Harvest and Honey

An open-ended love letter, culinarily inspired.

little burro

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Tucked away on the back side of the busiest neighborhood on Hong Kong island, the old abandoned cake shop waited quietly. Amidst the hustle and bustle of one of the most high-energy, fast-paced cities in the world, it waited; a darkened oasis of quiet in the jungle of lights, (cameras) and action. It waited for its next inhabitants, for the noise to return. Abandoned, vacant, empty. It waited to come to life again. 

It needed a good spit shine, sure, but seemed promising nonetheless. Just out back, through the narrow shop and past the prep area and kitchen, sat a beautifully grimy yard lying fallow, untouched for some time. Perfectly imperfect. Across the street there was a Japanese matcha frozen yogurt shop with a perpetual line around the block. On one side of the former cake shop, sat the Indonesian embassy. On the other side was a hole-in-the-wall bar that had been there for 14 years. The owner: an ex-corporate chef who just wanted to do something different. In addition to beers on tap and Japanese whiskeys, the chef had also created a secret food menu that featured dishes such as clams in white wine sauce and sautéed chicken breast. And so, there amongst the bar, yogurt shop, and embassy, on a street bustling with people from all over the world, the little abandoned cake shop sat, and waited. 

Years ago, when my friend Roger told me that he was moving to Hong Kong, I immediately tried to imagine myself there, what it would be like, look like, smell like, sound like. It seemed so far away that I struggled in my imagining. Scanning, scanning …  my mind tried to relate to it, to the foreign land that he would soon call Home. I do that any time someone I know moves somewhere. I try to imagine myself there, to imagine what it might feel like to experience it in all the ways you experience a new place. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of it all. But alas, I struggled. It was a corner of the world to which I had never been.

It wasn’t until years later, when I learned that Roger was starting a new restaurant in Hong Kong, that I began to imagine things a little more clearly. As a talented graphic and industrial designer, Roger had moved to Hong Kong to pursue a career in creative direction and design and as he puts it, “running a restaurant was just not in his wheelhouse.” Or at least he didn’t know it was. Life is funny that way though, you think you’ve found your lane – your “calling” – and then for a combination of reasons both in and out of your control, the winds of fate blow you in another direction.

Even though Roger had never given any thought to entering the restaurant game, it seemed totally fitting to me when I heard that he was starting a new food concept in Hong Kong. I remember thoroughly enjoying many meals together both in college and after, and I have a particularly fond memory of a time when we shopped for and prepared a meal for his parents. I’m almost positive I screwed up the scallops that night – butchering them by all accounts – but his parents savored that meal as if it was one of the best they’d had. It was the sweetest thing and I just loved them for it. That Roger would combine his clear interest in food and his talents as a creative designer – an innovator – seemed like a very natural fit to me. His restaurant concept was simple and straightforward: mission-style burritos. He’d noticed a gap in the lunchtime scene in Hong Kong and he craved and missed the burritos that he’d enjoyed regularly back in the States – that have been so popular here for quite some time now. That’s the part that resonated most with me. Certain recipes can be transporting and very comforting to us, and food itself can be a vehicle for all sorts of creativity, enterprise, design, and personal satisfaction – whether it be though the creation and design of a restaurant or say, through a little food blog.

Roger2Roger

I wasn’t there for any of this, the genesis of Little Burro. But I imagined that I was. I could imagine that I was. Because I understood much of the reason for it. No matter where your life’s road may lead, sometimes something as simple as a familiar flavor or a favorite food can bring you right back home. I get that. I could even see myself wanting to do something similar, were I to move halfway across the world. When Roger explained it all to me, I was able to envision the experience a bit, or at least my version of it …

With the flick of a switch, the lights come on again in the vacant shop, humming the first signs of new life. A can of spray paint shakes up and down, up and down, poised to make graffiti magic … the shop’s blank walls their canvas. Tables and second-hand chairs are unfolded and arranged neatly around the space, just so. Helping hands, making and shaping everything in sight, bringing a vision into existence. The intangible suddenly becomes tangible. Dreams unfold into reality. Music. Laughter. Blood, sweat, and tears. Friends. An inspired idea. The excitement of the unknown.  

The fate of the little cake shop that once was, was decided the day Roger and his business partner first laid eyes on that space. It was convenient. The price was right. It had everything they needed, and maybe a little more … The abandoned backyard perfectly seated 16 people. With a prep area and kitchen already established and consistently heavy foot traffic in and around the bustling neighborhood outside its doors, it seemed the ideal spot to try out their restaurant. The large, empty walls provided the perfect backdrop for Roger’s friends to fill with their colorful and brilliant artwork.  And so, a kitchen that had previously been filled with flours and sugars and various confectionary sundries was reincarnated as a mission-style burrito joint – a highly successful, much loved eatery that quickly developed a cult-following and eventually, spawned additional locations in and around Hong Kong Island.

