“That lady scares me”! Niko explains, “I first ran into her at the DMV”. Wow, now I’m scared ’cause she’s now sitting in the deli chair closest to his order counter and there’s a customer approaching. Niko gave her a serious stink eye, but she wasn’t looking. Now I gotta wonder what “she” was doing at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). She appeared to be a vagabond, vagrant, homeless or . . . just a plain freak. Niko’s gonna have to learn to deal with these folks because. just before my arrival, I noticed another wayward individual leaving with what appeared to be one of Niko’s pasta dishes in a bag . . . like this guy was smelling it inside the bag while walking. I was filling my gas tank and was hoping to catch a down-wind whiff of the cuisine I was here to sample. I think I got a down-wind whiff of him mixed with a little gas fumes. Yikes! . . . , I hope that’s not the food.
Niko is the purveyor of Niko’s Express Italian Deli in Vista, California http://www.facebook.com/NikosItalianExpress?ref=ts&fref=ts. Niko has an impressive background for such a young Chef (e.g. Sushi Chef at 333 and also Sous Chef at The Four Seasons in Philadelphia). Now he’s running his own joint in the finest part of the city (Vista). I’m sorry I can’t help but laugh, because I had originally explored the possibility of this place for a family member. I never even thought the clientele would be as such. I even made a comment to Niko when I first visited him, that his menu was quite “aggressive” for such a limited kitchen in that particular location (a gas station w/former Mexican take-out). Niko decided to go with Italian sandwiches. So I told Niko that I was going to do a sneak attack on him some day and see what this talented young Chef can do . . . with what he’s got . . . in that particular location. I also told him that I was a student learning about the culinary business and wished him well. Today I was impressed!
Here’s this young Chef (yes, the title of Chef IS appropriate) in his own kitchen, running both the front and the back of the house . . . granted it’s not a big house, but someone’s gotta do it. And with this, he’s making things happen.
I watched him fill my “phone-in” order (from my strategically placed wife with a cell phone) 10 minutes before my arrival. I wanted to see Niko in action. During my last visit, I told him I would catch him when he’s not expecting me, since I already introduced myself at an earlier date. What I witnessed was him not expecting “the big order” being mine. When I arrived today, I politely asked him what he was working on and he pulled my wife’s order and began to read it aloud to me. Today I wasn’t here for small talk, my wife just placed a large order and I told him, “get busy”. His astonished reply was, “that’s your order?” I said “surprise, you better get on it”. Now my wife told me she didn’t get everything as she ordered . . . I don’t know, because it’s like playing the game “telephone”, where the message changes significantly by the time it reaches the last person. I guess she said she ordered something, some way . . . with something on the side. Who knows? Maybe Niko screwed up the order . . . maybe my wife . . . I know she was a little flustered when making the phone-in order. We were worried about Niko recognizing the last name on the credit card when placing such a large phone-in order. Something he may consider in the future.
I’m now standing in front of Niko on the other side of the order counter. Once he realized the large order was mine, he quickly realized I was there for a reason . . . this article! He ran through the kitchen like one of the freshman students at my school. He maintained that same “crazy freshman” posture for a good 5 minutes as I asked to come in back and take some pictures. He was a bit hesitant, but he obliged. He then calmed down and proceeded to cook my already started order. He still had that hurried element of a large order that was looming. He also got another phone-in and walk-up order while I was there in the kitchen with him. He did good! He remained calm now and very steadfast. I told him I was also looking at his kitchen prowess . . . how he takes the “heat”. He did well and stayed out of his way while snapping a picture or two. I think, although I’m a “Dick”, . . . I’m a good “Dick”. Hopefully he felt that way. I even caught myself wanting to help where I thought I could . . . taking a hesitant step toward the grill, the phone, the register, . . . but I refrained. This is Niko’s kitchen. I was watching a young Chef in his element . . . in his domain!
Now, I can’t just make this article short because so many elements were being exposing, so I must continue . . .
I think the first order of business is to now refer to him as “Chef”. It may be hard for me at first, but it will work out because I can identify with the position . . . the honorary title that accompanies that position and the skills and quality that position dictates. Trust me; I . . . am not a “Chef”!!! Niko, however, made a very honoring comment to me. He said, “I would never have guessed, you talk like a Chef”. Through our conversation, I must have thrown a word or two his way that made him think that. WOW! That comment made me feel like I may actually know something. Let’s just leave it at that, ’cause I have Chefs that read this crap. Anyway, this “kid”, if I may refer to him as such, has skill. I watched his knife skills, his sautéing abilities, his attention to detail. I can definitely tell he’s been around a block or two. I thought to myself, “This kid is pretty good”. Ok . . . now let’s taste the food. “Wait . . . your Fettuccini Alfredo!” Niko came running out of the store chasing my car as I began to drive off. Strike one Niko! I’ll give him a pass on that because he caught me before I left. Now . . . , on to the food!
The sandwiches I ordered were all pretty darn good. He toasts everything in a small oven. I was impressed that the oven did so well. My Stromboli and Pop Pop’s Special were the hits at my house. No . . . I take that back. Niko’s red sauce that accompanied the Stromboli was the hit. He explained that he found a better canned tomato in which he makes his sauce, while exploring fresh tomatoes for the his future versions. I don’t know, but this kid knows what tastes good although he may need another helper if he’s gonna go that route. He was already working very hard with the large order and extra customers. The sandwiches were the best Italian style toasted sandwiches I have had in a long time. He made us an Italian Beef Hoagie that I was told by Niko, “You gotta eat this hot, and with the Au Jus”. I’m not really into that style of sandwich, but he was right. Otherwise it’s just a roast beef sandwich . . . a very tender and flavorful roast beef sandwich. Pretty good!
We ordered a Greek Salad, Stromboli, Pop Pop’s Special, a “Build your Own”, an Italian Beef Hoagie, a Sausage Peppers Eggs and Provolone breakfast sandwich and the Fettuccini Alfredo. All very good portions. The only thing my family didn’t like was the Alfredo. Later, I called Niko to thank him for the service and the food. I also told him about the Alfredo. He was very interested in how he could improve it since it was his most commonly ordered pasta. I gave him a suggestion. I don’t know if it was a good suggestion, but he promised to work on his recipe. While I was visiting, he also mentioned that the addition of pasta to his menu was not his own, but he was told that if he’s going Italian, he’s gotta have a pasta. During the phone conversation, I promised to stop by someday and share with him a tool that can show him if the pasta is even a good menu idea for his operation, since he said the pastas take the most time and are the least profitable. I also asked him about a Cannoli. He said he’s already been thinking about it, but has yet to come up with a recipe. We’ll give him a little time on that one.
Stop by and show Niko a little Guido love. Order something and give him some feedback. He’s learning about running his own restaurant. He’s also learning that it’s a shit-load of work to be doing it all alone.
For now this CritDick is gonna hold steady on the “Recognizing Awesomeness” label. Niko’s rockin’ it. Hopefully he does well! He just needs to get rid of that “creepy” lady!
I’ll give him some Cannoli, so he knows what they look like . . . and so he learns how to make ’em!