Chef Manuel Alfau, known among friends as "Manu," has made the rounds through some of the best kitchens in the city, but for some of that time, Alfau has had sandwiches on the brain. As he worked with some of the best Pacific Northwest ingredients, Alfau, in the back of his mind, was thinking about food that was a little closer to home. Alfau will soon leave his current gig at Blind Pig Bistro to bring the holiday flavors of his childhood to Seattle with La Bodega, his soon-to-be sandwich shop in Pioneer Square. With the keys to his new space dropping this week, Alfau will be testing out specials at a traditional Caribbean Island Christmas dinner taking place in a few weeks.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
Alfau: It's been about two years now. It started at Anchovies and Olives. I was working with a friend of mine named Phil. Him and I had the idea and at first. We were supposed to partner up together. It was supposed to be all kinds of sandwiches. We were playing with a little space on Broadway, and it was kind of a dump. For what they were asking for, it wasn't worth the price. So we just kind of forgot about it for a while.
Then, I went to work at La Bête. I had a year deal with them there. Finally after La Bête, my lady and I moved to Vancouver. She was going to school up there. During that time was when I started working on the plan to execute it. Once I got back, it was just random. I was riding my bike up from 4th Avenue to Chinatown, and I went up Prefontaine where the space is. I saw this space, and I know this space because I used to live right next to it. I always thought it'd be a cool spot for just anything, just a cool little lunch spot. When I rode by, I saw that it had a "For Lease" sign on it. I looked in the window and it had some refrigerators and other stuff in there. So I thought, "Oh this is very cool. It seems like it's already set up." I inquired about it and it was the right price, but it's taken this long to negotiate the lease, that was three months ago.
What kind of food will you be serving at La Bodega?
The main idea was just to serve this Dominican sandwich, which isn't really a Dominican ] sandwich, it's more of just a take on a Cuban. [For] Cuba, [the] Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, we all tend to eat the same kinds of foods, especially during Christmas time.
Imagine like a Thanksgiving dinner here—you have a huge feast in one day and the whole rest of the week, you just make sandwiches out of leftovers. It's just that. Christmas is like a whole pig, but it has a rub and marinade, which is what makes the sandwich so special. So then that take is basically the leftovers, which includes a cabbage salad as a side and tons of plantains, like plantain tamales. We call it, "pastales enhojas." I doubt that I'll be serving that at the shop. I might do it as a special. I'm going to try to do one Plate of the Day, which is just like a random dish from the islands as a special, and a rotating special sandwich. There will be some salads on the menu.
This is my favorite food of all time because it's what I grew up eating. It's funny because I've never cooked with this style of food before, but I've cooked many other types of food.
You've cooked at many fine dining restaurants. Do you think you'll miss that style of cooking?
I'm definitely going to have that itch to cook the same way that I've been cooking. I'm trying to build the shop in a way that it'll let me do that if I want to. It's just going to be a lunch space. We can hold pop up things with other friends or have random dinners every now and again, whenever I get the itch. It'll be set up in a way where it'll enable that style of cooking as well, but the bread and butter will just be sandwiches.
So when this is up and running, you'll have to leave your job at the Blind Pig. How does Charles [Walpole] feel about that?
Charles has been super supportive ever since I met him. As far as from a mentor point of view goes, he's always giving out ideas. Now with the sandwich shop, he was actually going to let me have his space if this space didn't happen. I've just been very fortunate. He's been very supportive and proud too. He's like, "Oh hell yeah, I'm going to go stage there."
Wow. So how will that be to have your mentor stage for you?
Oh, it'll be an honor and a pleasure.
Tell us a little about your upcoming One Night Only dinner.
The One Night Only dinner will be more of a traditional Christmas dinner with a whole pig and a bunch of sides. We'll probably see the pastales enhojas there. It's going to be good. It has to be because the price tag for that is higher. We're getting a really nice pig --- it'll probably be 200 pounds --- we'll put it in the Caja China. The place [and time] is to be determined.
So far, what's been the greatest difficulty in trying to open up your first place?
So far, the lease negotiation. I really thought I'd have the key by last month and things would've been rolling along. I really wanted to open up before the summer time took off. It's a summer time sandwich, so it would've been nice to have everything done while the season is still here. Other than that, there isn't really tons of other complications, but there are still tons of things to do.
Don't miss Blind Pig Bistro's recipe for Melon salad with peaches in part two of Grillaxin's interview with Bling Pig Bistro Chef Manuel Alfau.