Chef Bart Vandaele Shares 6 Ways to Experience Belgium Like a Belgian

When it comes to experiencing Belgium, Chef Bart Vandaele of Washington DC’s original Belgian restaurant knows a thing or two. He grew up in Belgium before moving to the U.S. twenty years ago. Known as a master of Belgian cuisine, he specializes in Belgian food and beer, having cooked for European dignitaries in Embassy row and even appeared on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.

Today, Chef Bar is at the helm of several DC restaurants, including Belga Café his flagship Belgian eatery in DC, alone the restaurant features a vast collection of over 100 beers on the menu which we wrote about here. In a recent interview and #Mezzetravel Twitter chat with Chef Bart, we asked him what were among his favorite things to see and do in Belgium and what travelers could take away about Belgian people and culture.

If you’re planning a trip to Belgium soon, here are six ways Chef Bart recommends travelers experience the country like a Belgian.

1. Pay attention to the details of local life.

For Chef Bart Vandaele, the best thing to do in Belgium for him is revisiting things he’s seen and was familiar with growing up in Belgium. Take, for example, the highest point in Belgium Signal de Botrangewhich he’s seen countless times. “Sure, you’ve been there on a trip as a school kids, but it’s different each time—or, to just drive around through the town you grew up in or that your friend grew up in, and then think to yourself ‘Hey, that street wasn’t there, or this changed, or not,’ that’s how I like to experience Belgium,” he shared.

 2. Don’t be in too much of a hurry.

When it comes to things to see and do, one of the things Chef Bart encourages travel enthusiasts to do is to simply sit. It’s one of his favorite pastimes in Belgium. “Visiting too much is never good. Taking the time to sit at the table and talk to people—sitting at a sidewalk café and just watching people or talking to the people who sit next to you and observing. Belgians are really focused on nothing and a lot at the same time,” he laughs.

 3. Rent a bike.

“Belgium is small, it’s fun. It’s not like you have a long journey to go most anywhere, and you can literally go from café to café, and see people passing by with their bikes,” he shared.

4. It’s normal if you don’t have a favorite city.

What Belgian city is Chef Bart’s favorite? He can’t pick just one, but Antwerp, Ghent and Brugge are among his favorites for wonderful reasons. Located in the most northern Belgian region of Flanders, Antwerp is his favorite Belgian city for its shopping and museums, and Ghent for its food, and simply strolling around. Brugge is a favorite for its pleasant outdoor dining, and of course Belgium’s capital city Brussels is on his list for its rich history and delicious and famous waffles.

5. Extravagance can be a way of life.

For people who travel and like to take souvenirs, we asked Chef Bart what spirit about the Belgian people should travel enthusiasts take with them. His answer: happy people with a love for Belgian food and beer.

Essentially, taking back with you a bit of the Burgundian lifestyle. Burgundy is a region in France but the phrase has its meaning in Dutch (that requires a history lesson), but it simply translates to a flare for ‘enjoyment of life, good food, and extravagant spectacle.’ To us, this means Belgians like to have the best time life can give.

6. Maintain a fun-loving spirit.

In the capital city, Brussels, for example the people have a fun rebellious spirit, one personified in Brussels famous Manneken Pis. Take this small bronze statue near town hall of the “little pee man,” in Flemish, which has a varied story of origin. Not just famous with tourists, the people of Brussels simply adore it and celebrate the statue as part of annual festivities—even replacing the water stream with beer on occasion!

Chef Bart tells us that, locals from Brussels are also especially proud of its sprouts, and that a stop in the capital city isn’t complete without a visit to the Atomium, which boasts a restaurant at the top of its fifth sphere. Quite the extravagant building.

What’s certain, I think, is if you’re planning a trip to Belgium you’ll have a really good time. You’ll surely find the culture of Belgium to be rich and beautiful, a wonderful place to travel, easily experienced through its easy-going people, and you’ll easily carry a lot about Belgium back home with you.

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Italian Restaurant ACQUA at Peck Slip Brings Naples and Fresh Seafood to the Historic NYC Neighborhood

When Chef Giuseppe Marrone opened his restaurant on the South Street Seaport neighborhood at the cobblestone corner of Peck Slip and Water Street, he wanted his patrons to feel like they were in southern Italy. ACQUA at Peck Slip is an authentic Italian restaurant, and its roots run deep not just because of its location among moored sailing ships near the 17 Pier, but because of chef Giuseppe’s desire to share the story of Naples through every family recipe and dish.

Born and raised in Naples, growing up he was inspired to become a chef by his home, family values, and the cooking of his mother and grandmother. He learned the mastery of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine while training at the renowned Hotel Institute of Angelo Celitti in Formia, a Mediterranean coastal city between Rome and Naples. All the dishes at the restaurant are from his hometown of Naples and have a heavy coastal influence.

Acqua at Peck Slip | Facebook

“[The food at ACQUA] is based on my roots always, because I think it’s more authentic when you cook the same way as your grandmother used to cook,” he tells us. In fact, you’ll find Chef Giuseppe at the local fish markets 3-4 times a week to bring in the freshest catch to serve daily to his guests. Seafood is significant to the city of Naples, where seafood from the Mediterranean Sea is considered by many, like Chef Giuseppe, to be the best in the world and he takes his fish seriously. “When we’re out then that’s it—I don’t like to put dish in the freezer because it tastes different the next day. When the portion is finished then it’s done.”

