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The Dish

Lebanese-Mexican Restaurant Evette’s Opens Today

Above: Chicago chefs Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra in their new restaurant, Evette’s, on Oct. 9, 2020 in Chicago, Ill. Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine

When you bite into a chicken taco árabes at Evette’s restaurant, you are tasting over a century of the blending of Lebanese and Mexican cultures, say chefs Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra.

The taco consists of cumin-marinated chicken wrapped in pita bread and was inspired by a dish created by Lebanese and other Middle Eastern immigrants who fled to Mexico during the Ottoman Empire.

Evette “teta” AbouJamra in her kitchen in Michigan. Photo provided by Mitchell AbouJamra

For Esparza, who identifies as Chicano and whose family comes from Mexico, it’s that hidden history of immigrants adopting and blending their cuisine in a new country that makes Evette’s unique.

“I want customers to walk away with an understanding of the culture and identity struggle that children of immigrants had,” said Esparza, who is co-owner of Evette’s with AbouJamra. “Immigrant children try to incorporate their culture and assimilate even through food, Americanizing their food, like “taco pizzas,” so we don’t seem like weirdos.” 

While taco pizzas are not on the menu of Evette’s, which opens today at 350 W. Armitage Ave. in Chicago, Esparza and AbouJamra’s Mexican and Lebanese heritage is front and center in the menu. 

Evette’s pita nachos. Photo courtesy of Evette’s Chicago

Customers can choose from a variety of dishes that blend the chefs’ immigrant and Midwest roots including pita nachos, halloumi tacos, and baklava shakes. The nachos, made with fried pita bread, are covered in a special sauce from a family recipe passed down from Esparza’s grandmother.

The idea for Evette’s came from AbouJamra, who dreamed of starting a restaurant that would blend his own family’s cooking with other cultures. The restaurant is named after AbouJamra’s grandmother. 


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“Evette’s menu has been in my head forever,” said AbouJamra. “My teta Evette and aunt’s food has been perfected over generations, but I want to show what my experience was as an American-Lebanese.”

AbouJamra met Esparza while he was delivering produce to Esparza’s old cafe, Finom Coffee. That cafe, which has since closed, featured Hungarian dishes and Mexican-inspired drinks like Tres Leches De la Rosa. 

As restaurants shut down in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, AbouJamra decided that now was the time to take a chance on his dream. 

AbouJamra asked Esparza, who has long explored the melding of cultures in his cuisine, to join him in opening Evette’s. Having had worked at fine dining and sit-down restaurants for most of his career, Esparza was ready for a more fun, fast approach to serving food. 

Photos of two neighborhoods in Beirut, Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, popular for their art and nightlife, as well as photos of the lucha libre wrestler, Fray Tormenta, cover the walls of the new restaurant, Evette’s, on Oct. 9, 2020, in Chicago, Ill. Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine

The partnership felt fitting.

“It was scary how natural Mexican cuisine fit with my family’s existing recipes,” said AbouJamra, “The flavors combine together perfectly.”

The blending of Lebanese and Latin American cuisine featured at Evette’s is not something new. From the 1860s to the early 1900s many Lebanese immigrated to Europe, Australia, and Latin America following the Mount Lebanon massacre of Christians during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. 

As Lebanese migrated across the world, they carried with them their unique culture and cuisine. “They brought shawarma to Mexico, specifically Puebla, Mexico,” said AbouJamra. “The way that shawarma meat was cooked on a vertical spit influenced the Mexican dish al pastor. Maybe without Lebanese culture’s influence on Mexico, al pastor wouldn’t exist.”

AbouJamra’s own grandma grew up in Cuba and spoke Spanish. He says that it was Evette’s passion for food that inspired him to have a career in food.

“At a young age I could help teta roll warak enab [stuffed grape leaves] and by the time I was four years old, I was helping my teta and jeddo [grandpa] pick parsley.”

Mitchell AbouJamra with his grandparents picking parsley in Michigan in the late 1970s. Photo provided by Mitchell AbouJamra

Food was also the family business. His grandfather’s brother bought a butcher shop in Michigan in 1972, and when his grandfather retired he moved his family to the United States to help with the shop. AbouJamra was the first one out of his family to be born in the United States and learned how to butcher at his family’s store as a young man.

For AbouJamra and Esparza, it is this rich family history that Evette’s is drawing from when the chefs serve Chicagoans. 

