Editor’s note: Back of House is a new monthly series from former Xpress Beer Scout writer Thom O’Hearn spotlighting local chefs and brewers.
A plastic pink flamingo stands beside the door of MG Road, and Miami Nights handbills are plastered across the windows. Inside, hours before the pop-up restaurant is set to open, Alyssa Mikus is already in the kitchen making empanadas.
Mikus, who’s jokingly billed on the menu as “Chef Papaya Valdez,” comes from Miami. She worked as a vegan chef in south Florida before moving to Asheville four years ago. Since then, she’s put in time as a chef at the Laughing Seed Café and held just about every position — chef, pastry chef, hostess, server, food runner, dishwasher — at Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder. But with the latter eatery now closed and the Havana Restaurant also recently shuttered, Mikus saw an opportunity to keep Cuban food in downtown Asheville.
Giving young chefs a shot
Every few months, Meherwan Irani, Michael Files and the rest of MG’s management crew give an up-and-coming chef free rein to create a concept and a menu for certain nights. Previous pop-ups have included The Thunderbird from Elliott Moss, Sausage Party from Dan Silo, and Girls on Deck from Sarah Cousler and Erin Hawley.
For Miami Nights, Mikus has been focusing on different Cuban dishes week by week, occasionally working in Jamaican, Colombian and Venezuelan specialties alongside a mix of standbys and recurring favorites. “We’re making empanadas just about every week, and I’ve been making arepas for a couple weeks now, too,” she explains. “We’ve [often] got picadillo, essentially the Cuban version of a sloppy joe but with currants, raisins and green olives. We do mojo chicken, which has a marinade with a lot of garlic, onion and citrus. Oh, and always rice and beans. There’s love in those beans.”
The overwhelmingly positive response has kept Miami Nights going for close to four months. “The community has really taken to it and let me run with it, which is an awesome thing,” says Mikus.
Building on that warm reception, Miami Nights will partner with MG Road for the holidays. A Very Cuban Christmas, a ticketed event on Dec. 16, will feature a whole roast pig, mofongo, flan and other holiday dishes.
From South Florida to Asheville
Mikus grew up in a community where food was central to everyday life. Her father emigrated from Cuba, and she’s just one generation removed from Italy on her mom’s side. “Basically, I’m from a mix of cultures where food is very important,” notes Mikus.
And when she realized that food was a huge part of the Asheville community too, she felt instantly at home here. “Not growing up in ‘the South,’ it was funny, because I’d have these experiences like the first time I ate shrimp and grits, it was so familiar. Or how quickly Southern fried chicken became one of my favorite things.”
Both in and outside the kitchen, Asheville clicked for Mikus. “I could not have dreamt this life for myself,” she says. “The quality of friends, the quality of jobs … it’s magical.”
Friends, sure, but jobs? In Asheville?
At Seven Sows, Mikus says she grew as part of a small business. “I think the only clock-in option I didn’t have was bartender. I wore all the other hats, and I’m a way better employee for knowing all those aspects” of the business. She’s now brought her jack-of-all-trades approach to Cucina24, where she works as a pastry chef and is about to start serving as well.
“Every place has bad jobs, but I can honestly say I’ve loved my work in Asheville. If you put forth the effort — and it might sound like a hippie saying this — the universe will take care of it. Never did I think I’d have my own menu as a chef, but here I am.”
MG Road (19 Wall St.) will host Miami Nights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the foreseeable future. Tickets for A Very Cuban Christmas ($35) are available at cubanchristmas.splashthat.com.