AQUA hosts a monthly dinner tour through the traditions of Naples. Learn more and RSVP»

Lobster and clam lovers, for example, can even enjoy the actual taste of the Mediterranean Sea itself—Chef imports these fresh Langoustines to give his patrons a different and truer taste of Italian seafood than is offered in the U.S. “We give our customers a little touch of the Mediterranean, offering lots of seafood as you’d get in the coastal restaurants and fish bars in Italy,” he says. Using his local suppliers in the New York City area, he shops by what’s available.

NYC Italian Food | Linguine Alle Vongole at Acqua at Peck Slip
Linguine Alle Vongole at Acqua | Facebook

“Maybe one day it’s a nice branzino or grouper, and sometimes we fight at the fish market, so I go early to be one of the first to get the fish. If you go after 6 or 7 A.M., you’ll only get what’s left. I go at 4 A.M. in the morning to the fish market in the Bronx, sometimes once or twice a day,” he tells us. Since the restaurant does not use tjr courseness of a freezer to store left over fish, patrons can be assured that their catch is fresh and delicately refrigerated. Most people understand when he’s out of something. If you go to a restaurant that serves the same fish day in and day out, Chef’s advice is that it’s probably not fresh because it’s extremely difficult to do and acquire from the markets.

Among favorite dishes include spaghetti with clams, crab cakes—spaghetti with any seafood really, he says. Even the popular seafood tartar uses a fresh catch he gets daily. Chef tells us sometimes it’s yellow tune, sometimes salmon, and sometimes grouper, but it’s always fresh. “Yesterday, I wanted to make tuna tartar and I went to the market but didn’t like the selection, so I didn’t buy it.”

NYC Italian Food - Tartara di Salmone at Acqua at Peck Slip
Tartara di Salmone at Acqua at Peck Slip | Facebook

Branzino is also a popular item on the menu, but if it’s not fresh when Chef heads to pick it up he won’t serve it simply because he values his customers. “I want my customers always happy, and my point of view is I want them to always come back. I just want them to enjoy the experience and receive good service. They need to feel like they’re in Italy, and on the Mediterranean where they can trust real Italian authenticity,” he explains. Most of his customers have never been to Italy, so he feels that being particular about what he serves is just part of the responsibility of truly representing what is culturally expected in Naples.

NYC Italian Food | Mediterranean Sea Bass - Acqua at Peck Slip

Mediterranean Sea Bass at Acqua at Peck Slip | FacebookChef doesn’t just carefully peruse the fish market, even his produce is fresh. In fact, take a visit to ACQUA for lunch or dinner, and you’ll find much more than seafood, including Neapolitan-style pizzas, panini’s, and several pasta dishes served with chicken and beef, as well as an extensive dessert and wine list. The pasta is hand-crafted by the restaurant’s professional pasta master, Bernardo. Tagliatelle, papardelle, ravioli, gnocchi and spaghettoni are just some of the pasta shapes ACQUA makes from scratch every day.

He heads to farmer’s markets on Long Island or in New Jersey or Connecticut because they offer smaller batches, and higher quality and taste he says. “I like to the go the product markets and touch and see what they offer, because when you order from a distributor you don’t know what they’re going to send you. The quality of the product makes a huge difference in the dish, even if you’re the best chef in the world.” A customer favorite though—tomatoes imported from Vesuvio—the Mount Vesuvius Volcano. Stop in for a meal one day and ask him about it.

Italian Food NYC | Handmade Italian Pasta - Acqua at Peck Slip
The restaurant creates handmade Italian pastas daily | Facebook

It’s obvious that owning a restaurant means to Chef Giuseppe that it’s more important to be authentic—not just by offering good food, but food that tells the real story of Naples. He values talking with his guests and taking care of them, and so does his staff. “If someone remembers what I like to eat, what I drink, and all these things, that’s customary in Naples, in Italy. Our customers will come in and ask if particular servers are in because they trust them and they also know them. They feel comfortable. They feel at home.”

DC China Chilcano’s Chef Carlos on Growing up in Peru, and Serving Up Multicultural Influences

When he was 15, Chef Carlos Delgado knew he wanted to be a chef. In Peru, we learned from him that kids cook, families do things together, and that Peruvian people carry a deep sense of pride in their food and multicultural influences, and embrace it all to make every day unique. A native of Callao, a district in the port city Lima, the capital of Peru, today Chef Carlos’ journey and influences has culminated in his role as Head Chef at Washington, DC restaurant China Chilcano.

“I grew up with a grandmother who was a cook, and she cooked every meal, every day. We treated [home and the process of cooking] like a restaurant, so we never got bored of what we ate,” Chef Carlos shared of his passion for expressing Peruvian food. He was born in a country where food is a part of the people. They eat every day, but each generation has a hand in daily meals, he explained.  Each day, his family would see it as an opportunity to find good products, and then better products to incorporate into every meal.

