Portland’s food scene has developed greatly in the last five years, with the addition of all-natural, organic, farm-fresh, and eco-friendly themes spreading across most grocery stores and restaurants. The increasing popularity of this “green” movement has brought many vegan and vegetarian options to menus and new methods for obtaining local ingredients. Restaurant owners Noe and Anna Garnica have applied these local themes with their passion for Mexican food, to create a cuisine that is healthy, uses farm-to-fork produce, and is true to owner Noe’s Mexican roots, in their restaurant: Verde Cocina. Together, the Garnica’s have created a unique menu that celebrates Mexican food, which is home to misleading stereotypes and is all-too-commonly categorized as greasy and unhealthy. I had the honor of interviewing with Noe and Anna and got to know more about their background, how they were inspired to become restaurant owners, and their overall philosophies on food, which I believe represents Mexico and its culture well and is one that many restaurant entrepreneurs can learn from.
I first had the opportunity to talk to Anna Garnica, Noe’s wife and co-owner, via a phone interview. It was both informative and humorously awkward, considering she was driving at the time with a Bluetooth and I was nervous and in a somewhat noisy café on my campus. Amidst the occasional dropped call periods, I was delighted to learn that she met with her husband in California, when both working at a Thai restaurant in Salinas.
She described how they moved to Portland in search of a life-style change, noting that Salinas was a very small town. She went on to explain that food was always a part of their routine—Noe and Anna had a combined work experience in either Chinese, Thai, Italian, fast-food, or bistro-type restaurants before the move and even ran a refreshment stand for a soccer league back in Salinas.
“So we started really small, you know, from the bare-bones bottom.”
For a short 6-month period, Anna, Noe, and their two sons moved to Mexico to farm nopales (paddle-shaped cactus) where Noe’s family is from in Guanajuato. In Portland, Noe became involved with a fitness center to create and package fresh food for clients on weight-loss programs. These packaged foods were sold to hospitals and other retail outlets, which, as Anna explained, became the start of their business. Later, they progressed into farmer’s markets to sell their food (which they currently still do) and within two years, they developed a strong client base that facilitated the opening of their first Verde Cocina restaurant in 2011 followed by their second a year later.
I was fascinated to hear how Verde Cocina’s menu was created because, as many would say after their first bite, I’ve never had Mexican food quite like theirs. I learned that Anna, born-and-raised in California, and Noe, a passionate chef from Mexico, both had different backgrounds and philosophies that contributed to their now fresh and healthy menu. It was clear when interviewing Anna that she always felt strongly about eating well and buying organic.
“The main thing for me, as a mom, was trying to feed myself and my family healthy food…. What I wanted to do and what I still want to do, is make good food accessible. I’m just all about making those foods (organic, natural) available to everyone, everyday—not just as special occasion dining.”
Anna mentioned that Noe was a “non-believer” of buying organic at the start and it took him some convincing and work experience, considering the large price tag that organic foods hold nowadays. She laughed when she told me, “I eventually turned him to my side and my way of thinking… and after that, it all came so natural.” She explained that the growth of organics and local produce, paired with working at the fitness center, all influenced their outlook on eating “green.”
“Healthy food was just so engraved that we didn’t think about making other foods.”
Shortly after, our micro-interview ended and I repeatedly thanked her for her kindness and time. Anna let me know when I could to meet up with Noe at Verde Cocina to take photos and to talk more about his Mexican background.
I arrived at Verde Cocina at around 12:40pm in the Hillsdale location with my mom (I promised her I’d buy her a delicious meal as a thanks for the ride) and we made our way to the upstairs dining area to a table near a window in the far corner. This was the exact spot where I had spent my first meal at Verde Cocina, some three years ago with a friend. On my first visit, I ordered the special: gringas con molé with pork, which, is the same thing I have ordered ever since. To me, the unforgettable combination of soft, rolled tortillas with succulent pork and a mountain of kale and garbanzo-white bean hash is something that I dream about and quite frankly, never want to give up. Today, when I came in to interview Noe, I ordered the Chilaquiles breakfast, to be somewhat adventurous and to take my mom’s advice of trying something new. While waiting for our order, I descended the extremely narrow staircase back down to the main floor where the kitchen was located. I scanned the small workplace and didn’t recognize the smiling face of Noe that I had seen in photos online. Of course, I got nervous and asked a worker if he was available and, after a phone call by his cousin, I learned that he would be back at 2:30pm.