“The food is real stuff we have tried our whole lives, and it is fun for someone who doesn’t know it,” said Esparza. “We want to get people to understand that the first generation Mexican and Lebanese culture converging with the Midwest is me and Mitchell’s experience, this is what it looks like.” 

Evette’s is open for takeout at 350 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago. See website for hours.

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Coronavirus The Dish

Saigon Sisters and Demera Foster a Cross-cultural Bond During COVID

Above: Demera’s messob platter which is offered in the “World Food Tour” meal package. Photo courtesy of Demera

Mary Nguyen Aregoni is a survivor. When her family came to the United States as refugees after fleeing violence during the Vietnam War Aregoni learned English so she could translate everything for her family. She climbed the ranks of Procter and Gamble but wanted to be an entrepreneur so she quit her job in 2009 to open a Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon Sisters (567 W Lake St, Chicago, IL 60661). When COVID-19 hit Chicago and cut her sales in more than half she formed a new partnership with Demera Ethiopian Restaurant (4801 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640), a competing restaurant.

Saigon Sisters owner Mary Nguuyen Aregoni in Chicago, Ill. August 21, 2020. Cassidy Jackson/Borderless Magazine

Five years ago, she met Tigist Reda, Demera’s owner, at a small business program at Goldman Sachs and the women have been helping each other out ever since.

“Collaboration is the only way to survive,” Aregoni said. “We’re not on our little islands anymore.”

Since the end of May Saigon Sisters and Demera have been swapping food and offering “World Food Tour” meal packages. At both restaurants customers can pre-order and pick up an Ethiopian platter, a Vietnamese platter or a combination of both. 

Saigon Sisters’ Vietnamese deluxe salad with vegetable egg rolls and rice noodles which is offered in the “World Food Tour” meal package. Photo courtesy of Saigon Sisters

For one package Reda chose one of her cuisine’s signature items: messob, which is a platter of small dishes that include meat, fish and vegetables along with injera. Meanwhile, Saigon Sisters offers a Vietnamese deluxe salad with vegetable egg rolls and rice noodles. 

To get the word out about the partnership Reda and Aregoni sent out a newsletter to their customers. Chicago media outlets covered the launch and Aregoni even got a call from family back in Vietnam that they saw her on local TV. So far they’ve sold about 100 World Food Tour meals. Within the promotion’s first month Saigon Sisters’ sales went up 25 percent.

The “World Food Tour” partnership is proving to be a lucrative partnership as both restaurants fight to survive the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 Reda had to lay off 27 employees. For months before the collaboration her staff was reduced to two managers and Reda. Laying off employees was a low point for her during the pandemic. 

“When we shut down everyone was calling, emailing saying, ‘Are you guys okay?’” Reda said. “They gave very generous tips to the staff members when we shut down, [as] we were saving the tips for the people that are not working. People were tipping extra and donating to our GoFundMe. So it’s just amazing to see how people showed up.”  

 

Every month, Demera’s been able to divide about $4,000 in tips and GoFundMe donations among the restaurants’ unemployed staff. But the money is never split evenly. 

“We put a message out [to our employees] saying, ‘Hey, this is how much we have. Please let us know who needs it,’” Reda said. “People would come and say, ‘Hey, I’m good. Give it to someone else.’ The people that needed most got the money instead of dividing it equally among everyone.”

Thanks to help from customers and employees Reda was able to bring back 80 percent of Demera’s kitchen staff by June. Aregoni also had to lay-off some part-timers but has been able to keep most of her key employees.

Demera owner Tigist Reda August 27, 2020 in Chicago, Ill. Cassidy Jackson/Borderless Magazine

 Between Saigon Sisters’ three locations, Aregoni’s had to switch up her approach. In late March she closed her stand at the Chicago French Market due to indoor dining restrictions. At the beginning of August, the stand reopened but with reduced hours. Lacking outdoor dining space Aregoni’s main location now focuses on delivery service and carry-out orders. Saigon Sisters’ third location at Northwestern Memorial Hospital has never closed and was serving essential workers.

Aregoni says the emotional support she’s gotten from Reda has helped both of them get through this tough time. During the pandemic they’ve exchanged notes on their applications for small business loans and helped each other build larger clienteles by offering email marketing and social media tips. 

Reda and Aregoni hope the success of their ongoing partnership inspires other business owners, especially women, to support each other emotionally and through profitable partnerships during this pandemic.  