It’s really the cultural norm for Peruvian children to play a part in food, in cooking, and in home life. Many children accompany their mothers to the market and help with meal preparation, he said cheerfully. “There is no Peruvian mom or Peruvian child who doesn’t know how to cook as a young kid. As a kid, whether you’re making it or helping to buy it, there isn’t a kid in Peru that isn’t involved in the cooking process of the family,” Chef shared.

China Chilcano Peruvian Cuisine | Facebook

At the restaurant, a creation of Chef José Andres and his talented team, you’ll find a hybrid of Chinese, Japanese and indigenous Peruvian cooking showcased in a trifecta of popular dishes. For those unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, these influences are deeply rooted in Peru through centuries of the migration, mingling and making of traditional cuisines with local Peruvian ingredients. A look at China Chilcano’s menu, you’ll find these cultural fusions displayed through Chinese Chifa, Japanese Nikkei and Peru’s Native Criollo Cuisine.

Peruvians always find inspiration though how diverse Peru is, Chef explained, and having his grandmother teach him all these things, had him only wanting to learn more; that’s why when he was just a kid he knew he wanted to be chef.

“Depending on the subject, there is criteria that you grow up with as part of the culture as a Peruvian to know what is really a good or fresh ingredient and what isn’t—it’s what makes us who we are because we have a wide variety of food,” he explained. “Peruvians are very needy when it comes to food,” and because of this they know to expect fresh ingredients all the time. Today, with the boom in Peruvian gastronomy topping the global food scene, you’ll find more than 80,000 restaurants in Lima alone, he told us.  That’s not even including the hundreds of thousands of hidden gems tucked away from the crowds.

China Chilcano Washington DC Peruvian Food
China Chilcano | Facebook

At China Chilcano, every dish has its own story. Each part of the menu showcases a part of Peruvian cuisine that has become influenced through Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous cultures of Peru. The whole story requires a history lesson that dates to at least to the 18th century, but as Chef Carlos explains at the restaurant, “whether it’s connecting or combing the two or three cuisines or simply allowing the original to come through, since we’re combing Chinese and [traditional] Peruvian ingredients some people unfamiliar with the history think that it’s fusion, but it’s not.” It’s more about culture, he explains.

The Chinese migrating to Peru, marrying their traditional dishes with Peruvian ingredients then the standard becomes normal to you, to me, to them. That’s how, after chatting with Chef Carlos, I understood what he meant: “This is Chinese-Peruvian, this is Chifa. All the dishes at the restaurant are representations of these stories.”

Even as Peru has become a popular food destination in recent years where you can sample these cuisines in its cosmopolitan cities, the Peruvian palette is even more diverse than even the stories shared through the dishes at the restaurant. “Lima has been the food capital of the world for the last four years, and young Chefs like me are showcasing that; and I’m from Lima, so I’m going to showcase it, but Peruvian cuisine goes beyond that. There is still the cuisine of the Amazon, and the Incas, for example, that still hold on to their own traditional culture.” At China Chilcano, there’s yet a wonderfully diverse gastronomy for a taste of modern-day Peru.

China Chilcano Washington DC Peruvian Food
China Chilcano Peruvian Sanguches (Sandwiches) | Facebook

When it comes to defining dishes at China Chilcano, the “Aji Gallina is very homey; something a grandmother would make, and we’re still showcasing it a very traditional way. It’s not something you can really mask or redo,” Chef tells us. Another very popular dish, “Our ceviche—we take a lot of pride in it; we respect all the ingredients for what they are. We try to mimic as much as we can its traditional preparation as in Peru. This fish comes in fresh every day, and it lets us showcase the fish and the techniques to pronounce the fresh ingredients—to allow them to tell an actual story of Peru,” he explained.

China Chilcano Washington DC Peruvian Food
Trio of Ceviches: Clasico Pulp and Jaladito Norteno at China Chilcano | Facebook

By paying attention to the freshness of ingredients in its dishes, China Chilcano is true to Peru. Chef tells us, “At the end of the day we cook to tell a story. Whether you’ve gone or will go to Peru, you’re tasting quality. We’re able to leverage the back-end of things, like the trueness of preparation, to show you what Peru is about.”

Stepping into the restaurant, there’s an overall experience that visually echo’s the multicultural diversity of Peru. “We’re about telling you a story through the restaurant because there is a deep and unique story behind how Peru started, and how the Chinese and Japanese migrated and how these cuisines were born—how they are now under one umbrella in Peru” Chef explains about the features of the restaurant that evoke the senses through a balance of décor, ambiance, music, and especially the bold flavors and aromas; a slice of Peru in the U.S. capital.

China Chilcano Peruvian Cuisine Washington DC
Aji De Gallina at China Chilcano | Facebook

In terms of the menu, the restaurant also strives to preserve the Peruvian norm for local ingredients. As Chef explains, while you can’t serve tomatoes, for example, on the menu year-round like in Peru because of its climate, his team respects the seasons of the Washington, DC area by incorporating its local and seasonal ingredients.

Take a visit to China Chilcano for lunch or dinner any given day and you’ll surely discover that each cuisine has its own persona, the sort of magical mingling of South American and Asian flavors. Bite into any dish and we think without words you’ll start to understand the vast and diverse history of Peruvian cuisine. “The presentation of the countries that migrated to Peru is something that Peruvians are very proud of because it makes our cuisine more diverse than if they never came,” chef shares proudly.

