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3 new winter-friendly food and drink options, from Japanese curry to vegan Filipino sweets

Follow Merienda Monster, Okaeri Cafe and Vector Brewing for cold-weather comforts.

As we get closer to the holidays, no one needs to watch a Game of Thrones episode to be reminded that winter is coming. Fortunately for modern humans, we can prepare for the coming season with luscious carbs, comfort food and dark beers.

Even during a public health crisis, Dallas’ bold food and drink warriors persist in offering tempting, novel foodstuffs, such as cookie butter señorita bread (that happens to be vegan) from cottage food bakery Merienda Monster. Another new pop-up on the field, Okaeri Cafe, is selling Japanese curry in versions for adults and kids. Add to that four new beers from Lake Highlands brew pub, Vector Brewing, and we’ll be ready for cold weather’s worst bite.

Merienda Monster

At the start of coronavirus shutdown measures last spring, theater artist Mindamora Rocha was furloughed from her baker job at Sugar Fang Vegan Bakery. She resolved a bout of nostalgia and the extra free time by recreating flavors from her Mexi-Filipina roots. A ’90s kid who grew up in Texas, Rocha calls her creations a “happy mix” between her Filipina mother’s cooking and her father’s Mexican heritage. Confections like pumpkin spice snickerdoodle sammies, mazapán ensaimadas, steamed horchata putos, and coconut mongo rolls with mung bean filling are all vegan, but no one can accuse these goodies of lacking the flavor or fluffy texture of original versions.

The most requested item is her ube ‘n cream pop tart filled with homemade ube jam when she can get it. When the pandemic prevents that, she subs purple yams with a similar flavor.

Rocha also experiments with savory pleasures, like cheesy green onion ensaimadas (Filipino brioche) and longganisa potato pandesal (Filipino sausage roll).

Inspired by last summer’s Bakers Against Racism initiative, a bake sale that raised $1.9 million for organizations that support Black lives, Rocha donates a portion of proceeds to charities that support and protect BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). Currently, she is contributing to Dallas-based nonprofit Mothers Against Police Brutality.

Merienda refers to a standard light meal served between main meal times in the Philippines and other Spanish-influenced countries. You can find Merienda Monster’s pop-up location each weekend by following the business on Facebook or Instagram. For an additional charge, customers can order delivery to anywhere in the D-FW metroplex with a typical two-day fulfillment window. instagram.com/meriendamonster.

Kids curry at Okaeri Cafe
Kids curry at Okaeri Cafe(Derrick Outhavong)

Okaeri Cafe

When Americans think about Japanese food, they likely associate the cuisine with sushi and ramen. Chefs Gene Tran and Michelle Pepping want to change that. After spending two years living in Japan, Tran, formerly a baker, returned to Dallas with a mission to introduce the city to Japanese comfort food.

For the last two years, Tran has been collaborating with Pepping, who is the chef-owner of Tasty Tails in Richardson, to develop recipes like cornflake-crusted shrimp and cornflake chicken katsu. Dishes are served with sides like Japanese-style potato and pasta salads.

The traditional breadcrumb of Japan, panko, is used to coat tonkatsu pork cutlets, which come with a bowl of curry, a soft-boiled egg and white rice. The dish provides all the essential elements of comfort food in any country — hearty proteins, carbs and warmth.

What might be the most unique, especially for a pop-up, is that Okaeri has kid-friendly options. For the kid’s curry, rice is shaped into the face of a panda bear holding a serving of mild curry in its mouth — curry with veggies. In addition, Okaeri offers omurice, a fried rice-stuffed omelet that’s customarily a kid favorite in Japan. But adults can enjoy Okaeri’s omurice, too. There are options, like tomato rice with demi-glace, or garlic rice with white miso sauce.

Derrick Outhavong, who runs marketing for the pop-up, says, “When Gene lived in Japan, he noticed how much care parents would put into packing their kids’ lunches for school — how they take into consideration nutritional and health benefits of the food they pack. We want to create that same feeling for kids here. It’s one of the cultural aspects we love about Japan and want to try to adapt with our cafe and community.”

Okaeri is derived from the Japanese expression okaerinasai, which translates to “welcome home.” In addition to Tran, Pepping, and Outhavong, Ren Puckett is the group’s graphic designer.

Menu items rotate each week as the team perfects new recipes. Orders can be placed on their Square site for pickup on Saturdays and Sundays from Tasty Tails in Richardson or their ghost kitchen in Northwest Dallas. okaericafe.square.site.

Black is Beautiful beer at Vector Brewing
Black is Beautiful beer at Vector Brewing(Veronica Bradley)

Vector Brewing

Rounding out a well-equipped stockpile of vital cold weather provisions are Vector Brewing’s four new winter-friendly brews.

Two are traditional German beers, created as true to style as possible in the brew pub’s seven-barrel brew house. The Black Phillip is a doppelbock that has the crispiness of an Octoberfest but more malt and more alcohol content. It hits quick with a 7.2% ABV, and it’s the “lightest” of the newest taps. Also German-style is the weizenbock Great Silence — a big, beefy wheat-based bock.

Head brewer Tomás “Tommy” Gutierrez studied at the Siebel Institute before meeting Vector Brewing co-owner Craig Bradley at Lakewood Brewing Co. After recognizing Gutierrez’s natural talent, combined with his professional training, Craig and Veronica Bradley brought Gutierrez to Vector, which opened mid-pandemic on June 1. Gutierrez says he’s enjoying playing around while making the best beer he possibly can.

Gutierrez views the collaborations that often occur between breweries as a major perk of his industry. He’s recently worked with Deep Ellum’s Braindead Brewing to develop the Slightly Darker Black, a black rye IPA that he describes as a cross between a porter and an IPA.

Vector also collaborated with Weathered Souls Brewing and Smittox Brewing Co. last month for the Black is Beautiful initiative. Nearly 1,200 breweries around the world have joined in the project to raise awareness of the injustices people of color face on a daily basis. Participating breweries are given a base recipe, a 10% ABV stout beer, and asked to make it their own. Breweries are also encouraged to donate proceeds to local foundations that support equality and police brutality reform.

At Vector, Gutierrez added blackberries, chocolate and cinnamon to the base recipe, and the Bradleys donated draft sales to the Dallas Black Dance Theater. The kegs sold out weeks ago, but there are still plenty of bottles for home consumption, with proceeds going to the Know Your Rights Camp.

Amanda Albee. Amanda Albee is a Dallas-based freelance writer interested in how foodways intersect with culture, history and social justice. Connect with her about doughnuts, noodles and undiscovered talent on Instagram at instagram.com/eateramanda.

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