It was about 1:24pm when my mom and I had finished our large plates of eggs and garbanzo mash and started to become aware of the time. We occupied ourselves with eavesdropping on random conversations and reminiscing about our trips to Mexico, like it was an old pastime. At 2:40pm we both took the narrow stairs back down and were met by Noe sitting at the bar. I introduced myself and followed him into the tiny kitchen, where he clapped his hands and called out, “Okay! Tome las fotos!” About four workers sneaked out of the kitchen while Noe stood, somewhat nervous, and began to “act natural and work as you normally do” by my instruction for a photo. The first thing he picked up was a large pot full of slow-cooked pork and its juices. He poured it into metal containers and moved the meat with some tongs to “act natural.” I smiled and snapped photos, while his nervousness was addressed by his co-workers cracking jokes about forgetting to put on make-up today and telling Noe to try different poses. Two of Noe’s brothers, some cousins, and other friends all worked at Verde Cocina, which contributed to the warm atmosphere and beat of Spanish being thrown back and forth at each other.
Noe was shy at first impression, possibly due to his broken English and my Spanish being rusty, but after a bit of time, you could visibly see his face glowing brighter as the workers jumped back into their enthusiastic moods and the once quiet kitchen was replaced by sounds of chile rellenos sizzling on pans and an order of huevos rancheros being made by one of Noe’s brothers.
My mom, Noe, and I all settled at the bar and talked about his experiences growing up in Guanajuato, Mexico and bringing his passion for Hispanic cuisine to Verde Cocina. His family was from a farming background and he learned to cook from his mom and aunt.
“People used to have to raise and kill their own animals for meat traditionally. Later, people wanted everything pre-packaged, easy, and already done for you. Now, people want to go back to farm-raised chicken, local, and free-ranged like in the old days, but they don’t want to do the work!”
He was crossing his arms and laughing. Translated from his fast-paced Spanish told to my mom, he mentioned that when he moved back to Portland, he already had the idea to have health-conscious cuisine and that he realized that farm food is healthy.
“Verde Cocina offers as close to farm-fresh and healthy food. People can eat here every day and not feel guilty.”
Noe’s philosophy for food stems from his experience growing up in Guanajuato. Today, he goes to the marketplace, just like in Mexico, and buys what is available and creates his menu around seasonal produce that is local and fresh. This is exactly how it is done in Mexico—whatever is the freshest at the mercado, you buy and cook for dinner. Noe pointed out that he didn’t want his restaurant to be like some “copy-cat” Mexican restaurants, where they serve the same menu all year long.
“Some of the things that we still do the same way every day is make home-made tortillas and salsas. No hay chips ni queso amarillo en México (There aren’t chips or yellow cheese in Mexico).”
Amongst other ideas, Noe told us that he hopes to mass produce his home-made chorizo as a supplier for other restaurants.
The Garnica’s hold a high rank in Portland’s Mexican food scene by combining each of their passions for eating green and traditional cuisine. Their success at following their food philosophies has driven their start as a single farmer’s market stand into two very popular restaurants, continued presence in farmer’s markets, and as suppliers of fresh packaged foods. Anna and Noe Garnica are people that anyone can look up to because of their hospitality and dedication to delicious Mexican food. Having my first plate of gringas con molé at Verde Cocina doesn’t seem long ago since I always find myself coming back for more and am greeted with the same warm smiles of every worker. If you haven’t indulged at Verde Cocina, I highly recommend that you do, since nothing beats a meal cooked by a happy, hard-working family in a kitchen.