Chef José has said of Chef Carlos in this article from his website, “He’s the Head Chef at China Chilcano because he’s super talented … He’s gonna help us keep telling the story of HIS Peru to Washington, and to America, and to the world.”

We wholeheartedly agree, and he’s got the heart to do it.

Capitol Hill’s Belga Café Offers DC the Warmth, Tradition and Sidewalk Cafes of Brussels

Passing recipes from generation to generation, that’s the part of Belgian culture Chef Bart Vandaele finds most inspiring for his flagship Belga Café. With its beautiful patio leading into the eatery along historic Barrack’s Row on Capitol Hill, at the heart of Washington DC’s original Belgian restaurant is a menu steeped in a kind of tradition that endures.

The character, practice and culture of Belgian cuisine runs deep for the Vandaele family—in fact, it was the ethos behind the restaurants of his grandparents and parents, including his chef father, which led Chef Bart to decide at the age of 11 or 12 that he wanted to be a chef. It was this passion for expressing Belgian tradition practically fed from a young age, that established his formal journey as restaurateur after studying culinary arts for restaurant and hotel management in Brugge.

Chef Bart Vandaele, Belga Cafe | FacebookWhen it came to developing the menu for the restaurant, Chef Bart shared, “For Belgians, food comes natural; you love the food, you live in the country and you eat it, but when we came to the U.S. I really wanted to highlight Belgian food, to share it, and for people to understand what it was because in DC there wasn’t any.”

Diners at Belga Café will find recognizable and traditional dishes that people in Belgium grow up with. Dishes that are common in the sidewalk cafes of Belgium’s capitol Brussels—food that is cherished and continues from family to family. “If you have a husband or wife that can cook very well in Belgium, you’re lucky—some say, next to being a doctor having someone in the family that does is important in Belgian culture because it’s used to bring people together.”

Following his studies in Brugge, Chef Bart worked for renown Belgian restaurants and served under well-respected chefs. After arriving in America in 1997 he became executive chef for the European Union’s head diplomat to the United States, then for the Dutch Embassy before the opening of Belga Café nearly fifteen years ago. A master of traditional Belgian cuisine, he has appeared on Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’, and earned the moniker ‘the Belgian guy’ for putting Belgian food on the map in Washington, DC.

Diners at Belga Cafe | Facebook

Chef told us because food is a conduit in Belgium, it’s why even though there was similar food such as several French restaurants and even Belgian beer when he arrived in DC, the capital needed a café like Belga, because culturally, the traces of the cuisine needed more tender love and care, essentially the Belgian touch. That’s why patrons will note that the restaurant isn’t a French-Belgian restaurant or even a European restaurant, but truly Belgian at its heart.

Situated around the pillar of politics in America, Capitol Hill, Chef Bart chose a unique structure—a decision not to get into Belgian politics through the restaurant’s menu. So, you won’t find geographical specialties mentioned or sectioned off. “It’s simply a Belgian restaurant—dishes close to my heart, my favorites—not based on regions like Flanders or cities like Waterloo. Although, you will find the pronunciation of the café’s dishes in French or how they’re known to be called in their place of origin, whether also Flemish or Dutch, and translated in English,” he explained. To us, that seems to translate into a place for everyone simply using recipes of love.

Moules Frites or Mussels and Fries at Belga Cafe | Facebook

Bricks are also culturally important in Belgian culture. “For me, as the Belgian saying goes, I was a boy born with a brick in his stomach.” Literally, there’s a Belgian folk saying, Een baksteen in de maag which means bricks are essentially an anchor. For example, chef told us when you buy a house in Belgium it’s usually made of brick and it stays in the family because it’s home, and it means home. The restaurant is built with lots of bricks. In fact, the interior was laid brick-by-brick, a process that seemed for Chef Bart a natural path, a destiny. On the design of the restaurant, he explained, “[You] really stand behind your country more-so when you’re outside of it, you cherish and focus on things about it that when you’re there you simply take for granted.”

While his second restaurant, B Too, is more contemporary, Belga Café features down-home cooking, he tells us. “I call it down to earth because literally it’s food that’s very closely connected to your backyard in Belgium. It’s your chickens or rabbits, or if you’re close to the sea, it’s mussels and scallops, and root vegetables, those are essential. It’s really about the cabbage, that Brussel sprout, and the potato—the potato for example is really big, there’s no meal without the potato.”

He likens local Belgian cuisine to a friend in your backyard who waits on you to comfort you and that you gather with, that, he said, is real local food. “It’s like, [the food] simmers, and outside it’s raining and cold and you’re out working a bit, and then you come around the table to that steamy pot of mussels or that great chocolate mousse on Sunday’s from grandma because she has this amazing, enduring recipe. Those recipes that you gather around are what make up Belgian culture.”

