by Kayla Blau
Ever since Jhonny Reyes arrived in South Seattle from New York City at 5 years old, he felt the distinct lack of Afro-Latin soul food options outside of his abuela’s kitchen. Over 25 years later, Reyes is working to change that with his local food pop-up, Lenox, which can be found every weekend at the Future Primitive Brewing Company in White Center.
“Most of the Cuban food out here is Cuban sandwiches — and don’t get me wrong, I love Cuban sandwiches — but we don’t have those classic dishes out here like pollo guisado, encebollado, or ropa vieja,” Reyes said.
With Lenox, Reyes brings a Nuyorican vibe to Seattle as an homage to his birthplace of Spanish Harlem.
“Lenox (Malcolm X Boulevard in NYC) is the heartbeat of Harlem, and has always been a part of me. I want to bring that Afro-Latin feel to Seattle and share my culture with the community here,” said Reyes, who is of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Jamaican descent.
“I learned to cook watching my uncle and grandma make Puerto Rican staples like picadillo. We always had plantains in the house growing up, and my friends would come over and ask, ‘What is this?’ They thought it was weird until they tasted it! Most people out here don’t even know what maduros are, and I’m hoping to change that.”
As a professional chef for over 15 years, Reyes most recently worked at JuneBaby in Seattle until their doors closed temporarily in June of 2021. Like many other chefs across the country, Reyes got creative when his hours were cut at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were only getting 15 hours of work when COVID-19 hit. A lot of us [in the service industry] didn’t want to take full unemployment because we weren’t sure what the repercussions would be, so anyone who had any ability outside of the kitchen started side hustles,” Reyes said.
The beginnings of Lenox started as a meal-kit-delivery side hustle, mainly for family and friends during the pandemic. The buzz for Lenox grew when Reyes’ friend and owner of Good Day Donuts invited him to share his food at an event in 2021. From there, Reyes shared his food at pop-ups across the city until he found his home renting a food truck connected to Future Primitive Brewing. He’s part of a close-knit network of pop-up chefs in the community, which is a source of mutual support and camaraderie.
At first, it was difficult to find the ingredients he needed to recreate the traditional dishes of his childhood. He’d search Safeway for the few plantains they had available, but often came up short.
“We have a huge Vietnamese population in Seattle, and eventually I realized Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of the same ingredients we do. Now, I get all my ingredients from local Vietnamese grocers,” Reyes says.
Learning to pivot and come up with creative solutions has been a common theme for Lenox.
“The pandemic really shed a light on how much [folks in the service industry] were working with little return, and gave an opportunity to improve the industry. Most restaurants work through a brigade system, which is an old, hierarchical French framework of running a kitchen with static positions that don’t leave much room for advancement. That system breeds competition that I didn’t want to be in anymore, but I still wanted to provide quality, local, sustainable food,” says Reyes.
He is doing just that at Lenox, evidenced by the fact they sell out most weekends. Some fan favorites are the ropa vieja bowl, which includes slow braised beef in chili, peppers, and onions, green olives, plantains, and pickled red onion over yellow rice. Other staples are a Cubanito pork and ham sandwich, chimichurri slaw, and papas bravas. Lenox has a rotating menu, and up next is a tri-pepper spicy longganisa hot link over rice with braised coconut greens. If you’re lucky, you might catch a dessert on the menu, like Lenox’s rendition of tres leches with guava whip, candied pecans, and caramelized plantain syrup.
“At first, I had to appeal to the Seattle audience and start with familiar things like sandwiches. Now that I have more of a following, people trust and know the food will be good, so I have more freedom to incorporate more traditional dishes.”
Reyes was recently recruited for and featured as a contestant on Food Network’s hit series Chopped, and won the Chopped competition. The episode aired on May 17 and can be viewed on Xfinity or the Food Network.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to open a restaurant, and that’s in the works — hopefully in the Seward Park/Columbia City area I grew up in. As momentum grows for Lenox, so are our business plans. The food is solid, and I’m excited to have a physical space to be able to set the vibe of the restaurant too,” shares Reyes.
Updates about menu changes and Lenox pop-up hours can be found on Instagram. But be sure to get there early — you can bet they will sell out before closing time.
Kayla Blau is a Seattle-based writer, consultant, and youth advocate. More of her work can be found her website.
📸 Featured Image: Collage of photos courtesy of and by Jhonny Reyes made by the Emerald team.
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