by Sally Zarafonetis | photography by Two Eagles Marcus and Elyse Wild
You know you’ve entered a special restaurant when the aromas capture your senses. Basil, oregano, cinnamon, tomatoes, onions, wine and garlic drift through the air at Licari’s Sicilian Pizza Kitchen; a blend of corn, garlic, onions and spices permeate Lindo Mexico’s new modern restaurant; a rich broth filled with special meats and steeped with basil, ginger root, cinnamon, onions and other tantalizing spices is one menu item that will light your fire at PHO 616, the newest restaurant in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market.
Born in Morelia, Mexico in Michoacon, Gricelda Mata, Owner of Lindo Mexico, remembers her father and mother cooking delicious homemade food from scratch.
“The little town where we grew up was famous for what we called Cenadurias,” Mata explained. “Cenadurias were places that served food only at dinnertime. Among their specialties was a dish called Enchiladas Mexicanas, which is a favorite item on our regular menu. The ingredients are fresh — the dish includes piping hot cheese and onion enchiladas, tender chicken filet, fluffy rice and creamy homemade refried beans.”
Gricelda grew up eating all fresh food.
“We lived in a very small town. My mother planted vegetables and grew chickens. We were blessed with many fruit trees — guava, banana, mangoes and tamarind, as well as watermelons from farms nearby. My mother cooked everything from scratch.”
When Gricelda was 11-years-old, her mother and four brothers moved to Chicago to be with their father, Cristo, who had come to the United States five years prior. They continued to live in Chicago for another 6 years. When they arrived in Grand Rapids in 1993, Cristo opened a small restaurant. However, due to heart problems and then a stroke, he had to close the restaurant.
“We want to make sure that our family’s seasonings are reflected in every dish we now create.” —Gricelda Mata, owner of Lindo Mexico
Gricelda never anticipated being involved in the restaurant business.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be an attorney or an architect. I really never thought of owning my own restaurant. One day back in 2000 my older brother, Chris, told me he saw a spot on the corner of 28th Street and Clyde Park where we should open a restaurant. My brother Chris is the reason that I got into the restaurant business.”
Throughout the years, Chris has kept his father’s flavors while adding his own touches and personality into every dish.
Gricelda states, “We want to make sure that our family’s seasonings are reflected in every dish we now create.”
Lindo Mexico’s Restaurant Week menu includes Uchepos, one of Gricelda’s favorite foods that she loved to eat in Mexico growing up. Uchepos are semi-sweet homemade corn tamales, topped with sour cream, fresh spicy salsa and ground Mexican cheese. Also on their Restaurant Week menu are Enchiladas de Pollo con Mole, made with her family’s secret homemade Mole Ranchero Sauce with a touch of dark chocolate. Other Restaurant Week items include Enchilada, plus much more.She urges guests to try their specialty margaritas.
“We grew up eating a lot of mangoes and tamarind fruit, so a tamarind margarita or a mango margarita is a must try,” she said.
Last but not least are their desserts: The special for Restaurant Week will be a luscious Pastel Imposible, a two-layer cake made with Flan and chocolate cake served with fresh local berries and Mexican Caramel (Cajeta).
PHO 616 is poised to open right before the start of Restaurant Week GR. Located in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, PHO 616 was created as a to-go restaurant serving the freshest Vietnamese food to be found.
“This is a family legacy. My grandparents and parents owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Grand Rapids on 28th Street,” says co-owner Ty Nguyen. “They were from a wealthy family in Vietnam. Yet, they wanted to start a new life here, so started the restaurant as this was their opportunity to be here. My cousins and family fled Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s. Our family was sponsored by the Methodist Church and my Mother and I— I was four years old when I arrived in the United States—were some of the last refuges to leave the country.”
The PHO 616 team includes owners Han Lee, Ty Nguyen and Ty’s mother Cam Loan Nguyen. Cam Loan, will be their main cook, which is something Ty is thrilled about.
“What people will taste at PHO 616 is exactly how my Mom makes it at home,” Ty said. “I love my Mom and I love my Mom’s cooking!”
The main dish the restaurant will serve is the revered Pho, known as the staple of Vietnamese cooking.
“Our Pho (pronounced Fuh) is my mother’s recipe with influences from my Grandmother,” Ty explained.
One of the most popular dishes in Vietnam, Pho is a concentrated beef broth made with a combination of meats and spices that play a big part in its rich soothing flavor. Imagine gingerroot, cinnamon, Thai basil, Star of Anise, along with other spices, a bit of sugar, and onion, simmered within the broth for at least 8 to 10 hours.
“It’s the best dish I’ve ever tasted that my mom has perfected – it is like chicken noodle soup but with a richer, more delicious flavor,” Ty expressed. “I can never get enough of it.”
When the broth is finished beef tenderloin, Vietnamese pork and rice noodles are added. The dish is served with chopped jalapeno and lime wedges, with hoisin sauce and sriracha on the side to dip the meat.