Belga Cafe Washington DC Belgian Food
Warm and savory Belgian dishes are served at Belga Cafe | Facebook

Beyond the wonderful food, guests will find the cues of a Belgian beer garden in a vast selection of over 100 beers offered at Belga. From popular brews like pilsners, to white beers, red, brown, golden, and Belgian ales, Saisons, to even innovative beer cocktails, and more, the selection is quite extensive. Little details like serving the beer in the correct glasses is traditional, whether served against the façade of the brick wall of the bar or to people drinking outside on the terrace on a beautiful day.

There’s a beautiful patio outside Belga that beacons to the famed sidewalk cafes in Brussels. “When we opened, it wasn’t common to have sidewalk seating and it’s something I’m very proud of. I wanted to have a sidewalk café because that’s Belgium, that’s Brussels. At the restaurant, you can just sit and watch the world pass by,” chef shared.

Belga Cafe Washington DC
Belga Cafe features an outdoor patio | Facebook

Sensory cues like steaming Belgian music, an open kitchen with the light but warm and inviting scent of steamed mussels and fries welcome you in for a warm meal. You’ll see on the walls subtle homage to Belgium from simple décor like the colors or the letter ‘B’ on the wall, to interesting features like the crown molding around a central chandelier that came from an old Belgian castle. A saxophone sits behind the bar because it was a Belgian who invented it.

Whether inside or outside, the café is collectively and proudly Belgian. Simply by walking by it you’ll be invited in because there’s a simmering pot of tradition and warmth waiting for you. Like a friend waiting at a sidewalk café in Brussels for you to pull up a chair and sit with them for a while, Belga Café represents everything there is to love about Belgium.

Belga Cafe Washington DC Belgian food
Belga Cafe features an extensive wine and beer menu, over 100 beers | Facebook

Patrons to Belga Café can come for lunch, dinner, as well as brunch on weekends. The restaurant also offers daily two course prix-fixe lunch specials, a Tuesday Mussels special which includes crunchy fries for just $16.95, as well as half-priced happy hour on cocktails wines, draft beers, and small plates on weekdays from 2:30pm to 6:30pm and Sunday’s from 4:00pm to close.

NYC’s Café Buunni Pours Ethiopia’s Spirit of Community in Washington Heights

For Elias, among the earliest memories of his Ethiopian childhood is being with the neighborhood children whose job was to call in all the locals for the daily coffee ceremony. In Ethiopia, the two hour ceremony isn’t just a time to drink coffee, but for people to catch up over not just one, but three distinct rounds of the brew. It was an important part of chatting, whether about the day’s news and politics or to share information—most importantly for Elias he knew the ceremony was the heart of building community in his town.

Today together with his wife Sarina, both big travelers, Elias Gurmu is the owner of Café Buunnii a shop featuring micro roasted Ethiopian coffee in NYC’s Washington Heights neighborhood. He is also getting ready to open Buunni’s second location in Riverdale. Drawing on his influences as a child, Elias took on his first job after high school as a barista, Sarina shared. She continued to say that today coffee is still a part of his daily life and an important way to highlight the positive aspects of Ethiopian culture beyond the focus of contemporary culture like famine or poverty or other topics that try to overshadow the country’s inner beauty.

ethiopian-coffee-cafe-buunni
Cafe Buunni in NYC’s Washington Heights serves micro brewed Ethiopian coffee.

Growing up in a heavy Southeast Asian tea culture in Nepal and south Asia, Sarina’s experiences in Ethiopia were her introduction to coffee’s place in daily life. Not only how much time goes into the farming—but its where she also developed an appreciation for its preparation.

“The name, Buunni, is based on the Amharic word for Buuna, which is the Ethiopian word for coffee and Buunni is both a playoff and representative of the brown color of the coffee bean,” said Sarina. Connecting both the country and the authentic coffee culture of Ethiopia was important in the concept for the shop.

Two very Ethiopian beverages can be found on the menu at Café Buunni, including the Buuna, which is served in a little glass exactly as you’d find in a café in Ethiopia. Second, the Makiyato, or Macchiato as its commonly known, is also served in glass after being layered beautifully with milk, although familiar its portion is smaller than what you may be used to in the U.S.

buuna macchiato makiyato ethiopian coffee Cafe Buunni
A cup of Buuna and Makiyato (Macchiato) are both part of Ethiopia’s strong coffee culture.

Both coffee beverages are very pervasive in Ethiopia, especially in rural areas—in fact, for the shop it’s often that patrons will stop in for a makiyato and say, ‘This is just how I remember,’ or they’ll have the Buuna and comment on how they haven’t had it in years, Sarina described the conversations. “It can quickly transport you to a place, and for people who haven’t been to Ethiopia those two drinks can really bring it home.”

The shop uses the Ethiopian Arabica bean, including the Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar coffee beans which come directly from Ethiopia. Coffee first originated in the country, which features locally differentiated types of beans with unique flavor profiles depending on the soil and altitude. Sarina explained to us that the varietals are from different regions and the names of the coffees are named for the places they originate from.

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Cafe Buunni serves Ethiopian Buuna in a traditional cup.

“It’s specialty coffee and very much rooted in the culture of the country. In many places, there’s large scale farming, but a lot of people have coffee growing in their backyards and drink and share it as a family, so it’s very much a local tradition.” In a global city like New York the universal concept of the culture can be easily understood.

