The last time I ate at one of Chef Adolfo Garcia’s restaurants, my server was a large fellow with broad shoulders, a husky voice and an enormous pair of tits.
That restaurant was Lucky Cheng’s, the high-end Asian restaurant chain known for using drag queens as servers, which along with its New York City and San Francisco locales, had an outpost in the New Orleans French Quarter for a few years. At intervals during the dinner service, the servers would take the stage one by one and perform karaoke-style, with elaborate dance routines and no small degree of salacity. It was during one of these performances that we got a full glimpse of our waiter’s formidable rack, prompting Big Tiny to quip, “It’s a good thing we’re not drinking tonight.”
“O-ho, that place used to get wild,” he said last week in Greensboro, standing in his newest kitchen.
I also remember fondly another of his restaurants, Criollo Latin Bistro on the fringes of the Quarter, known for its yucca fries and signature drink the Mangotini. At a time when New Orleans restaurants had become immersed in Creole cuisine, Garcia took things in a new direction — no gumbo or turtle soup here, but a genuine cuisine based on his Latin heritage, accented with the flourishes and attention to detail that New Orleans restaurants know so well.
After Criollo floundered, Garcia continued in the same vein with Rio Mar, which survived 9/11 and Katrina to become one of the city’s best-loved seafood restaurants. A Mano, which opened in 2006, focused on authentic, provincial Italian cuisine. He then turned his attention to Freret Street, a formerly rough neighborhood that became gentrified in Katrina’s wake. High Hat features Mississippi Delta cuisine. Ancora is a genuine Neopolitan pizzeria.
“We don’t let ’em pick their own toppings,” he said to me.
But it was his last and most daunting culinary challenge that brought him to Greensboro.
Last year, George Solomon of the Palace movie theater chain asked him to bring better food to his theaters.
“I was like, ‘What, like feed people in the dark?’”
But the idea intrigued him on both artistic and business levels.
“Instead of making $2 a person selling popcorn,” he said, “let’s expand the experience, bring something new, blow ’em away with a whole new experience.”
Gusto opened at the Canal Place movie theater, just a short walk down from the old Criollo digs, for the premiere of Sex and the City 2. The concept is still going strong in New Orleans, and now it has come to Greensboro, the first attempt at replication.
The GrandLuxe on High Point Road now has a special bank of theaters with high-backed, stadium-style seats flanked by cup holders and equipped with flip-up tray tables and red service buttons.
Patrons 21 and up can order from Garcia’s menu before the film begins and eat while it runs. True to form, he has created a new cuisine based on local ingredients and indigenous dishes.
“The [Piedmont Triad] Farmers Market is amazing,” he said. “It blows New Orleans away. In New Orleans, we have it backwards — we have this amazing food, but not the farmers markets.”
The menu includes pimiento cheese — “It’s gotta be on there,” he said — and plenty of pork. He has a hummus of back-eye peas and shrimp and grits. Entrées include duck breast and chicken with pecans. And three pizzas lean heavily on local fare.
“Typically we would take prosciutto or Serrano. But let’s do it with country ham,” he said. “I slice it paper thin like prosciutto and use this great cheese from the Goat Lady.
“That local connection I think is important for having that sense of place.”
And because this is not a typical sit-down restaurant, it is not a typical kitchen. Food needs to be turned around in eight minutes, so Garcia has installed panini grills and convection ovens to help turnaround time.
The Crispy Cuban sandwich comes off the panini line, a pile of pork and ham pressed in the bread with cheese, mustard and homemade pickles. It may be the best Cuban sandwich in town — mainly because there are not a lot of places that serve this staple.
The Korean sliders rely heavily on local pork too, pulled and seasoned and paired with a mild kimchi slaw. It is fabulous.
By now, Garcia has left town now that the concept is up and running. He’ll be by periodically to check in, tweak the menu, try new things.
Before we parted ways, I asked him to open a conventional restaurant in Greensboro. I pitched it as a personal favor to me. He politely declined.
He loves the produce and he loves the pork. He even loves the North Carolina wines. But we are not quite ready for a Garcia restaurant in the Triad, especially one where the servers are trannies.
GrandLuxe Theatres; 2700 Vanstory St., Greensboro; www.grandluxetheatres.com