Bright Food Shop and Kitchen Market
In New York City, you can usually find anything you want or need around the corner from your apartment. This convenience added to the lure of Manhattan when I was looking for a new neighborhood to call home. But when I got here it seemed harder to embrace my Chelsea neighborhood than I had hoped.
My launderer next door ripped me off, overcharging me for every pound of underwear I brought for cleaning; the florist with the most fashionable designs arrived late the day of my first formal party; and the Italian grocer around the corner chased me out of his store one day demanding money for the roasted red pepper canape I ate that I thought was a sample. I learned quickly that in New York you can get anything you want at any time and you can even have it delivered, but you just might have to fight for it. There is enough business to go around that the shops need not vie for mine.
There are a few shops in my neighborhood though that serve without an attitude. The Bright Food Shop, a restaurant, and its sister shop Kitchen/Market, a grocery-cum-take-out burrito shop, occupy a corner and a storefront on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. Until recently a candy store nestled between the two. No matter from which side you enter, you are greeted with a friendly smile; but depending on which side you enter you may exit with anything from a palate sated with Mexican-Asian fusion to take-out burritos, groceries for an evening of cooking at home, or a gift for your most quirky friend.
The façade of the Bright Food Shop sports blue “brick” siding and a temperamental neon sign that on any given night may read BRIGHT FOOD SHO-, BRIGHT FO-D SHOP or –RIGHT FOOD SHOP. To passersby, the view through the sidewalk-to-ceiling windows reveals a sentimental scene. Pink tiled walls, an open kitchen, and a long Formica counter with stools, evoke dreams of grilled cheese, milkshakes, frilly-aproned waitresses and bottomless cups of coffee. The reality is incongruent to the vision, but no less pleasing.
While the Bright Food Shop shouts diner on the outside, the menu sings of cultures that are worlds away. A colorful staff delights in presenting Mexican-Asian fusion options that are there for more than shock value. For over ten years, the Bright Food Shop has proven that the ingredients of Mexican and Asian food harmonize in ways that, in careful combination, heighten both cuisines.
Uncommon pairings achieve complexity through alternate layers of sweet and salty, smoky and hot. Succulent grilled turkey medallions glisten with a tamarind cider glaze that works alongside wasabi mashed potatoes. No one is afraid of flavor at the Bright Food Shop. Gingered mustard greens balance a rich cornbread and pepita-crusted catfish with tomatillo avocado sauce. Another standout piquant sauce, chipotle peanut, accompanies moo shu Mex vegetable handrolls. Cascabel tequila butter lovingly melts over filets of trout that I can’t help but give due recognition by obsessively arranging every forkful with soy-sautéed broccoli raab and several toasted crushed pecans. I shamefully ignore my companion until the trout is gone.
Caesar salad–finally on a Mexican menu, where it belongs–is an inspired interpretation of sweet romaine, piled high in a volcanic mound with ash-like shards of blue corn tortilla strips adorning the peak. Crumbly cotija Mexican cheese and chile cornbread croutons add a precise blend of spice and salt, and revive the often-tired classic. Chicken satay tacos with cactus sage salsa successfully push the boundaries while solving the cocktail party problem of saucing the entire skewer of chicken by wrapping it in a trusty tortilla.
The Bright Food Shop reaches other-worldly levels of fusion at breakfast with smoked whitefish maki rolled in a tortilla with wasabi cream cheese and chile scrambled eggs that spirals in and out of Mexico and Asia without ever having to show its passport. Warm pastries satisfy the undeniable American in you, while the ancho butter never lets you forget where you are. Order the Mexican French toast of whole wheat tortillas to follow the maki and share with a friend and you’ll wish you were there every morning.
New Yorkers know the Bright Food Shop is a place where you go to eat good food, but locals quietly embrace it because it’s just the right place to really talk to a friend, or to simply take in the scenery alone at the counter. From the open kitchen a hallway runs through the back to connect the Bright Food Shop to Kitchen/Market and all day and night long short order cooks and practiced chefs shuttle ingredients and repartee from one to the other.
Kitchen/Market functions as a storeroom for the Bright Food Shop and for ambitious and curious home cooks around the city. Exotic ingredients from around the world line the length of one wall and make for a leisurely browsing alternative to Barnes & Noble. When I can’t return to Buffalo as often as I want, I head to Kitchen/Market to satisfy mouth watering desires for fast-food spice and pangs for home-cooked kindness.
The Market spans only about 10-by-20 feet, but hundreds of Mexican and Asian groceries huddle on the shelves. I find dried hibiscus flowers for Martha Stewart punches, endless varieties of chiles in pod, powdered and flaked forms, chocolates spiked with cayenne, forbidden black rice (prized so in ancient China that it was prohibited to all but the emperor), baskets of fresh jicama, chayote, and fresh Anaheim, serrano and jalapeno chiles. Canned and jarred ingredients imported from nearly every Latin American and many Asian countries are rounded out with several Native American, South African and European foods carefully chosen for attributes that compliment the mix. You’ll find tamarind paste from Thailand, ginger candies from Indonesia, nettle salsa from Tibet, goats milk caramel from Mexico, pineapple hot sauce from Peru, and chile citrus marinades from America’s own Bobby Flay.
