From Arepas to Chai

Venezuelan and South Asian immigrants have created hubs in lower Manhattan restaurants.

By @Alissa Escarce and Haneya Hasan Zuberi

When Luis Quintero opened El Cocotero restaurant in Chelsea in 2004, he expected that most of his clients would be American. Quintero had moved from Caracas to New York in 1985, and over those two decades he met just a handful of Venezuelan immigrants in the city.

Luis Quintero, owner of El Cocotero restaurant. Photo: Alissa Escarce

“I never thought about the Venezuelan community because I knew that we were not that many,” said Quintero. “So I opened with the idea of having a real Venezuelan place, for Americans.”

But over the last few years, Quintero has started thinking about the Venezuelan community a lot.

Violence, political turmoil, and shortages of basic goods have driven growing numbers of Venezuelans to emigrate. Venezuelans are currently the largest group of asylum seekers in the U.S., and many recent arrivals are landing in New York City.

Asylum seekers started coming to El Cocotero looking for legal help, and Quintero refers them to a local immigration lawyer. He hosts informal meetings at the restaurant after major events in Venezuela. In July, 2017, 2,600 Venezuelans voted at El Cocotero in an unofficial referendum against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s efforts to rewrite the country’s constitution.

“It’s so overwhelming,” said Quintero. “I see families moving into this area specifically, because it’s really tough to live in Venezuela right now.” He says many recent arrivals have come because of severe food shortages in their home country.

El Cocotero chef Nora prepares classic Venezuelan arepas. Photo: Haneya Hasan Zuberi

At El Cocotero, Quintero serves traditional Venezuelan dishes. There are arepas, sandwiches made from corn dough that’s prepared from scratch each day, and cachapas, a type of corn pancake. Quintero says the most popular dish is el pabellon criollo, a hearty plate of rice, beans, shredded beef, and plantains.

Robert Gonzalez, who moved from Venezuela to New York in 1999, said El Cocotero fills a role sometimes played by other countries’ consulates, connecting immigrants to resources. He said the Mexican and Colombian consulates, for example, “have health clinics. The Venezuelan consulate doesn’t have that.”

Gonzalez runs an informal support group for immigrants called Diálogo por Amor a Venezuela, or “Dialogue for Love of Venezuela.” About a dozen people meet each week in a park, down the street from El Cocotero, to eat and talk.

“It’s not a choice to move to New York, or move out of the country,” says Gonzalez. “So hearing the stories every week is painful, and there isn’t much we can do about that. But we can sit down and make people laugh for an hour, and be together, and share food.”

Next Stop: Chai

A 20 minute walk from El Cocotero lies another restaurant that serves as a regular meet-up spot for the South Asian immigrant community.

There may be a smaller population of South Asians living in Manhattan as compared to other New York boroughs. But at Dera restaurant in lower Manhattan, you will find no shortage of Pakistani and Indian customers.

The restaurant’s cuisine is not country-specific. A sign outside reads “Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali.”

Mujahid Ali, manager of Dera restaurant. Photo: Haneya Hasan Zuberi

Dera is always bustling with South Asians enjoying selections from the restaurant’s diverse menu appeasing their taste buds. In the later hours of the night, the restaurant turns into a hub for South Asian taxi drivers to bond over the restaurant’s famous $1 chai. The taxi drivers sing praises for the chai, which they say is made fresh for them each time they come.

Mujahid Ali, the restaurant manager elaborates “it’s our own recipe, we use some masalas and brew the tea for long in cow’s milk.”

Mujahid Ali holding jalebis. A popular sugar syrup soaked South Asian dessert made by adding food color to flour batter and then deep-frying in pretzel or circular shapes. Photo: Haneya Hasan Zuberi

It is interesting to see many Indian and Pakistani taxi drivers eating and having chai together at the restaurant. Since their conception in 1947, when the Indian Subcontinent was partitioned after the British colonial rule ended, both the countries share a harsh political past and present. They have fought four wars, numerous border skirmishes and military stand-offs.

But Dera regular Abrar Ali says those conflicts aren’t important in the U.S. “Indians and Pakistanis are only enemies when they are in their own countries. When they are abroad, they live together, eat together like friends,” said Ali, who is an Uber driver.

Gulab Jamuns are spongy milky balls that are soaked in sugar syrup.

All the meat entrees served at the restaurant are strictly halal (prepared as prescribed by the Islamic law where the animal is slaughtered using a sharp knife to ensure a deep cut causing minimal pain to the animal). Food prepared with authentic halal meat also attracts a lot of Muslims from around the world to the establishment.

Traditional South Asian meat entrees prepared in exotic spices. Photo: Haneya Hasan Zuberi

It is the pull masala chai and halal food that brings the South Asian community in lower Manhattan together.