One thing you won’t find at Café Buunni is rush hour. “The experience [at Buunni] is not a fast, quick jolt to get you started; it’s slow coffee,” Sarina laughed. While it’s not to-go coffee New Yorkers expect in their jaunt through the work day, the coffee shop does strike a balance between a true Ethiopian coffee experience and the New York City lifestyle. “We really try to stress the aspect of community, and coffee being a vehicle for getting the community together—for quality time with friends and family.”

team-at-cafe-buunni
Elias (far right) with team members of Cafe Buunni

“The café doesn’t try to overtly be Ethiopian, but there are elements we use [like] the traditional Ethiopian coffee pot, the art, and the sound of the machines we use. It’s a blend—it’s an Ethiopian experience in a way that’s translated to this context [of New York City].” Buunni Coffee is very much a NYC café, but it’s infused with the values of what Ethiopian culture brings to the city.

In a sense, the shop sort of serves like a bridge to a broader sense of the city’s local culture—rather than walking in and saying it looks like Ethiopia, patrons walk into something familiar that they know, like familiar décor and baked goods, and then take a step further to meet something new that they didn’t know.

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Cafe Buunni supports local suppliers of its familiar baked goods.

The café hosts both people who come in to take coffee to-go, but the defining feeling of the space is for those patrons who like to linger, to sit, to sip and to chat. The couple’s value for a sense of community is also a part of the reason they deliberately source and support local businesses in their shop—from displaying handmade scarves from a women’s co-op in Ethiopia’s capital and largest city Addis Ababa, to a rotation of local art including Ethiopian artists, and even the chocolate they get from a local supplier to use in their coffee drinks.

cafe-buunni-nyc
The cafe regularly features a rotation of local art and Ethiopian co-op wares to support local community.

While ceremonies for groups aren’t possible in the shop due to its size, the couple does perform coffee ceremonies by request at offices or in people’s homes—a way to share the experience with others. But that doesn’t diminish the defining qualities of the coffee shop, especially for Elias whose personal story and shop embodies the cultural aspects and hospitality of how the coffee is traditionally served.

“He’s very much a part of the [Ethiopian] story, and people like to talk to him about the coffee and the coffee culture, for recommendations and to try something new,” Sarina told us about her husband. “He very much enjoys that and making drinks for people.”

Attention to people is at the center of their operation at Buunni, especially the people in the process of getting coffee-to-cup. The couple pays close attention to the fact that coffee farmers in Ethiopia run small farms and there are a lot of people involved in growing the coffee. “There is a lot of respect for the people who are growing this very special coffee,” Sarina explained.

ethiopian-coffee-shop-nyc-buunni

“All of the passion that goes into the coffee—it’s essentially one coffee cherry that’s picked at a time, and that takes passion, time, love, and expertise.” The couple tries to always, even when training their staff, be extremely mindful that coffee is not just the commodity contemporary culture makes it out to be.

“A lot of people will comment that there is a self-respect and pride in Ethiopia—in the culture, the history, and the quality of things like the coffee. But it’s not an arrogant pride, but rather the satisfaction of being proud of something that you’ve cultivated to able to share.” In other words, it’s that kind of pride that communicates the value of Ethiopian coffee culture, and not for the farmers themselves but rather so that they can pass it down to others. It’s about community.

For more information on Café Buunni, visit www.buunnicoffee.com.

Bitchin’ Baklava Bakery’s Soul of Egypt in the Heart of San Francisco

If you’ve ever returned stateside to find yourself perusing the goods of every local bakery for Egyptian baklava, San Francisco’s Bitchin’ Baklava has your fix for the warm and flaky taste of golden goodness you thought you left thousands of miles away. Located in a brightly colored storefront in the Outer Richmond neighborhood on Balboa Street, Chef Sausan Al-Masri continues the celebration of Egyptian life, food and culture through her line of authentic baklava for international foodies in the bay area.

Family-owned and operated, the shop’s Chef Sausan cares that “every piece looks undeniably homemade, just as if it had come out of an Egyptian mother’s oven.” Known for its aroma of just-baked ingredients, the shop’s baklava is layered with crunchy rows of phyllo dough, a bouquet of spices, butter, and nuts that conjure up scents from the streets of Cairo, she says. “With every crunchy sound it’s easy to picture oneself sitting at one of Egypt’s sidewalk cafes or corner bakeries while savoring every bite,” she continued. Surely, every passersby is likely infectiously treated to the sounds of ‘mmm, mmmm’ from every unapologetic and content bite.

bitchin baklava egyptian food san francisco
Image credit: Bitchin Baklava

In the 1980’s Chef Sausan started Bitchin’ Baklava after learning to make the pastry from her Middle Eastern friend, and introduced it commercially only after perfecting it for her local restaurant customers, where it was picked up by Marin County’s Whole Foods Market soon after. Although, “after a few years, I stopped distribution to take care of some personal affairs but kept it on the menu [for bulk orders],” she said. In 2012, after the encouragement of close friends and persuasion from loyal customers, Chef Sausan started an online shop for the unique offerings of Bitchin’ Baklava.

