WASHINGTON — As salsa and merengue beats pulse in the background, diners are lining up at one of the newest restaurants in the nation’s capital.
It’s called “Immigrant Food,” and it’s just a block from the White House.
The fast-casual spot caters to a weekday lunchtime crowd, with bowls blending cuisines from different cultures around the globe — like a dish that combines Vietnamese spicy-rice noodles with pickled bananas in what the restaurant says is an “ode both to Central America’s favorite fruit and to German-style pickling.” It also gives diners a chance to donate to local immigrant advocacy groups — all under a slogan aiming to bridge the political divide and find common ground: “United at the Table.”
During the restaurant’s opening week, co-founder Peter Schechter has been shaking visitors’ hands and offering menu suggestions as they wait in line to order during the lunch rush.
He wants people to feel at home here, and to hear the story he’s excited to tell.
Schechter, a seasoned political consultant and veteran of Washington’s think tank scene, says he’s been cooking up the idea for “Immigrant Food” for more than a year.
As the child of immigrants from Austria and Germany, Schechter says he felt like he had to respond to the surge in anti-immigrant rhetoric across the United States.
“This isn’t the America I recognize. … Somehow it has become normal to disparage, to feel you can talk down to immigrants, like immigrants are not good for this country,” he says. “Immigrants have been the foundation of growth and vibrancy. This country has been great again and again and again because of immigrants.”
And what better way to fight back, he says, than with food.
“Immigrants are feeding America,” he says. “All of the industries that make food, whether it is the picking or the shucking or the meatpacking or the slaughterhouses, (or) in restaurants, the servers, the bus boys, this is an industry that is dominated by immigrants, even if your restaurant is called McDonald’s.”
They’re hoping to expand beyond the beltway
At Immigrant Food, menus available by the door describe each of the nine fusion bowls and five vegan drinks on tap. They also encourage visitors to donate to and volunteer with local immigrant advocacy groups.
Among the suggestions listed on the restaurant’s “engagement menu”: teaching English, visiting detention centers, staffing hotlines and helping with mock ICE interviews.
But the menu is only part of Immigrant Food’s message.
There’s also a photo booth featuring a world map. Diners can point to where their families are from, snap a selfie and get a text message with a frame around the image that says, “We are all immigrants!”
T-shirts and tote bags for sale near the checkout counter boast slogans like, “This Land is Your Land,” “Unity is Delicious” and “Immigrants Make America Great.”
When the restaurant opened on Tuesday — the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA — Immigrant Food shared an Instagram post featuring one of its tote bags outside the court, and posted details about DACA on its website.
“The idea is…people say, ‘I’m really upset about what’s happening, but I don’t know what to do,'” Schechter says. “And so, you come to this restaurant, we will give you stuff to do — concretely and easily.”
Local immigrant advocacy groups will also be able to use the restaurant’s upstairs space for things like meetings and English classes, free of charge. And on its website, the restaurant will serve up bite-sized breakdowns of immigration policy issues, dubbed “The Think Table.”
This isn’t the first restaurant to give diners who support immigrant causes a chance to put their money where their mouth is.
But Immigrant Food’s founders say they hope they’ve come up with a concept that they can replicate in other locations beyond the beltway.
Schechter points out that popular fast-casual chains like Sweetgreen and CAVA took root in the DC area and expanded.
And while Immigrant Food’s founders bring a very Washingtonian blend of culinary and political savvy to the table, they say there’s an appetite for this brand of what they call “gastroadvocacy” outside the borders of the nation’s capital.
“It’s natural for it to emerge in DC, but we also think it’s natural for it to emerge almost anywhere in the country,” says co-founder Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger.
Making the menu wasn’t easy
Chef Enrique Limardo is beaming as he sits at a high-top table, looking at messages flashing across his cell phone screen. His fine-dining restaurant less than two miles away, Seven Reasons, just racked up another accolade; Esquire magazine named it the best new restaurant in America this week, the day after Immigrant Food officially opened its doors.
But Limardo doesn’t have much time to dwell on the award. Today, his focus is on his newest venture: helping make sure Immigrant Food gets off the ground.
While diners make reservations weeks in advance for a chance to dine at Seven Reasons, Immigrant Food caters to a lunchtime crowd.
To craft this fast-casual spot’s fusion bowl menu, which features a number of surprising cross-cultural mashups, Limardo made a list of the largest immigrant groups in the United States and tried to outline the flavor profile for each cuisine.
“It was like a massive piece of paper, full of notes, like super crazy. And then I started just crossing lines between all of them, and then it was like a spider web, really hard to understand,” Limardo says.
So then he boiled it back down to basics, looking for particular ingredients that cross cultures.
One bowl he’s particularly proud of, the “Columbia Road,” combines flavors and ingredients from two of the DC area’s largest immigrant communities: Salvadorans and Ethiopians.
“I came up with the idea that we can use the berbere spice that is very common in Ethiopian food, and then in Salvadoran (food) they make a dressing that is made from pepita seeds. And the combination of both, it’s something that is unbelievable,” he says. “Starting from that point, I just think that everything can be matched, if you’re using the right amount, and if you go back in history, and try to find the right spot to connect.”
There are also bowls like “Mumbai Mariachi,” inspired by immigrants from India, Mexico and Greece, or “Stockholm to Dublin,” inspired by immigrants from Ireland, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.
Limardo came to the United States from Venezuela five years ago. He’d been running restaurants in his native Caracas, but he says constant inflation — and shortages of ingredients — made it too hard to keep things afloat.
There’s no direct Venezuelan influence on the menu at Immigrant Food, he says, but in a way, the country he comes from is part of every bite.
“It’s in the soul of every bowl,” Limardo says. “I use little things, like cilantro and raw sugar cane. I always use it, because it’s in my blood, my DNA — the flavor.”
They say opening near the White House was ‘serendipity’
Immigrant Food’s founders didn’t set out to set up shop right in U.S. President Donald Trump’s backyard. A few other options fell through before the location at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW came across their radar.
But the location turned out to be a case of serendipity, Schechter says.
“Downtown DC is a platform to communicate issues. So we always wanted to be close to the White House,” he says. “We just never thought we’d be that close.”
Even though the White House is less than a block away, Schechter says Immigrant Food is “the one thing in DC that’s not about Trump.”
“The idea of celebrating immigrants, celebrating their food, is an idea that is valid whether or not Trump is in the White House,” he says. “I really think it goes beyond the political.”
But the President’s policies cracking down on immigration are on the minds of many patrons stopping in to try the restaurant.
“I think the entire administration should eat here,” says Isha Datta, 27, as she waits in line to try a “Mumbai Mariachi” bowl on her lunch break. “I think this administration has demonstrated through their policies that they do not believe the U.S. should welcome immigrants from around the world, but that’s what this country has always stood for. I think it’s important they’re reminded of our founding ideals and who we’ve always been.”
As he sips on a drink called “Across the Border” — which blends cacao, dates, peppers, allspice, vanilla and cashew milk — Robert Evans, 72, says he loves the concept but worries the restaurant might end up preaching to the choir rather than crossing political lines.
But then again, he says, one day someone who works in the White House might stop by.
“I don’t know, they may hear from their friend or hear from somebody in the office, ‘That’s really good.'”
In Schechter’s view, immigration shouldn’t be a polarizing topic. He points to polls that show most Americans say immigration is a good thing. And he hopes Democrats and Republicans will dine at Immigrant Food together.
“The table, the restaurant, has always been a place where people unite,” he says.