This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.

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The Dish

Vietnamese sisters behind First Sip cafe “breaking the rules” of coffee and business

Above: Gigi and Erin Hoang are sisters who own First Sip. Photographed Dec. 19, 2019 in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Ill. The cafe blends Vietnamese coffee and tea culture with Western-style sandwiches. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

When Vietnamese sisters Erin and Gigi Hoang saw a beautiful storefront open in the heart of their Uptown neighborhood two and a half years ago they decided on a whim to open a coffee shop. Within a month they signed a lease on the storefront at 1057 W. Argyle St. and transformed the place into First Sip, a cafe that blends Vietnamese coffee and tea culture with Western-style sandwiches.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic the Hoang sisters worked at First Sip seven days a week. They’d only stopped once to take a 24-hour vacation to Miami, Florida. But when Illinois closed restaurants as part of the stay-at-home order they truly closed their business for the first time March 18. They only reopened for carryout orders June 1.

“The first two weeks it felt like vacation. But then I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything productive and I was frustrated just being inside,” Erin Hoang said. 

The sisters weren’t worried about their business financially. Their main bill was their rent payments and they had enough savings to cover that. They are also the only two employees. So, while they had no income they didn’t have to worry about other employees. 

They felt privileged, and lucky, they were alright and decided not to apply for unemployment or other financial help. That way government money could support those who needed it most. 

First Sip is now open every day except Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Wednesday, the cafe is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The sisters are asking customers to place orders for pick-up or carry-out online. Fans can also support the business by purchasing gift cards. But since reopening earlier this month First Sip has seen fewer customers than usual.

Coconut Jasmine Vietnamese Iced Coffee, the latest drink featured during First-Sip’s reopening June 1, 2020 in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Ill.. Photo courtesy of First Sip

“Sales are okay,” Erin Hoang said. “[But] with COVID a lot of our college students are back at home [and not in the neighborhood]. And people are working at home. Now people are being laid off so we are concerned for these next couple of months.”

When they first started the business they had no coffee shop experience. Both had worked in restaurants but never as baristas. Their friends and family told them it was a terrible idea to open up the coffee shop.

The two put everything they had into it and 99 percent of the furniture and decor comes from Goodwill. The tables were donated by nonprofit Axis Lab. Gigi Hoang built the shelves, benches, and made the decor — which consists mostly of creative pots like a broken blender or a teapot holding a variety of plants.

“We aren’t coffee purists because we don’t have that experience,” Erin Hoang said. “We are willing to experiment with anything and everything.” 

Gigi Hoang chimes in to say the sisters aren’t afraid to “break the rules” because of this. Erin Hoang’s  favorite menu item is the mapled oats tea, which consists of dandelion tea with maple syrup and oat milk that tastes like oatmeal. 

Gigi Hoang prefers the ubae latte, which is made from a sweet purple yam like taro and tastes like a tropical latte.

The sisters and their parents came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam in 1997. Their parents now own Cafe Hoang, a Vietnamese restaurant two blocks down from First Sip. 

“I kind of look up to my parents. I’m thinking if they could come with five kids to a brand new country with no English in their early 40s and be able to raise five kids … I’m going to be fine, I’m gonna be okay,” Erin Hoang said.

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Coronavirus The Dish

Local Palestinian-American entrepreneurs spread peace and awareness through fashion line

Above: Photo courtesy of Wear the Peace. 

The Dish is our series on immigrant community businesses in Chicago. In 2016, immigrant-owned businesses in Chicago generated $659 million in income, according to a joint report from the Chicago Mayor’s Office and New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization. 

Want to share your story with us? Reach out to us at michelle@borderlessmag.org


Murad Nofal and his friend Mustafa Mabruk sat in his parents’ garage in August 2016 to discuss the war in Syria. The conflict was weighing heavily on the two college students’ minds. It reminded them of their families’ own struggles as refugees who escaped from Palestine to Jordan before coming to the United States.

That summer, the U.S. and Russia-brokered truce had unraveled and the conflict was once again claiming lives. Nofal and Mabruk were sharing updates about the conflict on their Facebook pages and were frustrated by how little American media seemed to care about the issue.

“We were talking that day about how we can find a new way to talk about these issues,” said Nofal, now 24 years old. “Situations like Syria were not being talked about enough. We wanted to shed light on issues around the world that were being pushed under the rug, but in a cool way.”