Rightly invoking the senses through an authentic slice of Egypt, Bitchin’ Baklava comes out fresh from the ovens of its sister shop, Al-Masri Egyptian Restaurant as it ordered, not through a major processing and distribution plant like some other American baklava makers. Chef Sausan credits the bakery’s recipe of “fresh ingredients using made-from-scratch syrups, Grade A butter, and careful attention to flavor and appearance,” for its authentic taste.

bitchin baklava san francisco egyptian food
Image credit: Bitchin’ Baklava

While baklava (or baklawa) is a common treat throughout the Mediterranean, what makes Bitchin’ Baklava different and unique is inherent in the culture of Egypt itself—a result that is influenced by the cultures of the entire Middle East. Online, Chef Sausan wanted her baklava to carry on that uniqueness—her Egyptian baklava is available with different and innovative fillers such as dried or candied fruits, exotic nuts, chocolate chips, and other alluring and unusual ingredients including bacon and mincemeat.

While many have probably tried baklava at least once, “Before Bitchin’ Baklava, much of the available baklava offered looked and tasted moderately the same,” she explained, “Bitchin’ Baklava strives to change all of that through the traditionally crunchy and crispy baklava experience, but with enough sweetness and flavor in each unique bite to want more.”

She credits the unique qualities of her signature products to be distinguished by features that have gotten the attention of locals—such as her use of turbonado sugar sprinkles and innovative nut ingredients in addition to the classic walnut and pistachio. From nuts including almonds, macadamia, Brazilian, filberts, cashews, and peanuts, to candied flavors such as ginger and dried fruits, as well as seeds including sunflowers, pumpkin, sesame, and much more she is innovating through every bite.

“Not a single baklava was left on the tray…” one review said of the party platters, while another found the shop through Google and left a review noting it’s intrigue with the shop’s name. When asked about the name, Chef Sausan said “I wanted [it] to stand out and be remembered, so I had to think of a unique and catchy name.” She explained. “I went through several possibilities, like ‘Benevolent Baklava, Beautiful Baklava, Bountiful Baklava,’ but those names didn’t have that certain ‘remember me’ ring, but then, driving through the park one day the word Bitchin’ popped into my mind.”  She raced home and said she was relieved and elated to find that no one had claimed the domain name, and so Bitchin’ Baklava was born.

4 Miami Eateries for an Authentic Taste of the Caribbean

If you’re planning to leave the turquoise blue water of Miami to run off to the sister beaches of the Caribbean this summer, consider sampling the perfected flavors of some of its most pristine cuisines locally before you go. Below are 4 places you can experience authentic Caribbean food in Miami.

El Exquisito Restaurant / Origin, Cuba

Being devoted to the art of cooking is one reason El Exquisito Restaurant’s Cuban owners Juan Coro, and his uncle, have gained a loyal following in Miami’s Little Havana. Tucked near the Tower Theatre, the restaurant is known for its deliciously authentic Cuban food in the heart of this enclave ever since it opened in 1974. For a true taste of Cuban culture one must only stop in here and have a coffee—but some food first.

Diners are treated to appetizers like Mariquitas (banana chips), sandwiches from the classic Cubano to Medianoche (the Cubano’s sister made with sweet bread), and meat entrees like Ropa Vieja (shredded beef) and fall-of-the-bone Lechon Asado (roast pork), fresh seafood platters, as well as sides like white rice and beans, sweet plantains or petite fry chips, along with daily specials Diners can sit cafeteria style or casually at tables. Coffee from the Corta Dito to the traditional café con leche are winners.

Clives Café / Origin, Jamaica

This little gem has been dubbed a diamond in Miami’s Little Haiti, known for its personable and laidback owners, as well as its cool vibe despite its small interior—it is unpretentious. Named ‘Best Jamaican Restaurant’ by the Miami NewTimes, given its institutional status while located in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood since the mid-70s.

Cooking ‘made with love,’ as the family-run establishment says on its website, Clive’s (named for the owner’s son) opened by Pearline Murray and her late husband Clifford, has been serving its authentic Jamaican food for nearly 40 years. Dishes range from oxtails and beef patties, to deliciously spicy jerk and curry chicken, as well as curry goat and rich stews—complete with a cool glass of Jamaican gingered Sorrel. Clive’s also serves its entrees with rice and beans, plantains or even fried chicken and mac-and-cheese (from its former diner days serving local factory workers)—taking a flavorful spin on traditional Jamaican cuisine and Caribbean staples that’ll warm the heart, too.

Tap Tap Restaurant / Origin, Haiti

Looking at its colorful walls adorned with tropical murals from Haitian artists local and abroad, you’ll need to just grab a handmade chair to feel the vibrancy of Haiti come through in just the atmosphere of Tap Tap Restaurant, situated just a short walk from Miami Beach on 5th Street. Relaxed compared to the bustle of the beach, Tap Tap Restaurant features a no-frills attitude in its simple décor that makes customers feel instantly at home and on vacation all at the same time.

From appetizers like Arka (Malanga fritters) dipped in watercress dipping sauce to diverse entrees such as the Kribish Kreyol (spiced oxtails to plump shrimp in rich coconut sauce) accompanied by a mix of rice and beans, patrons are sure to get their fill in rich flavor. The dishes aren’t cheap but considered worth their weight. Also, try a mojito—it’s been known to be the best in South Beach for a few years running.

