The Austin Chronicle

The Hybridity Principle

A diverse, ambitious crop of restaurateurs is feeding Austin's cosmopolitan cravings

By Rachel Feit, October 25, 2002, Food

At the Airport Haven restaurant on Airport Boulevard, you can now drive up to their takeout window and order a samosa with your hamburger. At the Pacific Star Restaurant in far North Austin, you can order a coctel de camarones as an appetizer before your gumbo. Downtown, you can visit the Hot Jumbo Bagel Company by day for a kosher bagel and lox, while by night you can revisit the restaurant for a Lebanese meat pie and some Russian pelmeni. This is not nouveau cuisine; this is not fusion food. Rather, this is authentic ethnic dining. It's part of a strange restaurant phenomenon taking hold in Austin. Hybrid restaurants -- places that offer more than one type of ethnic cuisine from the same kitchen -- are becoming increasingly visible in the city's dining scene.

The idea of the hybrid is not unfamiliar to the American cultural experience. After all, many of us consider ourselves cultural mutts, of mixed ancestry and ethnicity. The oft-invoked melting pot metaphor that has been circulating for several generations now underscores the diversity of cultural backgrounds embodied within the nation. In the realm of cuisine, fusion food -- the icon of new American gastronomy for the 1980s and 1990s -- grew out of precisely this intermingling of traditions. But the melting pot metaphor has failed of late to capture the persistence of discrete foreign traditions -- just as fusion food is rapidly becoming boring to many diners. In today's deterritorialized landscape, raw ethnicity (rather than assimilation) is a source of pride for many Americans, even if that ethnicity consists of competing identities. Anthropologists now use the term "hybridity" to capture the complex, simultaneous identities emerging out of today's transnational networks. Hybridity bespeaks our country's multiple personalities. In practical terms, hybridity is Buffet Palace.

A trip to the new Buffet Palace at the Westgate Shopping Center in some ways epitomizes the hybrid restaurant experience. This third outlet, in a thriving local chain, seems to have hit upon a secret formula for success. The architect-designed space is daring and sophisticated, with bamboo veneer, gleaming chrome accents, and bold colors. It's simple and airy, yet suffused with the quality the Chinese call renao: conviviality and warmth. In the center of this elegant space is a lavish shrine to consumption excess. The buffet sprawls across the floor, overflowing with food from at least three nations. Here, kimchi is displayed beside sushi, Korean bulgoki glimmers beside General Tso's chicken and beef with broccoli. Soba noodles jostle for space with thick egg drop soup. The concept behind the Buffet Palace is to target as many different types of people as possible with foods that are authentic, visually enticing, and diverse -- to create a pan-Asian restaurant not unlike places in the owner's Korean homeland. The concept is working. The Buffet Palace generally overflows with customers representing just about every corner of the globe.

Whereas the newest Buffet Palace is sleek and elegant, and reeks of cash, most other hybrid restaurants in Austin are little mom and pop style places operating on a shoestring budget. Many of the owners I talked to cited purely economic reasons as a prime motivator for their choice to mix and match cuisine types. Maria Castro of the Highlands Cafe in Lakeway, for instance, worried about the viability of a South American restaurant in Austin. She felt that she might attract a broader clientele if she offered more than just home cooking from her native Bolivia. So when she bought the former ZZ's gourmet pizza cafe space along RM 620, she kept the recipes the original owners developed for the restaurant. Now she makes pizza dough, tomato sauce, and flavored coffees daily, in addition to the delicious meat-stuffed arepas, arroz con pollo, and moros of South America. Her Puerto Rican husband also contributes recipes from his homeland. Castro's customers seemed surprised when she first introduced the South American menu, but now they return for her homemade empanadas and gourmet coffee.

Johnny Matin of the Airport Haven/Spicy Tandoor Restaurant offered the same explanation for why he decided to continue serving hamburgers with the North Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi food he loves to cook. Initially, the restaurant was a partnership between the Airport Haven owners and himself. He liked the idea of keeping the hamburgers on the menu in order to continue to attract the restaurant's well-established burger lovers. "It's a way to introduce many of the hard-core burger-eaters to new foods," says Matin, who wants to keep the menu international. He has even added some Arabic specialties such as stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanouj, and shwarma. The result is that many customers, who go there for one type of cuisine, leave having tried another. Since they opened, they've had about a 60% conversion rate. But this culinary crossover also works both ways. Matin notes that many of his Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi clientele also order hamburgers. They even have a Halal hamburger for strict Muslims.

