These Vegan Chicharrones Converted Carnivorous Chef Tracy Obolsky


Where do chefs go to eat on their nights off? We’re asking them — and they’re divulging the best things they’ve eaten in the last month in this weekly column. Read more in the archives of The Best Thing I Ate This Month.

The Chef:
Tracy Obolsky
The Gig: Pastry chef at North End Grill (104 North End Avenue; 646-747-1600)
Known For: Ice cream sundae insanity
The Best Thing She Ate This Month: Vegan Chicharrones Locos at El Rey (100 Stanton Street; 212-260-3950)

“I had known about El Rey because the owner, pastry chef Nick Morgenstern, was my mentor. I’d been hearing great things about it, and so was intrigued. I was seeing a show at Pianos in the Lower East Side one night — my husband works in the music industry, and one of his bands had a residency there — and was really hungry. So I went in with my cousin to see Nick, check out the space, and have dinner.

“The restaurant is super tiny — probably fourteen seats, if that — and the kitchen is this tiny little corner, so you can sit at the counter and see everything happening. I worked for Nick at the General Greene years ago when Brooklyn dining was first becoming cool and hip, and the El Rey kitchen is really Brooklynish, sort of small and MacGyver-ish, and so it nostalgically brought me back to that. And I noticed that everyone there does everything: There are three people, so the waitress would be answering the phone and then jumping back in the kitchen to help out. Gerardo, the chef and partner, kind of runs around, talking to people and taking drink orders. Everybody does everything, and as someone in the industry I notice that. It’s very family-like. And it’s cozy — you can eat and not be distracted by anything. It’s really cool.

“I was a little nervous when I saw that most of the menu was vegan. I’m slightly anti-vegan, being a pastry chef and all. But I’d been hearing about these vegan chicharrones, and I couldn’t quite believe they’d be as good as people were saying they are. The chef told me they’re made from beans, and so they puff up like actual chicharrones. I tried them, and they’re awesome.

“Half of my meal ended up being vegan, and I loved everything, so I was surprised. The chicharrones made me a believer; they had everything you want in chicharrones without the bad stuff. They’re crisp and light, and the cashew crema adds a creaminess that you’d normally get from sour cream or queso fresco.Then there’s freshness from cilantro, micro sorrel, radish, and jicama, which keeps it bright and adds some crunch. Then there’s pickled-pineapple hot sauce, which adds heat and spice. You’re eating chicharrones, but you’re like, ‘Wait, I don’t know what this is!’ The flavors were really intriguing, but I had to look them up to find out what the salt or spice was. Now I go back and when Nick asks if I’m eating I say, ‘Only if there are vegan chicharrones involved!’ I’m a believer because of them. And I’m pro-cheeseburger and -bacon, so I feel like this is a big step for me in becoming a healthy adult.”

Jacqueline Raposo writes about chefs and food culture.