An Interview with Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets
Andy Shallal is an Iraqi-American artist, activist, and restaurateur. He is the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants, with locations in the DC-area that provide the community with a multicultural gathering place. At some locations, their in-house bookstores provide customers with an opportunity to peruse a diverse selection of reading materials. An intriguing conversation over chamomile tea at the new Brookland location revealed that Andy is as passionate about travel as he is about food and often ventures overseas to discover authentic ingredients and dishes.
What inspired the establishment of Busboys and Poets?
Busboys and Poets was founded in 2005. Part of the reason why I founded this place was that I wanted a space that feels like home away from home, a space that represents the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-age aspects of the city; a space that represents the city that I live in – Washington, DC. A lot of times, I feel that DC is overshadowed by the federal government, we don’t really have an identity of our own. When people think of DC, they think of Congress, the monuments, the Smithsonian – they don’t know the neighborhoods that make this city so vibrant. I wanted to create a space that is not a cookie-cutter space, one that has its own DC identity – bringing art, culture, race, and politics under one roof where the city can intersect and interact with each other.
How has your background influenced the culinary choices at Busboys and Poets?
I am from the Middle East, from Iraq originally. We serve hummus at Busboys, but hummus has become an American food. It is interesting how ethnic foods become a part of our culture – like pizza! I wanted to serve food that is well sourced and accessible, that is not complicated and that’s very tasty and very healthy.
“Part of the reason why I founded this place was that I wanted a space that feels like home away from home, a space that represents the multi-cultural, multi ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-age aspects of the city, a space that represents the city that I live in – Washington, DC.”
What is the motivation behind the many vegan and vegetarian dishes served at Busboys and Poets?
Vegan and vegetarian food is really important to us because there are a lot more people that are interested in veganism and vegetarianism. It has become an important part of the American diet as more people are becoming aware of the health and environmental factors that our food system contributes to and want to eat healthy and explore different options. We have expanded the menu over time so that we have several vegan options.
Can you share your favorite meal at Busboys and Poets?
I try not to have a favorite, because part of my job is to be the quality control person. I have a very wide ranging palette and I don’t want to serve things that I am not familiar with and haven’t tried and feel good about, because even if you don’t like vegan food for example, you know when something tastes good. Each dish is like a canvas, like a painting and all cultures know that the eyes eat first and if it looks good, it tastes better.
Our blackened salmon is one of the best dishes we have, you would love it! I like hearty meals and the fresh corn salsa, lemon buttery sauce and the wild rice served with it is really delicious. For dessert, we have a dark-chocolate layered cake and I love it because I’m a chocolate freak. The chocolate is sourced from Divine Chocolate and is organic and Fairtrade. Our best-selling dessert is the bread-pudding that we make in-house. It is made from white chocolate and banana and is served with a toasted coconut ice-cream – it’s like a Caribbean vacation.
Where are your three favorite culinary travel destinations?
I had some of the best meals of my life in Istanbul, Turkey. The freshness of the food was incredible. The fish, tomatoes, cucumbers – everything – was so fresh. It’s very fattening food though, I gained five pounds. I ate black figs that were that big [pointing to the teapot]. I went to a market and ate one the day before we left and got so sick – because I didn’t wash it. I was so sick on the plane that there was an ambulance waiting for me when we landed in Paris.
When we went to Bologna, Italy, we visited a tortellini factory and it was amazing watching them seal the little tortellini. All the tortellini is made by hand and watching it is incredible. My favorite was one that had a ricotta and mozzarella filling, and the meat sauce and bread were so good.
I ate street food in Cairo, Egypt. I ate foole, the bean dip that they sell on the sidewalks; the falafel, the chicken – the food was phenomenal. Foole is a common Egyptian dish, it is eaten as a breakfast food since it holds you up for a good part of the day. We serve it here actually; it is like a bean dip: beans, jalapenos, lemon juice, and olive oil. You eat it with warm pita bread. They have foole stands like hot-dog stands all over and I was trying to find the best foole vendor, which I did and it was everything I’d dreamed of, it was fabulous.
What is one dish that you love to cook?
I make great spaghetti and meatballs. My meatballs are fabulous – I put just the right amount of basil, oregano, really good bread crumbs, cheese, meat, and organic eggs. I think if you use good products, it comes out really good. I fry them in a shallow pan and let them harden just a little bit, not all the way, and then I dump them in the sauce so they absorb the flavors. I do love food!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gia Coelho was born in India and holds an MBA in Marketing. She lived in Toronto and has traveled extensively in India and Europe. She now lives outside Washington DC and pursues passions that include wildlife conservation, writing, culinary adventures, painting, and creating colorful Zentangle art that she sells on her Etsy site at www.etsy.com/shop/giacoelho.
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