They came up with Wear The Peace, a stylish clothing company that donates both money and clothing to organizations in Chicago and in the Middle East. For every T-shirt or sweatshirt bought from their online store, the pair donate a piece of clothing to someone in need. They also donate 100 percent of their profits from the sale of their jewelry, hats and other accessories to groups like the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund and Helping Hand for Relief and Development. In total, they’ve donated over 8,000 pieces of clothing and raised over $10,000 for organizations since their founding in 2016. 

Borderless Magazine spoke to Nofal and Mabruk, who is also now 24, about their business and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their work.

Photo courtesy of Wear the Peace. 

Borderless: Both of your families come from Palestine and that seems to play a big role in your designs. How do your products combine fashion and heritage? 

Mabruk: We hold our heritage close to our hearts because we can’t go back to our own country. We use our heritage in the designs, but also keep it general as well to reach a larger audience. 

Nofal: Our heritage is really important to pass down to our kids. We cherish our grandparents’ stories and we are born with our pride for Palestine. For our products we included the keffiyeh pattern, which is on our windbreakers, hoodies and shirts. This pattern symbolizes the journey to freedom. We think it should be a worldwide symbol of the journey to freedom for every single human. We also focus on Arabic calligraphy like our “Salam” [peace] design and our “Hob” [love] necklaces and bracelets. We try to spread awareness of peace through our clothing. 

Borderless: You now have over 136,000 followers on Instagram and are reaching people around the world. What has that global audience meant for your business?

Nofal: It is cool because you put in all this work and it is getting recognized. We have friends that would Snapchat us that they are on the train and they see someone wearing a Wear The Peace shirt. It makes my day. I also have friends in Arkansas who went to prayer and saw three people wearing our shirts. It feels good. 

Mabruk: I have my cousins in Jordan whose friends are sharing our posts without knowing it’s their cousins that own it. It is cool to hear. It is great going to big events and seeing people come up to our booth telling us they see us on social media. 

Photo courtesy of Wear the Peace. 

Borderless: What has your company funded so far?

Nofal: We try to focus on a lot of food-based projects, clothing, medical facilities, and educational centers. We have donated to organizations such as Cradles to Crayons, The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund and Helping Hand for Relief and Development.

We thought of our Yemen Instagram campaign during Ramadan of 2019. We set up the clothes and we made a donation for every person who shared the post. The point of that post was to give people an outlet to share and donate to Yemen and also learn what is going on there. Within the first 36 hours it caught like wildfire and raised around $48,000 dollars. We were able to donate 15,086 meals and got 297 food packages that fed a family in Yemen for a whole month. It was an awesome initiative. 

We worked with Pious Projects, which also partnered up with Mercy Bakery in Yemen. They sent us a video from Yemen thanking us by displaying a banner of Wear The Peace in the kitchen where they made the food as well as where the children were eating. That was our proudest moment, seeing that video. We have made friendships through Wear The Peace around the states, in person, and on social media, and meeting up with people at events. 

Borderless: How has your business been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Mabruk: We were supposed to go to Houston last week and D.C in two weeks. But those events were canceled. Our way to get our message out there is through selling the clothing, so having those events canceled has an effect on our business.

In terms of sales, I think people are scared to spend their money right now. We have seen a small decrease in sales, and I think in the coming month we may see even more as people start to panic as the number of cases rise. 

Nofal: It is also affecting our manufacturers, which are all local. It is affecting what we have planned out in terms of new collections and styles we were going to announce. We can’t do photoshoots anymore. It is slowing everything down, but it is what it is. Many businesses are taking a hit right now. But we will get through it and I hope everybody gets through it because many businesses are taking a hit right now. 

Mabruk: We are also thinking about the people we serve, especially refugees. Most people who are not refugees or less fortunate have a house to go to. They social distance as they please. With refugees, they are stuck inside refugee camps where they might be in rooms with 10 to 15 people. If one person gets sick, it can easily spread through the whole refugee camp. Regular people have that blessing because they can social distance as they please, be comfortable in their own homes and have access to essentials, such as food and sanitation. Those who are in their homes safe during this virus should be thankful. 

 

Have questions about the coronavirus and how to protect yourself from COVID-19? Read the CDC’s guide to the coronavirus here.

