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Near the White House and feeling hungry? A celebration of immigrants is on the menu

by Jason Rezaian, Global Opinions Writer at Washington Post

D.C. inhabitants of and visitors to the nation’s capital both realize two things quickly.

First, if you have a problem with the policies of our national government, you shouldn’t feel shy about marching right up to the White House to express your views.

And second, once you’ve had your say, don’t expect to find anywhere good to eat nearby. The neighborhood around the People’s House is notorious for its lack of dining options.

A new restaurant project aims to provide a solution to the latter problem while inspiring a more informed political discussion about one of our most divisive issues. It’s called Immigrant Food. It’s so at odds with the current administration’s worldview that it’s sure to win a lot of customers among our city’s diverse (and politically conscious) citizenry.

Besides filling a culinary void in an area with a lot of hungry office workers and all-day foot traffic, the proximity to the White House makes it the ideal flagship shop for what its proprietors envision will eventually include outlets around the country.

“Needless to say, the location is also the perfect platform for advocating on behalf of the importance of immigrants and their critical role in America’s future,” says co-owner Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger.

Focusing on the role of immigrants in feeding this nation, while educating customers on how they can support causes and initiatives associated with immigration, is a key ingredient of what the team calls “gastro-advocacy.”

Immigrant Food is D.C.’s first cause-casual restaurant. We celebrate America’s story – the story of immigrants. Let’s unite at the table.

This is no gimmick, but rather a new approach to marrying food and politics by a team that knows about both.

Culinary inspiration comes from Enrique Limardo, the Venezuelan-born chef of the immensely popular Seven Reasons, which he and Vázquez-Ger opened earlier this year.

The menu Limardo developed is a series of bowls that combine flavor and spice profiles from sometimes vastly different cuisines, representing the ways different immigrant groups can affect, and enhance each other’s experiences.

“Immigrant Food has the ability to touch more people than a fine-dining establishment,” Limardo said. “I loved the challenge of combining cuisines that at first blush have little in common and creating a menu that’s truly one of a kind.”

One of his bowls is the Columbia Road, which fuses flavors from two of Washington’s biggest immigrant groups, Ethiopians and Salvadorans. Limardo says he has plans to craft similar homages to local cultures when Immigrant Food opens outlets in other cities.

The concept for the restaurant comes from an idea that Limardo and Vázquez-Ger’s business partner, Peter Schechter, the founding director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, had last year, as he watched what he calls a “shocking surge of negative rhetoric against immigrants.”

In addition to the innovative menu, Immigrant Food also infuses the dining experience with information about key immigration issues at what the team is calling the Think Table, a “micro-digital think tank aimed at people who are non-immigration experts but who want to learn more about this very complex issue,” Schechter said.

Through video, text and infographics, the immigration discussion is broken down into manageable bites, using clear English and hard numbers. Diners can engage with Immigrant Food’s nonprofit partners if they want to get more involved in supporting particular issues. Or if they’re just hungry, they can enjoy one of the signature bowls, such as a Mumbai Mariachi, a Lima Beijing, or a Beirut and Beyond.

While this “cause-casual” approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, for me it only added to the experience of what already felt like a very welcoming environment. That environment is enhanced by Immigrant Food’s employees, almost all of whom are immigrants to the United States. They hail from Cameroon, Venezuela, El Salvador, Colombia, Italy, Argentina, Belgium and Serbia.

Which brings to me one very important question: What will you do when Stephen Miller stops by for lunch?

“Ha! This is such a hypothetical question!” Schechter told me. “The chances of this happening are almost zero.”

Well, given the other options within stumbling distance of the West Wing, I wouldn’t be so sure. If he does walk in one of these days, I say serve him.

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