by Whitney Weiss
Photo by Brett Wishart
Mychael Henry explains his upbringing with a matter-of-fact simile: "Do you know how your mom would remodel the kitchen every couple of years? Well my mom, instead of remodeling the kitchen, would sell the house and move the family." After staying put in San Francisco for art school, wanderlust got the best of him, and he headed off to backpack through Central America. Somewhere along the way, Mychael decided to try Buenos Aires out as a home base for a few months--so naturally, three years later, he's still here.
Only now, he's running Poke, a bustling pop-up dining experience currently housed at that most hallowed of expat haunts, Magdalena's Party. On Wednesdays, Poke combines the joy of street food from far and wide (many recipes were picked up from vendors met on his travels) with American precision and efficiency. The result: plenty of accolades, a month-long streak of selling out of every single dish, and hungry foreigners calling ahead to reserve ribs before they're all gone. Here's more from Mychael on grocery shopping in BA, the reason we don't see food trucks roaming the streets, and why working in a kitchen means doing what you damn want.
How long have you been here?
Three years in April. I’m thinking maybe another year, year and a half, and then we’ll see.
I’m looking at three places. Either Brazil, or Colombia, like in the north, or Nicaragua. I really miss the ocean. And I miss sunshine, and stuff like that. It’s hard here in Argentina, coz the culture is so late, so you don’t spend that much time outside in the day.
So you came here on vacation, or you came here already determined to stay here?
I did not come here on vacation. I backpacked through Central America for two and a half months and was kind of looking at what South American cities you can live in and have a good life. There were Sao Paulo and Rio, and I didn’t want to learn how to speak Portuguese right away. I wanted to get my Spanish up first. Originally I planned on only being here a year. I just feel I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to in a year. I think maybe by next year I’ll have everything accomplished.
What’s your end goal?
In Buenos Aires, it was to learn Argentine Spanish, that was my end goal. And obviously you can’t master that in a year.
No, no, you can’t.
I think in four years I’ll be pretty good, I’ll be pretty confident, and I’ll feel like I accomplished what my main goal, what my first goal was, when I moved here.
The pop-up restaurant was just sort of a secondary thing that happened?
I worked in the front of the house in restaurants in San Francisco when I lived there, but I was always hanging out with the chefs, and the line cooks, the sous, just learning techniques. The reason I never went to the back of the house is because the money’s always better in the front of the house. It’s like, why would I spend all my time back here with you guys when I can be up here and then I can kind of cook on the side?
Have a life, have a significant other that doesn’t hate you.
Exactly. Poke started up from when I traveled in Central America. I saw a lot and I experienced a lot of street food. And I loved it. When you first come to Buenos Aires, or I guess when you go to any major city or any place, you kind of notice everything that’s missing. So I just wrote everything down--this is what Argentina doesn’t have, and this is what I can do. I saw a problem and I knew I could be the solution to that issue.
How is the transition going now that you're in the back of the house and having to get orders out and handle huge crowds of people coming in? ‘Cause it gets packed in there even though there aren’t that many tables, no?
It does get packed. We have between 75 and 125 heads on a busy night. It’s a lot like bartending, like if you’ve ever bartended, like when you work the well, when your head’s down, and it’s great, because you don’t have to talk to people, you can be grumpy. Being the chef, being in control of the back of the house is very totalitarian. I can be like, ‘hey, this is what needs to be done.' You can be grumpy, you can cuss, there’s no customer service in it. And I like working with my hands. And I like the rush. You know? You’re kind of just sitting around, and then the rush comes, and everyone stops talking and everyone’s head’s down and the rush comes on. It’s nice. Then I’ll pop out afterwards and talk to the customers and thank them for coming. It’s different than having a bar. When I worked for other people, you’re just doing the job, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Poke is very close to my heart, so I care what people think. You come out and you thank them, because if it wasn’t for the customers, then you have nothing.
And you have people that come back that have favorite items, like guys trying to reserve ribs ahead of time. Do you change it up, does the menu change weekly?
The menu changes weekly. We usually do a special. It’s like having an all-star cast. Every item is a hit item, and so I can’t change them all because I’ll get e-mails like, 'Oh, can you put this on the menu?' And having such a small kitchen and a small staff, ‘cause it’s just two of us, we can’t do a whole lot, so the max items I can do is five or six. In general, though, to answer your question, yeah, I do try to change it. But when people really like something, it stays on there for a while.
So why not do an actual food truck here?
Funny you ask, ‘cause I looked into it. In Argentina, which has the craziest laws, food trucks are illegal.
Yeah, it’s funny. I talked to a couple of lawyers. There's this law. If you see like a bondiola truck in Puerto Madero or something like that, if you look at it, that truck is always there, always in that place, and it has wheels. So I guess the gist of it is that your station or your food truck has to be mobile, but you can’t move it. This is how Argentina operates. The other thing is you can only do certain types of foods on the streets. Like you can’t do meats, besides patty, chorizo, and bondiola. Because there’s just a union. It’s a meat union, you know, they control a lot of the laws of what goes on. So that’s why you don’t see taco trucks or people cooking corn on the street. Not that an Argentine would eat corn…
What about a window?
Yeah, like a walk-up, walk-away. Does it still count as street food?
