If passion has a flavor, Jose Navales cooks some damn tasty food. Navales has the fervor that comes with being a convert — someone who has seen the light. He used to work for a restaurant supplier — you know, the ones who pull up in the alley and unload boxes of pre-fabricated pot pies just like mama used to make, if mama was a giant conglomerate.
Now, he’s authentic to the bone.
Navales is intensely passionate about sourcing local food. He says he feels the good energy in fresh food, and the negative energy in junk food. He hates it when he gets rushed or is on the road and eats convenience food. “It’s a bad choice every time,” he says.
“Most food is no longer food,” Navales says. “It’s like a hologram of food, and the money you spend on it is spent on advertising that fools you into eating it. But how does it make you feel? That’s the question.”
You feel pretty great after eating Navales’ food at Pura Vida PopUP Taqueria at Findlay Market. His simple chicken and rice dish is jazzed up with just the right amount of seasoning — a combination of madras curry and Jamaican jerk spices that are surprisingly mellow. There’s a salad garnish of chopped kale and fresh ripe tomato.
Navales flash-fries zucchini and tortilla chips and adds them right before serving, after zinging them up with Colonel De’s special Okie Dokie seasoning.
It’s honest, delicious and simple food, and you can feel Navales’ hope and pride when he prepares it.
Navales is quick to tell you that he’s not a classically trained chef.
He taught himself, largely from talking to people and asking questions when he learned the ropes in kitchens like Funky’s Catering in Norwood — where he worked 17 hours on his first day.
“Cooking is very physical, very athletic,” he explains. “I really enjoy it.”
But he’s seen its dark side, too. When Navales worked for the restaurant supplier, he saw things in the back of kitchens that appalled him. He talks about the poor quality of the oil used, and the slick salesmen that come in and tell restaurants what to serve, instead of the other way around. Navales admits that better food carries a higher price, but he believes that’s temporary.
“There are just a handful of places that source locally now, but we can raise that. Then the prices will come down, and we’ll make it sustainable, make it profitable,” Navales says.
Navales invites diners to come with him to harvest food. He wants to be as transparent as possible with the food he prepares. At Findlay Market, he urges me to stand closer and look over his shoulder as he chops tomatoes and seasons tortilla chips. He can’t wait to see my reaction when I taste them. He tells me that feeding people good food in casual places is truly a movement, the kind of thing that will change people’s eating habits at an elementary level.
“Deciding to do my work here in Cincinnati where I grew up has really opened my eyes. This is a sleeper area. We have such great local ingredients. I hope to inspire other chefs to hop on board because ultimately, this is for us,” he says.
He has a student from Saudi Arabia who is living with him right now, and Navales has learned about the ingredients and cooking techniques of his culture. Navales has incorporated some into a menu he calls “Nomadic Nights.”
“I don’t make anything traditionally, but I learn from traditions,” he says.
You can taste the cultural influences he brings to dishes like chorizo goetta feta, a late-night favorite made with his special “drunken onions” and beer. He chuckles as he explains that it incorporates local goetta and Spanish spices — “seasonings of mass destruction” — and is served over Carriage House Farm polenta. His hanger steak carne asada is served with roasted peppers, garlic and tomatoes. He uses Colonel De’s guacamole seasoning as the rub on his steak — it just seems to work for him — and slow-cooks it in tequila, giving it a blast of heat on the grill at the end.
Navales talks about a restaurant in Louisville that has pictures of farmers on their wall, and a map of where their ingredients come from. The idea inspires him. He dreams of a restaurant in his future.
For now, try Navales’ cooking at Findlay Market on Saturdays and Sundays near the south entrance to the Market House. Look for Pura Vida PopUP’s whiteboard with the day’s specials.
To follow Navales’ culinary whereabouts, follow Pura Vida PopUP Taqueria on Facebook or purapopup.webs.com.