Bahamian Connection Grill / Origin, Bahamas

Family-owned since it originally opened in the late 70s as a restaurant, the owners of Bahamian Connection Grill have always incorporated the support of their wives and children in the restaurant’s establishment over the years, especially after its founding by family Patriarch Arlington ‘Big Links’ Ingraham, who was born in the Bahamas. Located at the Bahamian Connection Village near Miami’s midtown.

The food is the real deal, from his ‘famous’ recipes for Bahamian boiled fish and grits, to buttery Johnny Cake reminiscent of Nassau, and steamed, tender and well-seasoned conch included in rich stews and tangy salads. This local place accompanies its entrees with staples such as peas and rice, greens, mac-and-cheese, and slaw—sometimes you’ll find live music, too, all within this authentic spot situated in a quaint, central neighborhood.

8 Quaint International Tea Rooms in Houston You’ll Love

When it comes to visiting tearooms in Houston, some people chose tea for its health benefits, while others enjoy it for its other more sensory qualities like taste, smell, and the way it can trigger relaxation. In many part of the world, tea is eve a daily ritual, like in the British Isles and Asian countries for example, where over the centuries it has become a quintessential part of the cultures by being infused in societies.

Houston tea rooms, parlors and bars vary from those paying homage to British rituals of high-tea and afternoon tea, to expansive Asian varietals. It was Chinese scientist Shen Nung who was known to have initiated the first tea break during his travels sometime in 2700’s B.C., and today Vietnam and China are among the three largest tea exporters in the world. Couple that with Chinese and Vietnamese Americans making up the largest Asian groups in Houston, and you’ll see how easily Houstonian’s can find great places for tea locally.

Below are 8 places where tea lovers in Houston don’t have to steep long to find a cuppa (as the Brits call it).

1. Tea For Two | English culture

This quaint English-inspired tearoom has two locations; one in Houston and another in Cypress, just outside of Houston’s beltway, and makes visitors feel transported to a simpler way of life. The hideaway features a variety of specialty teas, a gift shop and serves lunch of delectable tea sandwiches and desserts, as well as offers a dinner menu. 8475 Hwy 6 N, Houston and 13115 Louetta, Cypress

2. McHugh Tea Room & Gifts | English culture

An English tearoom that believes your cup should be filled with happiness, creativity, peace and life, at their homey shop. Each teacup at this Houston tearoom is unique, seeking to brighten your day with premier organic teas steeped to the right time and at the perfect temperature. You can enjoy a lunch of salads, soups, quiches and desserts. 

3. Tea Cake French Bakery & Tea Room | French culture

You’ll enjoy the first butter croissants and French pastries to be introduced to the Spring neighborhood at this Houston tearoom and bakery. This French-inspired shop features breakfast pastries, pies, cakes, and lunch is sure to be a treat.  820 Cypress Creek Pkwy #19, Houston

4. Serenitea Tea Room | English culture

A classic English-style tea room and gift shop featuring soups and salads, where you can enjoy lunch or an afternoon tea in an elegant and relaxed setting. At Serenitea, tea is an experience from far away lands and memory of flavors; an exotic drink and sophisticated beverage for comfort, relaxation, socialization and of course health benefits. 13889 Southwest Fwy, Sugar Land

5. The Path of Tea | Japanese culture

A Japanese-inspired place for tea and only totally organic tea shop in Houston, The Path of Tea features over 150 certified and carefully crafted and selected fair trade teas. Beyond great tea, it’s owners include Texas’s first and only certified Tea Master in Texas, and sought to create a shop where community is celebrated, relationships are cultivated in a place of acceptance and tolerance. 2340 W Alabama St., Houston

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6. Tea Bar & Organics | Chinese culture

This Chinese-inspired tea bar has a few locations, but we recommend their Bellaire Chinatown shop for a real taste of China. The cafe features organic teas and even inspired dishes with organic rice, if you decide to stop in for a bite to eat. Customers rave about the green tea, traditional bitter Asian teas, and fruity milk teas featuring strawberry and mango flavors, as well as plates like the fish cakes and Takoyaki (a ball-shaped stuffed seafood snack). 9889 Bellaire Blvd. E211, Houston

7. Tapioca Place | Vietnamese culture

This bubble tea and Vietnamese cafe is known for its boba (tapioca) drinks, including favorites like lavender and strawberry boba, taro and coconut milk teas. Boba drinks are refreshing and healthy, containing tapioca balls that are soft, chewy and fun to eat. The cafe also known for its Vietnamese sandwiches, Banh mi (baguette sandwiches), featuring chicken, pork, beef, and more.  10226 Hammerly Blvd., Houston

8. Sharetea | Taiwanese culture

This Taiwanese cafe in Houston’s Chinatown makes its tea drinks from ingredients shipped directly from Taiwan, and prides itself on using high quality tea leaves in all its teas. The tea shop first started in Taipei City, Taiwan and has since sprouted locations around the world, including its authentic location in Houston. Get a taste of Taiwan at this shop serving up a variety of Taiwanese-inspired fruit, brewed, and milk teas, as well as cream and ice blended drinks.  9889 Bellaire Blvd. Suite E213