And there’s corn. Masa harina flours for making tortillas include fine blue, coarse white heirloom, fine white and stone ground yellow. Choose from red, purple, blue, white or yellow hulking kernels of corn called posole, and even more variety in cornmeal: precooked white, coarse red and blue, roasted heirloom white, precooked white for empanadas and more. This dizzying spectrum is not just for me and my neighbors. Kitchen/Market runs a successful mail order business through a catalog and website that brings new meaning to the saying mi casa es su casa.
Next to the freezer that keeps a few cheeses, fresh tortillas and Mexican versions of Coca Cola, 7 Up, and Orange Crush, the front of the shop–and we’re talking now about a four-by six-foot area–houses el cheapo Mexican tchotkes. Freedom-inspiring bottle caps emblazoned with Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait share shelves year round with Day of the Dead paraphernalia. While waiting for an order, customers discover frightening mini skeleton-filled dioramas alongside Mexican cerveza trays, plastic rosaries, garden seeds for growing your own chiles, cookbooks, piñatas and kitchy cowboy lunchboxes.
A takeout counter lines the opposite wall. It’s where I go when I’m hungry, in a hurry or just plain need to be treated right. Kitchen/Market serves consistent California burritos, fresh salads, chilis and chips that highlight the Mexican ingredients on the shelves. Just like at the Bright Food Shop, they are at their best when toying with the traditional. Studied interpretations of classics range from favorites like the BLT burrito with thick-cut peppered bacon and chipotle mayonnaise to individual gingerbread cakes made with the hearty Mexican beer Negra Modelo.
According to the menus, the Bright Food Shop and Kitchen/Market are where the Southwest meets the Far East. The corner restaurant and storefront integrate ingredients from locales across the globe and transform them under the moniker of a neighborhood restaurant. While the spices may be from far off places and the food out of this world, it feels like home to me.
Minding the Stores…
In 1985, when Chi-Chi’s menu still defined the majority of the East Coast’s Mexican food vocabulary, Stuart Tarabour introduced Manhattan’s working class Chelsea neighborhood to California burritos with his small shop called Kitchen. Stuart hired Dona Abramson as one of Kitchen’s earliest cooks. With a shared vision for melding the cuisines of Mexico and Asia, Dona and Stuart gradually turned the shop into Kitchen/Market to include a grocery and gift section, and later purchased the Bright Food Shop, creating the fusion restaurant that is now in it’s eleventh year. Along the way the two married and today continue to run their mom-and-pop operation, never straying from their original inspiration but worlds apart from what the corner saw in years past.
Dona and Stuart are eager to admit that by no means did they open the Bright Food Shop, nor were they the first to serve food at that location. Neighbors assure them that their Bright Food Shop neon sign was erected as it stands today in 1938 and city records show that food has been served on the corner since at least 1907. While we can be sure that the dockworkers who populated the immigrant neighborhood during the first half of the 20th century were not feasting on Mexican Asian fusion, few of today’s regulars had ever stepped foot inside the decrepit diner it had become in the Eighties.
While careful to preserve architectural details of the original diner, Dona and Stuart departed from traditional diner fare and devised a Mexican Asian fusion menu earning them, if not inventor status, certainly early adopter status in New York’s food ranks. Stuart admits they didn’t invent fusion cuisine but acknowledges that sticking to their concept has served them well, “We’ve been here so long we remember recessions. We saw times when the economy dictated the menu and there were Italian restaurants that had quesadillas on their menus.” Dona and Stuart never treated their concept as a passing fancy but a simple outgrowth of their taste for Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican, South American and Southwestern foods.
Dona, a vegetarian and professional cook, understands the essential qualities of Mexican and Asian cooking but freely operates under the assumption that their customers expect to be surprised, admitting, “We’ve never said that we were traditional anything.” If Dona is no longer the cook behind the counter like she once was at the Bright Food Shop, she is more than ever the mind behind the menu, unable to allow the restaurant–like a child–to stray too far from its roots. One chef just barely squeaked by an aioli addition to the menu by adding to it the Mexican corn fungus cuitlacoche. Dona–like a mother–sets the boundaries. “Aioli with cuitlacoche is as Mediterranean as we’re going.”
Stuart believes success correlates directly to delivering higher than customers’ expectations. But customers appreciate more than food that is merely better; they love the element of surprise in Dona’s daring but learned combinations, and gladly accept them as a compliment to their refined taste. Customers often leave the restaurant shouting their thanks to the chef behind the counter, but I know first hand we walk away quietly wondering: How did they know that I’d just love a touch of chile in my key lime pie?
With a long-awaited expansion this spring, Dona and Stuart will reward their faithful customers, who wait for tables in long lines on busy evenings and weekend brunch hours. Instead of spilling out onto the sidewalk, customers will have a place to wait inside. Walls are coming down to make way for a bar and a larger dining room that will almost double the restaurant’s seating. The challenge, of course, will be to maintain the integrity of the food and the comfort of the atmosphere. But Dona and Stuart are ready to take on more than just the candy store next door and anxious for more of New York to someday soon call the Bright Food Shop and Kitchen/Market their own neighborhood favorites.
Kitchen/Market and Bright Food Shop
218 8th Avenue (at 21st Street)
New York, NY 10011