MOTM - RogerDeLeon-21

Roger1

I can imagine it now, too. What the scene must look like on that busy, bustling Hong Kong street. A day in the life. I get to see pictures and hear his stories and read menus and enjoy being witness, far away though I may be, to the growing popularity of this thing my friend made, that he created out of a love of good food and from bits of home that he missed. The thrill that comes with making things out of nothing – from scratch- and watching to see what and where they go is something I understand on more levels than one. So, now I get to imagine my dear friend in this place, this restaurant called the Little Burro … across from the matcha frozen yogurt shop, right by the Indonesian embassy, and next to the little hole-in-the-wall bar on that busy street in Hong Kong. His lovely wife, Kate, darling son Phoenix and brand new baby Ezra are all there, enjoying the people, sights, sounds, and tastes of it all. Kate loves the fish tacos (which is probably what I would order first, should I ever have the chance to go), and Roger loves the carnitas, which he described to me as “delicate, sweet and packed with flavor.” Their sweet Phoenix loves the guacamole, which I’ve heard is the best in town …

Maybe I will have the chance to travel to Hong Kong someday to sample those fish tacos, or the burritos, or the unbeatable guacamole, or their perfect carnitas. I certainly hope I will. But until then, I will continue to enjoy the stories and glimpses that I get into Roger’s life as a somewhat unexpected, almost accidental, highly successful restauranteur.

Congrats to you my friend.

 

 

 Interview With Roger de Leon of Little Burro

{Lifestyle photo credits: Nicola Lemmon}

HARVEST AND HONEY: How did you come up with the name, “Little Burro?”
RDL: In spanish, by adding -ito to the end of a word, it becomes endearing, or meaning “small”. I took the term “burrito” to mean burro and ito. So small or little, burro. To that idea, the burro (donkey in spanish), is a work horse that carries a huge load for its workers. On the same token, the burrito is a dish that contains an entire meal inside. Rice, beans, salad, salsa etc. It worked perfectly.
HARVEST and HONEY: Were you scared? Was there a lot of waffling and debating and chewing on the idea before you bit the bullet and just went for it? Was there a moment, or something in particular that inspired you to move forward with this business? I’m interested in the inspiration and motivation behind people starting businesses – the “moment” when they know that they’re going to go for it. For some, it’s like they wake up one day and just know what they want and do it. For others, it takes years of planning and struggle and questioning the decision.
RDL: For me, this restaurant started as a bit of an accident really. I have always been disappointed with the lunch options in Hong Kong and thought there was a gap to be filled. I always threw around the idea of a deli or kickass sandwich shop, but I was never interested in opening one myself. My background is in design, and running a restaurant was not in my wheelhouse. That being said, I really missed burritos from back home. Chipotle, was always in the back of my mind, and I thought a family owned, no frills version of this could be a cool idea. I was working on a few design concepts for clients, and in my free time started messing around with my own brand and design. After about 6 months, I had inadvertently come up with a whole concept. But, that was it. Just a concept. I didn’t know the first thing about opening a restaurant. So I pitched it to a few friends in the industry, and while everyone liked the idea, they had their own projects to work on and didn’t want to take this on. I too thought it was a very necessary concept, and really didn’t want it to be lost. That’s when I decided to do it myself. So I started testing flavours and recipes with my good friend Chef Jason Black and began laying the flavour profile for the menu. After a few weeks, I began looking for a full time chef to help make it all happen. Thats when I found Lori Granito, who jump at the idea of getting involved in a young and fresh concept. With her 25 years of experience in the industry, she introduced recipes and flavours that ended up being the basis for the entire Burro menu. To get back to your question, there was no real waffling. It was a very fluid process. Overcoming hurdles as they presented themselves. I approached the project as any other design I had done. Ticking boxes as we went along. I was very lucky to have such an amazing partner in Lori, as the food was perfect, from the very beginning.
HARVEST AND HONEY: Why/how did you choose your first location?
RDL: We chose the first location out of sheer convenience. The concept was still unproven. So we needed a cheap venue where we could test the market and garage interest. We chose a narrow vacant cake shop that had a prep area and kitchen already laid out. It was a 6 month sublease Lori found on Facebook, and allowed us the opportunity to test. It had a gorgeously grimy little back yard, that perfectly fit about 16 seats. Lori had some tables and other equipment in storage, and we bought a few other items second hand. I got my crew of friends in there and we did all the minor construction ourselves. A few of them are extremely talented graffiti artists, so I gave them all a wall and they went to town. In 4 days, we converted the shop from vacant, to a full blown burrito joint. Although the hood was well inhabited, we knew it was going to be a challenge to introduce local people to the very distinct hispanic flavours. What we didn’t expect, was the immediate following we got from Americans and other westerners, that missed this cuisine.

Crispy Carnitas Soup with Creamy Salsa Verde RECIPE

Alright then. This soup. I just absolutely LOVE it. It is deeply, satisfyingly delicious and also incredibly healthy. After testing with both fatty pork shoulder and lean pork loin, I decided that the soup tasted just as wonderful with the lean pork, so I’ve written my recipe with pork loin. However, if you want something a bit richer and frankly, more authentic so far as pork carnitas go, then you can substitute pork butt (shoulder) or even do a combination of pork loin and pork shoulder – up to you there. If you’re unfamiliar with carnitas (which translates to literally “little meats”), it is a dish that involves simmering or braising pork in hot oil or lard until it is very tender. With this soup you kind of get a few recipes in one: the easy slow cooker carnitas are a victory in healthy kitchen hacks, as you simply crisp up the shredded slow-cooker pork under the broiler. Traditional carnitas are typically fried to achieve that crispness, but this is a decidedly healthier route to take, which I prefer, considering how often I’ve been making this recipe.

