With the launch of weekend brunch service this past spring, Immigrant Food began serving what has quickly, and rightfully, become a favorite: Shakshuka & Arepas — poached eggs in savory tomato sauce with grilled cornmeal cakes.
“Shakshuka is a Middle Eastern specialty and arepas are Latin, and that fusion is really what we’re all about,” says Téa Ivanovic of the growing local chain of “gastro-advocacy” or “cause-casual” restaurants.
Mixing key ingredients and food preparation styles from two or more of the world’s cultures may be somewhat par for the course at restaurants these days. Yet Immigrant Food stands out by virtue of its far more intentional approach, calling out and celebrating the countries or cultures of origin for each dish on its menu, the development of which was overseen by Enrique Limardo, the Venezuelan-born restaurateur behind the nationally acclaimed, top-rated hotspot Seven Reasons.
Consider, for example, another highlight from the restaurant’s popular brunch menu: the Old Saigon Sandwich featuring Filipino-style Adobo chicken, Asian slaw, and chile garlic mayo stuffed inside a toasted baguette. This well-realized pan-Asian twist on a Banh Mi is a tantalizing and satisfying delight, particularly washed down with refreshing house-made White Summer Sangria, a white wine punch brightened with the addition of peaches, pomegranate seeds, mango, and a multi-spice “secret syrup.”
What really sets Immigrant Food apart from other fusion-centric restaurants has less to do with its inventively tasteful, chef-inspired menu and more to do with its name. Indeed, Peter Schechter conceived of the business in 2018 as an enterprising way to counter the “anti-immigration noise” being promulgated by what he characterizes as “a very loud, very virulent, very toxic minority that somewhere along the way abandoned the notion of what America ought to be like, look like, feel like.” Although known for decades as an international political consultant and think tank leader, Schechter also played an influential if more inconspicuous role in the restaurant industry as an early investor and longtime partner in José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup restaurant empire.
To help him realize his vision for Immigrant Food, Schechter recruited a trio of immigrants: Co-Founder and Executive Chef Limardo, Chief Operating Officer Ivanovic, an immigrant from Belgium whose parents emigrated from the former Yugoslavia, and Venezuelan chef Mileyda Montezuma, dubbed Limardo’s “right-hand-woman” in the kitchen.
Together, they lead a social enterprise that Schechter says “is not only about giving 5 percent of profits” to immigrant-serving nonprofits, but also helping promote their work and recruit more volunteers — by featuring them in the restaurant’s continually updated “Engagement Menu,” for instance — as well as by donating valuable meeting space in the comfortable mezzanine level of the restaurant’s location near the White House, which opened in November 2019.
“A lot of things changed for us over the course of the pandemic,” Ivanovic says. For one thing, its primary business model has evolved from fast-casual to what Ivanovic calls “upscale casual.” At the original White House location, seated customers now order food and drink and start and settle tabs using their smartphones, with staff assisting them chiefly as hosts and bussers.
Plans are in the works for additional locations in the area, including a third restaurant at downtown’s Planet Word Museum. Schechter is especially eager to see how the gastro-advocacy concept fares outside of Washington, where a large and built-in audience of dedicated policymakers and activists has helped sustain an innovative and independent restaurant scene. As he puts it, “It’s going to be really exciting to see how we do in another city.”
They should do just fine in other internationally informed, multiculturally rich locales, with residents at least open-minded enough to try top-notch globally accented fare. Also working in its favor: Immigrant Food features one of the most distinctively diverse and wide-ranging menus to be found anywhere — from a variety of cross-culinary fusion bowls offered daily to world-spanning options available for weekend brunch, where guests are advised to start by sharing the Mezze Dip Trio platter of Harissa hummus, feta/oregano Shankleesh, and walnut/red pepper Muhammara, scooped up with housemade na’an.
From there, brunchers could branch out beyond the aforementioned Shakshuka and Old Saigon Sandwich to choose from Limardo and Montezuma’s takes on three different North American classics: The Immigrant Burger, a Greek-inspired version with feta, pickles, and Greek garlic dressing plus lettuce and tomato atop six ounces of angus beef; the Havana Sandwich, a Cuban with three types of pork and melted Swiss on a toasted hoagie; or Canada’s Poutine, a tossed mess of poached eggs, roasted potatoes, Canadian bacon, cheese, and gravy. Consider it comfort food for a good cause, and a relatively clear conscience.
Immigrant Food’s current locations are a block from the White House (1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) and in Union Market (1309 5th St. NE.). Call 202-888-0760 or visit www.immigrantfood.com.
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