Photo by Stephanie Breijo
“It’s mole day,” Maria Oseguera says from behind an enormous pot of simmering chiles, nuts and spices. “It’s a beautiful sauce I make from scratch. I love it.” Though Oseguera spent her childhood in Chinchiná, a scenic valley village nestled in Colombia’s Caldas Department, the mole, she says, comes from her husband’s lineage: It’s a family recipe from Amecameca, a little town in Mexico, and one she makes every three weeks at Maya Tequileria in Short Pump.
With 36 ingredients, it’s a multi-day process. Today, Oseguera’s mole poblano slowly boils for hours while the chef and co-owner lends the occasional stir. It’s just one labor of love at the restaurant, where she blends the cuisine of her family with that of Michael, her husband and the restaurant’s co-owner and manager.
Depending on the season, Colombia is not so different from Virginia, she says — or, at least, it is more similar than it is to wintertime New York City, where Oseguera and her three siblings first landed in 1990 to join their mother and build a better life. “Our town was a very small town in the mountains; very colorful, very beautiful. It was very much like spring in Virginia: It was never too hot or too cold,” Oseguera remembers. She adds, “But it was a huge culture shock for us. We got [to New York] to I think it was like, three feet of snow. It was a lot of fun, but very different. We didn’t speak the language, and there was a big difference in cultures.”
Leaving behind her grandparents and her father, as well as her mother’s pineapple farm, Oseguera arrived the day after her 11th birthday to skyscrapers and an apartment in Queens’ Kew Gardens neighborhood. Between working three jobs to support the family, Oseguera’s mother taught her children to cook. Oseguera still remembers her mother rehydrating corn kernels and grinding them into coarse meal for hearty tamales, which she now makes for her own family. “I always watched my mother make amazing, very elaborate meals and I was always very curious about it,” she says. From that point, she knew she needed to be in the kitchen.
Time spent working up the ranks in an Italian restaurant introduced Oseguera to the industry, and gave her the foundation she would need to open Lucca Enoteca, the couple’s new pizzeria and Mediterranean seafood restaurant downtown.
When they finally moved to Richmond in 2011, they knew it was the city where they would plant roots and bring the melding of their cultures to the masses. “Richmond has been wonderful,” Oseguera says from the kitchen. As to visiting her home country, she has yet to return. “I would love to go back with my children so they can see where I come from,” she says. “One of these days we’ll have the chance to.”
Photo by Ash Carr
Today is Sabit Selimovic’s birthday.
In a sparsely decorated but well-stocked cubby in the West End, the kind, sturdy man is ringing in his 44th year behind the counter of Bosna Market & Deli. Tonight, he softly says with thick accent, he’ll celebrate with his wife and kids — for now, he’s at the grill cooking up a taste of home: borek, a pastry oozing cheese that pulls away in thick strands with each bite; house-made cevapi sausages; thick and flavorful goulash by the ladle.
It’s a smaller menu than what he offered in the wake of the Bosnian War, when his restaurant’s four tabletops served neighbors, friends and other survivors through the mid-to-late ’90s. With a degree in cooking, Selimovic banked on humanity’s need to eat, even in times of conflict. What he had not expected was just how dire Bosnia’s postwar economy would become. After four years, he was forced to close his restaurant. He had lost his home during the war, set ablaze with roughly 50,000 others, and now he had lost his livelihood. “Somebody say, ‘Just move, just move,’ ” he says, remembering the night of the fire. Selimovic grabbed his son, daughter, wife and a little bit of food. “For years, we didn’t have nothing. No food — maybe just a little bit of bread. For one year, [we] maybe moved 20 different places.” The Selimovics would stay with family or friends, wherever they could sleep, until the war’s end in 1995. But the post-Yugoslav Wars climate was little better; without jobs, there was no money to support his business, nor his family of four. “I said, ‘I can’t survive like this.’ ” With that thought, he applied to immigrate to the United States, Australia or Canada — the U.S. signed his paperwork first, and after one year of waiting, the family moved to Richmond.
What you’ll see now at 8030 W. Broad St. is the culmination of Selimovic’s hard work and struggle, though you’d never guess it from his demeanor. He is jovial and open as he leads me through his menu of classic Bosnian dishes, plus his impressive wall of imported goods from Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia; it’s a bright spot tucked among its strip-mall brethren. Perhaps the only signifier of Selimovic’s war-worn past is a small sign over the front door: ATTENTION! IF YOU’RE HUNGRY, FREE LUNCH FOR ANYONE WHO DOESN’T HAVE MONEY. YOU CAN PAY US BACK WHENEVER YOU ARE ABLE TO, IF YOU WANT.
“I understand everybody because when it was the war, my kids were hungry, we have food but not enough, just bread, fruit, that’s it,” he says. “Now the world is crazy, too — not a lot of people have jobs — and I feel like, I’m rich, no, but I just try and help. I’ve been hungry. If you come the next day, I give you again, no problem. We just try to help the most we can.”
Photo by Ken Penn
An Bui doesn’t recall much from his native Vietnam — the cow the family used to plow the field; spending time with his mother, left to raise eight children when her husband was imprisoned at the end of the Vietnam War. What he recalls vividly is his flight from the country, which reads like a pulp adventure novel: rough seas, pirates, a starry sky over his boat on clear nights, a new beginning in a new land.
Bui would grow up to become the face of Mekong and the harbinger of Richmond’s craft beer scene, but in 1985, he was an 11-year-old boy boarding a ship to Malaysia with his two older bothers, his sister-in-law and her three siblings. It would be years before Bui’s remaining kin would join them in the United States, “but I wasn’t scared at all,” he says. “I was just nonchalant and on a learning stage. It was more like an adventure for me. And I’ve gotta thank my mom: Hanging out and being poor, you pretty much face the hardships, so nothing gets to you.”
In many ways, hardships defined Bui’s childhood. His father served as both an army advisor to the U.S. during the war and as the mayor of the Bình Giã District, where the Buis lived a few hours southeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) until he was sentenced to prison in 1975. Impoverished years under a Communist regime meant Bui and his siblings ate meager portions and never knew what it was to feel full. Upon his father’s release from prison in 1984, the planning began and, one year later, Bui was sailing to Malaysia. Seven days and seven nights brought them safely to the docks, though it wasn’t without incident. “It was rough,” he remembers. “There were some rainy nights, monsoon nights. There were a couple nights when the sea was calm and you could see the stars and the moon, but there was one rough day: We ran into the pirates of Thailand. A couple guys jumped overboard [from their ship to ours] and demanded our money, gold, bracelets, whatever we have.” Upon arrival, Bui heard stories of less fortunate boats — some raided, some sunken, some whose passengers had been raped and kidnapped.
The Buis lived in Malaysia and the Philippines until their sponsorships through St. Bridget Catholic Church were finalized, bringing them to Richmond. Sundays became a time for church, doughnuts and trips to the grocery store with their sponsors, and every day meant full bellies. Bui and his brothers sponsored their parents, who joined them in 1992, and in ’95, the Buis bought Mekong from local proprietors and operated it as a family. The food, Bui says, is better than what he ate in Vietnam.
“It’s similar, the dishes that we cook here, but the products are better. If you’re poor, you cook the same dish but it’s a lower quality. But here, you get to slap meat on it. Instead of one leg of chicken in a big pot, you’ve got a couple chickens in a pot,” he says, adding, “I love this town. This town brought us over and gave us new hope, new life. And so a lot of the stuff we do now is trying to give back to the community.”