Nostalgia drives a wave of new restaurants and delivery stores

There’s a hint of nostalgia in a new wave of Chinese take-out and full-service restaurants in Palm Beach County. But it’s not the nostalgia of Chinese immigrants yearning for their homeland. In part, it’s a state of New York nostalgia.

This is a wave of Chinese food restaurants and delivery operations opened by Chinese food lovers who are not Chinese. But while their dishes may not offer Chinese authenticity, their collective appreciation of take-out classics and Americanized dim sum offers locals a chance to share the desire.

Think Chef Eric Baker’s new restaurant, Mr. Goode’s Chinese Takeout in Boca Raton. It is inspired by “a little piece of my childhood”, explains the native of New York.

“When I think of Chinese food, I think of a home setting, places where my family and friends would gather to eat. Great spring rolls and dumplings and hot and sour soup,” says Baker, a French-trained chef and veteran of gourmet restaurants.

He describes the menu at Mr. Goode’s, a full-service restaurant he opened with business partner David Bouhadana, as his take on Chinese-American cuisine from his childhood on Long Island. With a chef’s touch, of course.

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At Mr. Goode's Chinese take-out restaurant in Boca Raton, chef Eric Baker riffs on his childhood memories of Americanized Chinese suppers.

Baker uses New York strip loin for the Mongolian beef, smokes the BBQ back ribs on the spot and adds pastrami to his house special fried rice.

“Right now takeout is the majority of the business,” says Baker, who spent time in Xi’an, China, where he taught English while in college.

Mr. Goode’s menu offers a nod to that era: the Xi’an-inspired seared cumin lamb bao.

Chinese takeout might seem like a departure for the chef who also owns gastropub Rebel House, Uncle Pinkie’s Jewish-style deli and global izakaya AlleyCat. But nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Memories spark new restaurants

Pork and shrimp shumai are served at Pagoda Kitchen in suburban Delray Beach.

A desire for unpretentious, Americanized Chinese cuisine prompted another South County restaurateur, Burt Rapoport, to open Pagoda Kitchen in suburban Delray Beach in February.

When restaurateurs Angelo Abbenante and Scott Frielich pondered Blackbird, their next modern Asian-inspired restaurant and lounge in Jupiter, both brought up similar childhood memories at a favorite Chinese restaurant in the Lake Worth area.

“When we started talking about this new concept, we both thought ‘Oriental Express!’ at the same time,” says Abbenante, who hopes to open Blackbird in early October. “It was a staple of the 80s and 90s. We said, ‘This is what we want.’ We wanted the red pork spare ribs and all the old school food we remembered. For me it was the ribs. You put them in the bag and they were so meaty.

Sichuan ribs, presented in a smoked glass cloche, are on the menu at the upcoming Blackbird restaurant in Jupiter.

Says Frielich: “Our idea initially was to do old-fashioned Chinese, the crispy spring rolls and the really red spare ribs and the chicken lo mein.”

This was before their partner Cleve Mash and chef/partner Tim Nickey presented a more modern take on Blackbird and, says Frielich, “we fell in love with what [Nickey] was doing.”

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Chinese takeaways are the key

Still, the partners agree that takeout will be a big part of the plan once Blackbird is up and running.

“Chinese takeout is perfect for Sunday night family dinner,” says Abbenante.

Hot in the La Cajita China ghost kitchen wok and delivery service: chorizo, churrasco and lo mein prawns.

Chinese-inspired takeaways are also the focus of chef Felix Ayala’s 6-month-old ghost kitchen, La Cajita China. In Spanish, the name describes the traditional “paper bucket” boxes that Chinese restaurants use for takeout and delivery.

What Ayala puts in the boxes may not be authentic Chinese, but it is authentic to his nostalgia for the “Chino-criollo” flavors of Puerto Rico, where he grew up and lived until 2017. He adds Caribbean flavors to its fried rice and stir-fries as well as its Latin version of lo mein.

La Cajita started out as a brick and mortar restaurant in San Juan. But in September 2017, Hurricane Maria took over.

“We have lost everything. Even the panels floated,” says Ayala, who had trained at the now-closed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Las Vegas. “I moved to Lake Worth to live with my sister, with $200 and a dream.”