I wanted to do a spin on carnitas, my friend Roger’s favorite dish at Little Burro, and the creamy vinaigrette that they serve. I cannot tell you how much I make/eat/adore this creamy salsa verde and I am telling you friends, YOU MUST MAKE IT. It’s a game-changer. Inspired by my husband’s Aunt Joan Beavers’ beloved “white salsa,” I’ve taken some of my favorite flavors and thrown them together in what I think might be the perfect sauce. It’s my go-to for fish tacos (and all tacos) and it works beautifully on burgers, sandwiches, burritos, salads, and as a dip with tortilla chips. In this case, though, I’m drizzling it on top of this carnitas soup and never. looking. back.

Do let me know if you make this one! It looks a bit labor intensive, I’ll admit that, but it is simple as can be and you can use the leftover pork carnitas in tacos, on a salad or in a sandwich (BBQ style). This soup received rave reviews from my testers, and I hope you guys enjoy it as much as we have.

*adapted from Gimmie Some Oven

 

INGREDIENTS

2 Tbsp. canola or vegetable oil, divided

1 small sweet onion (such as Vidalia), peeled and roughly chopped

1 chayote squash, skin and core removed, roughly chopped

8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 poblano peppers, seeds removed and roughly chopped

2 cups fresh cilantro

7 cups chicken broth

1 cup beer (8 oz.)

6 cups cooked pork carnitas (see recipe below)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup mashed potatoes (I buy pre-made from my grocery store)

3/4 cup masa harina (or you can use corn meal)

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon salt

Creamy salsa verde (see quick recipe below)

Topping suggestions: sliced avocados, lime wedges, toasted pepitas, extra chopped cilantro, radishes

 

DIRECTIONS

Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to a large, deep pot over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the chopped onion, the chayote, half of the chopped garlic, and the poblanos to the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes – just to sweat them out a bit. Transfer the softened veggies to a food processor or blender and add the remaining chopped (raw) garlic and the cup of chopped cilantro. Add 2 teaspoons of salt and process until you have a smooth paste.

Working over med-high heat, add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pot and add the vegetable paste, the broth, beer, and the carnitas (see recipe below). Stir to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.

In a medium bowl, combine the mashed potatoes, the masa, the egg, and the salt. Stir to combine. Roll this mixture into 1” balls and drop them into the pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer; cover with a lid. Simmer the soup gently for 20 minutes, or until the dumplings are lightly puffed and cooked through.

Ladle the soup into bowls and top with the creamy salsa verde (see below) and your garnishes of choice. I like to go a little crazy at this point, and I load up the bowls with all of the garnishes I listed above. But you can pick and choose your favorites or go totally naked – up to you!

 

For the creamy salsa verde:

4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream

2/3 cup salsa verde (whatever heat level you like; I like it spicy)

1 garlic clove

Handful of cilantro

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth and creamy. Store in the fridge for up to 1 week.

 

For the crispy pork carnitas: 

1 tablespoon canola oil (or other neutral-flavored oil)

1 (4-5 pound) boneless pork loin, cut into 3-inch pieces (OR you can go a bit more decadent and use pork shoulder, with the fat trimmed … or a combination of both)

1 cup beer

1 medium red onion, diced

5 cloves garlic, minced or grated

1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced (canned, typically in the Latin foods section)

2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2.5 teaspoons salt

Heat the oil in a large (10” +) skillet over high heat. Add the pork and sear it on each side until very brown (takes about 2 minutes per side). Transfer the pork to a large slow cooker. Add the remaining ingredients to the slow cooker, and give the mixture a stir to combine. Cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 4 hours (give or take) until the meat shreds easily.

Set your broiler on high and cover a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Shred the meat into bite-sized pieces (I use a fork for this), and then transfer it to the baking sheet, spreading it out in an even layer. If you need to use a second sheet – that’s okay! Make sure not to throw away the juices in the slow cooker.

Place the baking sheet under the broiler for about 4 – 5 minutes, or until the edges of the pork start to look brown and crispy. Take the baking sheet out of the oven, and ladle 1/4 cup of the reserved juices over the pork. Toss to coat the meat evenly and then broil for an additional 4 – 5 minutes to get it extra crispy. If you have a second tray, go ahead and repeat the above process (shredding, broiling, ladling, etc.).

This pork is fantastic on tacos and on sandwiches and is ready to use in the following soup recipe at this point. It can also be refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

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Author: Harvest & Honey

Lauren McDuffie is a freelance food and travel writer, photographer, stylist, cookbook author, and award-winning food blogger. She lives in Indianapolis, IN with her husband, Lucas, and two children.

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