A Back Room Taste of Mexico

For me, the ultimate thrill is when I get a chance to bring people together in a meaningful way. Over the past few years, I've hosted a number of dinners, cocktail parties and brunches in a sincere effort to put relevant people in the same room and help foster community.

The food biz is varied and diverse and while paths may cross from time to time, I've become much more deliberate about providing introductions. Monday evenings have become my favorite night for parties.


Why not?

It's typically a day off for most restaurant people and rarely conflicts with other events. As it turns out, Monday is a great night for this crowd.

It's no secret that I love a good party and when I read about Ina Garten hosting parties in her Barefoot Contessa shop, I became enamored with the idea of unconventional spaces. My own kitchen is the size of a postage stamp, and my tiny condo is not an ideal space (bad traffic flow), but I still like to entertain.

What if....I could find another space?

Then I met Michael Hebberoy. Michael is the man behind a famous (now defunct) underground restaurant in Portland, Oregon called Ripe. He'd have parties everywhere from farms to...my favorite: glass hot shops. In the hot shop, not only did he cook food in the blazing kilns used to turn glass into liquid, he'd pour molten hot glass down the middle of the table and sear fish on it!

Spaces and what you could do with them, suddenly became limitless. Place became less of a destination and turned into a central theme that could create a sense of drama and intrigue.

Today, I walk into warehouses, art galleries, factories, barns, beaches, boats and buildings still under construction and I think, "Let's have a party HERE!"

I love funky spaces.

On a party barge cruising around Lake Union, we celebrated my birthday under the watchful eye of the Space Needle. The boat, affectionately known as The White Trash, had all the necessary merrimaking goods - wigs, feather boas, and my favorite, a golden lame turban! Tying up with sailboats from the Seattle Yacht Club, they'd take one look at us and say, "You're on The Trash, right?"

Another time, thanks to Michael, we dined in an art gallery surrounded by a photo instillation titled, "Bad People Have to Eat Too." Since the space didn't have a functioning kitchen, the chef prepared dinner in the alley behind the gallery. Trust me, you can do wonders with mobile heat sources. With a grill or a butane-fired hot plate, you are no longer tied to a kitchen. The possibilities become endless....

A couple weeks ago, I joined friends for lunch. Afterward, Catherine and I stopped by Villa Victoria Catering to say hello. I was instantly drawn to the owner, Naomi Andrade Smith. Warm and engaging, she's the kind of woman who embodies history and knows her place in it. Her food is soul-satisfying with a depth of flavor that creates legends of lore.

Our first meeting was intended to be a quick hello. But standing in her prep kitchen, in a building destined for sale in the next couple weeks, it's debatable whether I fell in love with her...or the space first. That fall day, the air was crisp and the back door was propped open. The amber light streamed in, and then faded as the hours whiled away. We talked about everything from the beautiful hanging gardens in Mexico City to her family connection to Poncho Villa.

Eventually, the conversation touched on her battle with cancer and the struggle to keep her business alive. When the city eliminated parking in front of her street-side building to make way for an extra lane of traffic, that signaled the death knell for her business.

No parking?

No customers.

I had just met this treasure of a woman and her business would soon be closed. It broke my heart. Naomi was clearly a woman of passion, and built the kitchen of her dreams. But the numbers don't lie. And it was time to throw in the towel.

Then I broached the subject, "Naomi, we should have a party HERE!"

Feeling less than festive, and after knowing me for only a few hours, she surprised me. A quick shrug of her shoulders and she said, "Okay."

Determined not to let this opportunity to slip away, we immediately started planning the details. Based on all the lovely stories I'd been hearing, I asked her to create a menu that had meaning for her...and talk about those stories at dinner. She agreed.

Naomi left the guest list up to me, we settled on a price for dinner and within days, the e-mail went out. The dinner sold out in a flash, waitlisted, and then we decided to extend the table.

Throughout the week, Naomi and I compared notes about who had what -- she had the linens, plates, and most of the stemwere. I had a couple cases of wine glasses and a trip to Goodwill took care of providing silverware for 24 people.

The guest list turned into the stuff of my fantasies. It included food people who rarely get a chance to interact -- a mix of wine & cheese aficionados, publishing & event folks, restaurant owners, chocolatiers & chocolate reps, architects, tech gurus, photographers, private chefs and stellar home cooks.

As the momentum began to build, we were asked to film the dinner for an upcoming documentary. This crowd often has media attention and for one night, I wanted to create a space where they could come and enjoy each other, without the spot light. At some point, you realize...it's nice to just gather with your people and let your guard down....

No camera crew.

It's just us, thanks.

This past Monday -- just after Day of the Dead and before the Elections, we gathered for dinner. What was once a large storage room with racks of supplies, was transformed into our dining space. Naomi completed the look with a large mural of blue agavae from Mexico and decorated with a few furnishings from home.

The building now has a for sale sign affixed to it, and parking was half a block down at the Chinese restaurant. Guests entered through the busy kitchen, and were greeted here:

Catherine Reynolds gave us a hand with the last minute touches.

See the large yellow machine on the right? That's Naomi's very own coffee roaster.

Tropical fruit display (yes, it's real.)

Black table cloths, white plates and linen napkins added contrast. I like the look of the mismatched silverware, purchased from a thrift store (I've since bought more). The heavy Mexican silver bowl and chunky urn keep the Mexican theme and roses add a nice pop of color. Wine glasses were set up at a station near the door so folks could mix and mingle before dinner, and leave the table intact.

Samosas, anyone? The tray is lined with a banana leaf. We buy banana leaves at the Asian markets, and they come folded and frozen.

Candles, cut the main lights and you've got the makings for fun dinner conversations.

Steaming hot carne asada fajitas with house made tortillas and lime, shared family-style.

Carne asada tacos with poblano chiles.

Delicate rockfish meatball soup.

Naomi and her chicken en papillote.

Mike, a transplant from Texas, had been pining for good Mexican food. Craving...satisfied!

Guajillo/pasilla-marinated chicken en papillote...so tender it's falling off the bone.

Cactus, jicama & pomegranate salad and towards the back of the plate, that's coconut refried beans on plantains.

Warm rashers of candied pumpkin with ice cream. Later, Naomi served Mexican hot chocolate made with fresh raw milk and coffee from beans roasted that morning.

I love a good party and like the food geeks that we are, another dinner was being planned before we even left the table!

What's Naomi's next venture? With a lineage like hers -- rich and varied, and influenced by many cultures, my hope is that there's a book in her future. I want to read her memoirs and learn more about the family that left the oil-rich fields of Mexico during WWII. Arriving in the U.S., the only housing they could find was on a farm, previously occupied by Japanese, who were interned somewhere in a remote camp.

Naomi's food reflects her rich cultural background, and a seat at her table satisfies the soul.

Here's the full menu from our Villa Victoria dinner:

hot corn/epazote snack

carne asada tacos with poblano chiles

delicate rockfish meatball soup

guajillo/pasilla-marinated chicken en papillote

coconut refried beans

coastal-style rice with peas and carrots

cactus, jicama & pomegranate salad

warm rashers of candied pumkin with ice cream

hot Mexican chocolate