“What people will taste at PHO 616 is exactly how my mom makes it at home.” —Ty Nguyen, co-owner of PHO 616
PHO 616 will also serve Bahn Mi. Created on the spot, this Vietnamese sandwich includes a fresh baguette lovingly layered with cooked pork (steamed in banana leaves), homemade chicken liver pate, jalapeno, Daikon radish, pickled carrots, cilantro, cucumbers and spread with a homemade olive oil and egg mayonnaise.
“It’s the crunch of the outside of the bread and the complex layers of ingredients inside that give this dish its incredible texture and flavor,” Ty said.
Vietnamese Summer Rolls will be available, which are made up of rice noodles wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, cucumbers, onion root, Thai basil, lots of tiger shrimp and a bit of pork. This Vietnamese handheld “salad” is then dipped into a homemade peanut hoisin sauce, which sets in apart from any salad you’ve ever tasted.
Asked why they chose these three dishes as the essence of their restaurant, Ty says, “These are staples of the Vietnamese culture; our street food. They are easy to put together but take an abundance of prep work in advance to create the unique flavors that make this food special.”
Vegetarian versions of the dishes are available upon request.
Licari’s Sicilian Pizza Kitchen
Meet Gianni and Lisa Licari, the owners of Licari’s Sicilian Pizza Kitchen located near Knapps Corner in Grand Rapids Township. Licari’s gained its notoriety as the place Bobby Flay made famous while filming his Food Network show, “Three Days to Open with Bobby Flay” in 2012. In order to appear and learn from Bobby Flay and participate in his Food Network program, the Licari’s miraculously completed their restaurant in four weeks to be ready for the Food Network taping.
“It was an incredible opportunity for us, a real adrenaline rush, and literally put us on the map to starting the restaurant,” Gianni said. “Bobby Flay gave us a lot of great advice that we are still using to this day.”
Four years later, Gianni and Lisa are now totally tuned into what their customers love about the restaurant. Their signature Pizza Kitchen capitalizes on fresh ingredients and unique influences of their Sicilian heritage to offer a creative Italian selection of lunch and dinner items. Gianni’s mother’s prized Sicilian recipes solidify and color the menu throughout.
“My mom was always cooking when I was growing up,” Gianni expressed. “We grew our own fresh produce in the summer. There was always a pasta, a salad, and a special meat in a sauce at dinner time.”
Gianni and his family traveled to Sicily every two years throughout his childhood. These are the flavors that he holds near and dear and what he captures on the Licari’s Pizza Kitchen menu.
Gianni explains, “My mother’s mother, my grandmother, passed away in Sicily when my mom was 10. At a very early age my mom took over as the “mother” of a family with all brothers and her father who depended on her to help them at home. She basically acquired her great cooking skills and learned traditional Sicilian recipes from her neighbors.”
Gianni’s mother’s recipes highlight the strong Sicilian flair on Licari’s menu. Take for example, their Pasta A’ La Chef – A Licari family secret with Gemelli pasta, tomato cream sauce, peas, carrots and ham. And then there’s the Pasta Candela – Annelini pasta, in a rich and hearty meat and vegetable sauce, baked in the oven and topped with melted mozzarella cheese.
Gianni says, “I fondly recall mom’s Pasta Candela when I was growing up. To this day, the spices and the special flavors that she introduced into her food, is something I’ve never tasted anywhere.”
Gianni’s mom, Angela, is still a great cook. Both Gianni and Lisa love to visit both of his parents in Grand Rapids where, “You can smell the aroma of her divine spaghetti and meat sauce as soon as you open the door.”
“The aroma of Mom’s cooking now permeates our restaurant,” they say.
On the Licari’s regular menu, certain foods pop out right away. Take for example, the Arancini, crispy rice balls filled with flavorful meat sauce and melted cheese. And then there’s the Calamari “unlike any other,” with all fresh ingredients (never frozen) and a handmade breading, a secret family ‘mom inspired’ recipe.
“Our Restaurant Week menu will be a creative mix of different recipes inspired by the summer season. You can be sure that these dishes blended with our mom’s Sicilian inspiration will pass the test of both of my parents,”
“The aroma of Mom’s cooking now permeates our restaurant.” —Gianni and Lisa Licari, owners of Licari’s Sicilian Pizza Kitchen
More about Restaurant Week GR
During Restaurant Week Grand Rapids, August 9 – 20, participating restaurants will feature creative 3-course dinners for $28 per person – or two people for that price at some restaurants. Some will feature a special Restaurant Week lunch special at $14 for two courses.
One dollar from every Restaurant Week meal sold is donated by the participating restaurants to the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education Student Scholarship Fund at GRCC, providing financial support to up-and-coming chefs and restaurant staff.
Check out menus offered and restaurant locations online at restaurantweekgr.com.