Felix and Omayra Ayala own La Cajita China, a ghost kitchen and delivery service offering Puerto Rican-inspired Chinese cuisine.

After working other jobs, he and his wife Omayra Ayala opened La Cajita China in February. It is a four-person operation that focuses its deliveries on central and western areas including Greenacres, Palm Springs, Lake Worth Beach and parts of Wellington. They take their orders by direct message on Instagram @LaCajitaChina.

“We use good ingredients and cook to order. Nothing is pre-made or frozen,” says the New Jersey-born, San Juan-raised chef. “Right now, our regular customers are people who have tried our food for the first time and have gone crazy about it.”

One such regular customer is Geoffrey Yao, owner of the famous Fortune Cookie Oriental supermarket in West Palm Beach. This is where Zavala sources many of its Cajita China ingredients.

Yao, the US-born son of Taiwanese parents, describes Ayala’s food as having “more of a Spanish flavor”.

“I really like his food and order it a lot,” Yao says. “I’m willing to try other people’s styles. That’s how you become a foodie.

Owner Geoffrey Yao calls a customer at his Fortune Cookie Market in West Palm Beach.  The market attracts a mix of chefs and home cooks, and it's not uncommon for customers to swap tips and knowledge about different dishes and ingredients.

But Yao also thinks you have to know the rules before you can break them.

“You have to know what the original tastes like,” he says. “I meet newcomers who want to cook Chinese food and I say, ‘but you’ve never been to my country and you don’t know how it really tastes’.”

He encourages new chefs who shop at his store to travel to cities with a larger population of Chinese residents and restaurants that serve more authentic Chinese cuisine.

Yao approaches more local Chinese inspirations as individual interpretations.

“You have a recipe. I have a recipe. The execution is always different,” he says.

Dim sum dreams

Born and raised in New York, chef Robbie Richter is well versed in the type of Chinese cuisine that Yao is referring to. But long before he opened the new Royal Palms Dim Sum Club, a 3-month-old Cantonese-inspired catering business in Palm Beach County, Richter was a respected Texas barbecue pitmaster.

He helped launch New York’s Hill Country barbecue restaurant in 2007. From there, Richter moved on to Brooklyn’s Fatty’ Cue, a Malaysian-inspired barbecue restaurant, for about a year.

“Since then, I’ve been in love,” says Richter, with East and Southeast Asian cuisine.

An array of dishes from the Royal Palms Dim Sum Club catering by chef Robbie Richter.

His new restaurant business focuses on dim sum and Americanized Chinese classics. He also applies his barbecue experience to dishes that include char siu pork marinated for 48 hours.

“This is strictly a restoration operation. I come to your house and try to recreate an authentic dim sum parlor experience,” says Richter, who hosts parties of four to 40 people.

When he first started the business, locals thought it was a dim sum restaurant, he says.

“I was getting calls from people for restaurant reservations. They were so enthusiastic about it. I felt so bad,” Richter says.

Enthusiasm, nostalgia, call it what you want. But the surge in interest in Chinese-inspired cuisine has proven to be a boon for the dim-sum caterer.

“I made many contacts,” says Richter, “and many of them made reservations for catered functions.”

Local resources

Here’s a guide to the restaurants and food businesses featured in this story.

Mr. Goode’s Chinese takeaways: Full-service restaurant and take-out at 1159 S. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-931-2131, MrGoodes.com

La Cajita China: Ghost kitchen and delivery operation serving Greenacres, Palm Springs, Lake Worth Beach and parts of Wellington, 561-584-0958, on Instagram @LaCajitaChina

Pagoda Kitchen: Full-service restaurant with take-out and delivery at 14917 Lyons Road, No. 100, Delray Beach, 561-229-1770, PagodaKitchen.com

Royal Palms Dim Sum Club: Restaurant operation offering a dim sum experience at RoyalPalmsDimSum.com, 718-813-7404

Modern Asian Robin: Expected to open this fall at 1511 N. Old Dixie Hwy., Jupiter, BlackbirdModernAsian.com

Fortune Cookie Oriental Supermarket: East Asian specialty market frequented by local chefs at 2700 Forest Hill Blvd., West Palm Beach, 561-433-5818

About Octavia A. Dorr

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