No, it doesn’t. But you’re still dealing with very crazy laws. Say if it was in San Francisco, yeah, you could have a walk-up take out window and that’s fine. Here in Argentina, some laws would say, yeah you can have a take out window, but then you have to have two bathrooms, or you have to have a bathroom and a handicap bathroom. And you’re like, 'I just want a take out window,' you know? There’s just all these measures. Trust me, I’ve looked into every single thing I can do.
I believe you. I’m just curious why you don’t have some stationary thing.
Pop-ups just happened because I pivoted so much and that’s kind of what it turned into. And I think it’s a good thing and I think it worked out because it wasn’t my initial plan. My initial plan was to have a restaurant here, a brick and mortar. Having a pop-up allows me freedom to travel, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had a standalone restaurant. I don’t know if I’d want to do a food truck. There’s a lot of things you can do here under the radar and not get caught, but how many of us are here trying to do things under? If you’re gonna do something you want to do it big, you want publicity for it, and you want people to talk about it.
How do people get around the law with their closed-door restaurants?
The closed-door restaurant thing is really weird, they kind of just look the other way about it. They’re all illegal, for one. Most of them are pretty mellow, they’re just like private events. But the exception to that is Cristina. She has Cocina Sunae, which is a fully functioning restaurant.
But it’s a closed-door restaurant, so you have to make a reservation. But she has turns, it’s not just like 25 people, she’ll do like 60 a night, like she’ll turn a table and make it three times. And she’s on television. She does a segment on someone else’s show. She’ll be like, this is how you make pad thai, and she’ll do it, whip it up in like five minutes. She’s married to an Argentine guy.
Those seem to be the best pairings. Casa Felix, his wife is from the States, too?
San Diego. Yeah, he has a really cool concept as well. It’s collectivo, Felix, where he travels around. He’s cooked at a friend's place in San Francisco, this place called Yield Wine Bar, in the Dogpatch. I really like him, really nice guy. And he has this little urban garden.
How did you get connected with people like that? Is it because you came here and ensconced yourself in the food scene?
Yeah, you just kind of jump in. For me, it’s just really easy. You look at people who are doing things really creatively, you go eat somewhere, and if you like the food, then, 'hey, who’s the chef?' Then you talk to the chef, 'this is what I do.'
Where do you like to eat here? In this country, in this city?
(laughs) In this city? There’s some good food. When you and I both arrived here, food was really bad. It’s coming along, it’s getting better. Caseros is good, that’s [on Avenida] Caseros. And um, [Cocina] Sunae, really good, Felix is really good. San Juan’s good. Used to be better, but…
And he’s so foxy.
He does have, he marketed himself well. Pisadas would probably be my top, though.
Are there food items that you really miss, ingredients that you cannot get here? Or are there equivalents here that you couldn’t get in the States that you’re making use of and excited for?
Everyone comes here and they’re like, 'oh they don’t have this or they don’t have that.' You know, you can bitch and moan about it, I mean, it’s not gonna come. There are certain things that I need, like I want my Heinz ketchup. I don’t know, maybe you’re a Hunt’s girl. I’m Heinz. The ketchup, the peanut butter, that kind of stuff. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, obviously that’s gonna be seasonal, and cooking and being a chef, you can be like 'oh, there’s no heirloom tomatoes,' 'I need heirloom tomatoes,' for whatever you’re gonna make, like a heirloom salad. They don’t have it! Okay? So cook with what they do have. Things are seasonal here, they’re very basic, but they exist here. Long story short, you get over it and you just learn to cook with what you have.
Where I do buy my fruits and vegetables here is in Barrio Chino, and that’s because they’re grown by Asians. By Asians for Asians. There should be a shirt, right? (laughs). So they’ll grow like their green onions to the way that Asians eat them, right? So they’ll keep them small and tiny and their vegetables are washed and clean and stuff. Or like my local vegetable stand, I live in Abasto, so I get a lot of Bolivians and Peruvians. So you get items you couldn’t get anywhere else in the city.
Oh, cool. Why Abasto?
Abasto because I came to Argentina to live in Argentina, like I didn’t come to...
Live in fake L.A.?
Yeah, I didn’t come to live in fake L.A., exactly. Everybody speaks English in Palermo, or they want to be in Palermo. I want to be in the mix. And Abasto’s like that, it’s the center of the city, right in the yellow line. So you get a little bit of a mix. If you look at like the other neighborhoods, like Recoleta and Belgrano, everybody has the tendency to spend more time in the house. But being in the center of the city, people are walking about more. I’m friends with my supermercado owners, the kiosco, and that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Palermo. Palermo could be anywhere in the world, it could be in Vancouver, Bondi Beach. So, that’s why I don’t live in Palermo.
Well that’s good. That’s refreshing.
Yeah. I’m one of the few. People are like, 'Abasto?' I’m like, 'I love Abasto.' And there’s street food in Abasto.
Peruvian street food. On, um, Sarmiento and Pueyrredon. They come out on Fridays and Saturdays. And it’s weird, ‘cause it’s illegal, and the cops kind of bust them. So it’s like buying food from a drug dealer or something. You pay one person, and they call it out what you want, and someone else runs it over to you. It’s really cool. That’s the cool part about Abasto. You get some street food, you get a mix. Everything’s normally priced, like it’s a little neighborhood. Palermo everything’s inflated, just because it can be.