by Megan Labrise - My table is a mini-United Nations. Representatives of Malaysia, Korea and Colombia have assembled in the form of coconut/curry tofu, sesame wings and arepas, their colors as vibrant and varied as the flags that line First Avenue. There are greens, yellow and orange, and bright sriracha red. The food is so fresh that I feel entitled to a few new stamps on my passport.
Twisted Soul Food Concepts, located at 47 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, is a close-to-home haven for globetrotting gourmets. Owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Ira Lee and Brenda Black, Twisted Soul is “Inspired by soul – influenced by flavor.” That means time-tested soul-food favorites from empanadas to dumplings, interpreted through local ingredients and incorporating far-flung flair: dulce de leche rice pudding, Ethiopian chicken wings, fried chicken and curry, crabcake banh mi.
Lee and Black, working side-by-side, have managed to create warmth in a black-and-white Minimalist space. There are eight tables lining the length of the rectangular restaurant. Art displays rotate. There was a time when Biggie Smalls was on the wall. You can find Black-Eyed Peas on your salad or the stereo, which pumps out Prince and Patti LaBelle with equal frequency. A red bookcase tucked behind the front counter is crammed with cookbooks: Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Boulud, David Chang, Thomas Keller rub spines with varied ethnic collections. In the bathroom, a blackboard boasts famous quotations: Mahatma Gandhi’s “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” for instance and, recently, “Twisted Soul, how I love thee,” written in yellow chalk. Apparently, the way to win hearts is by cooking for the soul.
Navigating the menu for the first time, you may wish that you had a translator. I’d never heard of arepas (three for $7.95), the Colombian-style corn cakes heaped with your protein of choice (slow-cooked barbecue pork or barbecue grilled tofu) and accoutrements (fried plantains, peanuts, sour cream, green onions). The cornmeal rounds are soft and supple, like thick polenta, and the perfect vehicle for the pulled pork’s sweetness, cut with tangy sour cream and sharp, crisp green onions. Arepas are not to be confused with alfajores de maizena (three for $2.50), soft, fat cookie sandwiches native to Argentina. They are filled with dulce de leche and rolled in sweetened coconut flakes. If you do mix them up, just have dessert first.
Pulled pork soft buns, on the other hand, entered my luncheon lexicon at an early age. The barbecue pork steamed buns (three for $7.95) are the arepas’ Asian cousins. Instead of corn cakes, you get some of the most pillowy steamed buns north of Chinatown. Traditional char sui bao encapsulates savory-sweet pork in a springy yeast dough. Here, they’re open-faced, and look like catchers’ mitts full of pulled pork or barbecue tofu. They’re topped with sliced green onion and house-pickled cucumber.
Dumplings (six for $7.75) too are made from scratch, and take eight minutes to steam and are served over jasmine rice. Make sure to check the extended menu up by the register for recent concoctions; the dumplings come in an array of ever-changing combinations. I had phenomenal smoky mushroom and collard green dumplings just a few months ago. The extended menu is also home to the banh mi: complex Vietnamese sandwiches on crispy baguettes – a famous product of French colonialism. You can find them with permutations of pulled pork and cilantro, plantains, tofu, various veggies and condiments.
Argentinean empanadas, Twisted Macs (macaroni and cheese), Wing Concepts, Noodle Bowls and a fresh, diverse salad bar round out the food offerings. Don’t miss the chickpea fries with salsa Huancaina ($4.62), a small silver pail of what look like long, squared French fries, dusted with coarse salt. Instead of thick potato, a crisp outside yields to smooth, creamy warm garbanzo centers. I never had anything like it. Sometimes, my zeal in dunking them into the tangy, slightly spiced yellow sauce makes the fries break in two: double the deliciousness.
A Drink Concepts menu contains a stunning number of beverage choices: Bubble Teas, smoothies, sodas, coffee, tea and more. If you’ve never had a Bubble Tea ($3), it’s usually served in a plastic cup with a dome lid and big fat colorful straw. The straw is for sucking up marble-sized black tapioca pearls at the bottom of the sweet liquid combination. Bubble Milk Taro Jasmine-Green Tea is a favorite of mine. If you prefer not to chew your drink, try a fresh fruit smoothie ($4). Like the dumplings, there are a lot of different options: common ingredients like bananas, carrots and strawberries join unexpected ones like passion fruit, Thai coffee and hemp seeds.
Come Saturdays for the menu’s newest addition: Studio Crêpes @ Twisted Soul. For the past several weeks, Lee and Black have been offering sweet ($5) and savory ($6) socca crêpes – rustic chickpea flour-based snacks popular in Monaco – made to order on one of two electric crêpe makers installed in the storefront window. The resulting crêpes are light and thin with crisp edges, enclosing diversified domestic and foreign fillings, of course. There’s Spanish chorizo and queso fresco, Italian prosciutto and mozzarella, salted caramel and strawberries, Nutella and banana.
Twisted Soul, how I love thee. Je t’adore. Te amo. Chan rak khun. For more information on Twisted Soul, visit www.twistedsoulconcepts.com.