate the past," said Schechter. "We want to do specific things to help immigrants today."

Immigrant Food. 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. 

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