 

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The Dish

Serbian home style cooking brought to life on Chicago’s North Side

Astoria Cafe and Bakery owner Tanja Jeftenic, pictured in her Irving Park cafe that serves Serbian cuisine, on Dec. 10, 2019. Photo by Michelle Kanaar

The Dish is our series on immigrant community businesses in Chicago. In 2016, immigrant-owned businesses in Chicago generated $659 million in income, according to a joint report from the Chicago Mayor’s Office and New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization. 

Want to share your story with us? Reach out to us at michelle@borderlessmag.org

When you come to Astoria Bakery and Cafe in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, the first thing you’ll notice is the komplet lepinja.

“When people come in here they say they’ve never had anything like that before. I had one lady from out of town who said, ‘Oh my God, Chicago, never mind the deep dish pizza. Komplet lepinja is where it’s at,’” says Astoria Bakery and Cafe owner Tanja Jeftenic. “It’s very unique, no one else has it [in Chicago]. It’s kinda the poor man’s dish, but it’s so delicious.” Komplet lepinja consists of a homemade bun filled with Serbian cream cheese and an egg that is covered with roasted pork and its juice and then baked. 

Jeftenic was born in Serbia (at the time Yugoslavia) and moved with her parents to the United States in 1999 when she was fifteen. The family lived in Texas briefly and then moved to Detroit. They didn’t speak English, so she and her mother first started working at a bakery owned by a Serbian woman, called Gibbons Bakery.

Eventually, both her parents found work as engineers in the auto industry, but then lost their jobs during the auto industry crisis. During this time, the woman who owned Gibbons Bakery had passed away and the bakery sat empty for some time. Jeftenic’s parents couldn’t find new jobs so they decided to create their own. She and her mother, Snjezana Jeftenic, re-opened Gibbons bakery in 2010. 

Soon after, Jeftenic’s father became ill. The family didn’t have insurance and the bills piled up. “We ended up losing our home and our car got repossessed,” she says. “Basically we took all of our belongings and packed them up in a U-Haul. We didn’t know anyone here [in Chicago] so we just came and pulled up in front of a Serbian church.” A man who worked there helped them find a place to stay. For two weeks the family had to live out of a truck parked on the same street, Irving Park Rd., where Jeftenic eventually opened her new cafe and bakery serving Serbian cuisine in 2017. 

Framed photos cover the walls of Astoria Cafe and Bakery today: A variety of food, friends, and celebrities including Maluma, the Colombian singer. The cafe is busy with people seated for lunch and others picking up orders from the bakery. Behind the scenes, Snjezanar is doing the cooking. “She’s not a professional cook,” says Jeftenic about her mother, “these are the recipes she uses at home.” The two plan to open a second location this year.

Astoria Cafe and Bakery is located at 2954 W Irving Park Rd. in Chicago and is open Wednesday through Sunday.

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The Dish

Indian and Mexican flavors meet in Pilsen

This week we’re introducing The Dish, our series on immigrant community businesses in Chicago. In 2016, immigrant-owned businesses in Chicago generated $659 million in income, according to a joint report from the Chicago Mayor’s Office and New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization. 

Want to share your story with us? Reach out to us at michelle@borderlessmag.org

Casa Indigo chef and owner Mer Mansuria (right) pictured with his brother-in-law Alberto Landeros, who has worked at Casa Indigo since it opened, and even before then he helped to set up and decorate the space. Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Casa Indigo

“Our whole soul of cooking here is based on street food in Mexico City,” says Mer Mansuria, the chef and owner of Casa Indigo, which opened last year in Pilsen, on Chicago’s Lower West Side. 

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs to Indian parents, Mansuria wasn’t introduced to a “real” taco until he moved to the city to study at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He still remembers his first bite of a steak taco at De Pasada. “Oh my goodness, I’ll never forget that feeling. It was steak, salsa verde, onion, cilantro and lime on the side.”

Since then he has been exposed to a lot more Mexican food through his wife, who grew up in Pilsen and whose parents are from Michoacán and Mexico City. “All the women in their family and my family are amazing cooks, and that’s where our flavors, recipes, techniques, history of food and love of food come from,” says Mansuria, who incorporates Indian spices and masala into the Mexican food on the menu. “We’ve tried to do chili rellenos but, hers [his mother-in-law’s] are way better.”

“Everyone who works here is a family member,” says Mansuria as he points to the two men behind the counter who are his brothers-in-law. “We’re all about our community, our neighborhood.”

Casa Indigo is located at 1314 W 18th St in Chicago and is open Monday through Saturday.

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