Lawrence Equakun of the World Beat Cafe offers a slightly different story for why he chose to feature not just African dishes, but also Caribbean foods and hamburgers. The onetime world music DJ and show promoter came up with the name World Beat Cafe before he ever even opened his doors. Though he originally envisioned cooking foods from his native Nigeria, he "decided that the name should reflect the menu." So he called on his Caribbean friends to help create some recipes. Other friends contributed recipes from Ghana and Ethiopia. Finally, he added hamburgers so that the cafe remained safely within the "comfort level" of less adventurous eaters. Like Matin, Equakun has witnessed an initially timid clientele of hamburger-eaters slowly convert to the Afro-Caribbean menu. But he, too, is committed to maintaining the international spirit of the menu, and hopes to eventually add recipes from other parts of the globe.

A veteran of the hybrid restaurant scene, Mohammed Kosari tells yet another tale. He currently operates the Persian restaurant Alborz, but he formerly operated three different food stalls in Northcross Mall's food court. Kosari says that he earned his stripes in the restaurant business working for Mr. Gatti's. Hence, when it came time to venture out on his own, he naturally began with pizza. From pizza he branched out to tacos, and only once these businesses were established did he begin to consider offering food from his native Iran. The pizza ovens from his Cozzoli's pizza stand were perfect for making Persian flatbread, so it was easy to begin experimenting with the recipes. When Chelo Kabob, the Persian precursor to Alborz, opened out of the Taco Arriba stall in Northcross' food court, it instantly began to attract attention from curious diners, and eventually the Chelo Kabob half of the stall became a destination in itself.

What these restaurant owners share is a certain ingenuity in creating and marketing a viable business in a perilous industry. Until recently, Austin comprised a small, relatively homogenous ethnic community. It was simply not viable for many ethnic restaurants to survive in an environment where eating ethnic food meant taking a trip to El Patio or Jaime's Spanish Village. Though Austin is beginning to attain the kind of multinational population that can support diverse cuisines, the problem for many small business owners remains the high start-up costs versus the uncertainty of success. With commercial kitchen rents skyrocketing across the city, and corporate restaurant chains saturating the market, it is becoming harder and harder for small-business people to make ends meet in the restaurant world. However, by getting together and doubling up, many entrepreneurs are making it work. The Cleopatra Nights Russian Tea Room is a case in point. This late-night Friday and Saturday snack shop takes advantage of the unused cafe and kitchen space at the Hot Jumbo Bagel Company, which closes in the early afternoon. The Tea Room features belly dancing, hookahs, and a Russian/Middle Eastern menu into the wee hours on weekends. With the Hot Jumbo Bagel Company's infrastructure already in place, this arrangement offered the Tea Room's Middle Eastern owner a low-risk opportunity to foray into the restaurant business. In exchange, the Hot Jumbo Bagel Company's owner receives extra income for the use of the space.

Economics and practicality aside, the proliferation of hybrid restaurants in Austin signals a definite trend in the collective outlook of our community. What's amazing is the way in which hybrid restaurants reflect the city's increasingly multiethnic food cravings. The mere fact that there are so many multiethnic restaurants implies a willingness not just to view our society as a melting pot, but to accept the integrity of foreign foodways as American ones. Hence, we hardly bat an eye over a hamburger joint that also serves tandoori chicken. We accept it as part of what one cultural critic called the bizarre "web of cosmopolitanisms" that characterize our community.

Back at the World Beat Cafe, a student has just left with a to-go order of a hamburger and fries. In the corner, watching the big-screen TV, is a tattooed, body-pierced white couple devouring the Ethiopian Vegetarian Combo, while at another table, a well-dressed African-American couple enjoy the Nigerian jollof rice and egusi soup with yam fu fu. "When people eat your food, it is a blessing," says Equakun. Food lovers in Austin also count their blessings to be a part of such a dynamic community. end story

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