In Buenos Aires it’s survival of the fittest and only the strong survive. If there is one expat that has beat the game I would put my money on Christina Sunae. For six and a half years she overcame all the obstacles that closed door restaurant owners face. Getting people to (yikes) reserve a table ahead of time and venture out of the comfort of the Palermo food hub to her Villa Ortuzar home. She led two services a night in a packed house four times a week, serving dishes with names that remained unchanged from their Southeast Asian origins. She lead classes and penned a successful cookbook that drew from years living and traveling throughout Asia. She is frequently invited on television, most recently as a guest judge on Sunday’s episode of the reality cooking competition “Dueños de la Cocina”.
While many puerta cerrada projects fold under the pressure of inflation, picky palates and passing trends, she opened the brick and mortar incarnation of hers last December. It is a feat that is mostly unheard of. And on a frigid Tuesday night that begs you to be glued to the heater at home, Sunae Asian Cantina is packed to capacity. Inside is a mix of excited exchange students, local groups of friends, uncomfortable looking double dates and a handful of families ordering spicy curries, pho and a dish that touts a pig snout and ears.
None of this came easy but Sunae is cool as a cucumber. While the chaos of a team of cooks whizz behind her and the sounds of searing fish and line cooks chopping veggies overwhelm the soundscape, she calmly and carefully plates dishes behind the counter of the open kitchen. When pressed about getting started and booking seats at the closed door, she shrugs off my attempt at painting a dramatic struggle.
“No,” she flatly responds without hesitation, “We opened the doors our first night, sold out and it was an immediate success. People came to see a closed door restaurant and came back for the food.” Coming from anybody else might sound overly self-assured but not with Sunae, whose presence is a coolheaded mixture of direct sincerity.
Christina Sunae was born in South Carolina and moved with her military family to both the Philippines and Okinawa, Japan, where she would spend eight formative years. The family would eventually relocate to Tennessee where her grandfather maintained a vegetable garden and the family would continue to enjoy traditional Southeast Asian dishes. Her cooking career began at the Thai eatery Kin Khao in Lower Manhattan. She met her husband Franco Ferrantelli while on vacation in Buenos Aires, and decided to relocate from New York City to Argentina.
She went on to open Cocina Sunae, at a time when the puerta cerrada movement was still feeling fresh and Asian cuisine was not quite on the local radar. Her recipes are taken directly from her family cookbook, like her grandmother’s bao, or from her years spent in Southeast Asia. Cooking is second nature, “I grew up on all of this food, cooking was a part of our life,” Sunae explains, and when I call her a chef she is quick to correct. “No, I’m not a chef. I’m a cook. I didn’t study any of this and I don’t know a thing about French technique.”
Even though Sunae opened just six months ago, the idea to move from her home to a open restaurant has been in the making for a few years now. Together with her husband Franco Ferrantelli, they purchased the space but plans were consistently pushed back because of red tape. They were approached to partner up with other spaces, but the deals “were never really designed to be in our favor,” explains Sunae. The restaurant as it is today is, after years of compromise and planning, is the one she wanted to open.
Walking into the restaurant feels a bit like stepping onto the set of a Wong Kar Wai film. “The idea was to be faithful to an Asian food stall but in a way that made sense for here.” The kitchen is open and prep and plating are done in full view. The division between cooks and patrons is a counter and shelf, and it’s not unusual for half the guests to stop and say hello to Sunae. In the back, Martinique wallpaper made famous by the Beverly Hills Hotel is the main focal point, “that was the one thing I absolutely needed to have,” and two tropical trees drape over the main dining room. Chairs painted in bright red and simple glass dishes bring the fine dining feeling down to Earth. Where many Asian restaurants in the city try to go to far on the kitsch or fanciness, or decorate with one too many buddha statues, Cantina feels full of life and personality.
The menu is an amalgamation of dishes found throughout Southeast Asia. A Malaysian spicy pumpkin curry with a deep orange hue is served with warm roti drenched in sticky condensed milk. It is meant to be eaten with your hands, despite the looks of other confused diners. Rumor has it the Malaysian ambassador claims it is better than what is found in Kuala Lumpur.
The adobo pao comes from her grandmother’s recipe book, a Filipino dish with slow roasted pork and pickled cucumbers served on fresh and fluffy buns. The adventurous can choose to dive into the sizzling sisig, a plate of pork belly, ear and snout. For those looking for a safer bet, the Vietnamese dish bun thit nuong is a light vermicelli served with grilled pork, vermicelli and fresh salad and drenched in a fish sauce based vinaigrette. House specials often stick to the pig theme, like this week’s slow-cooked pork shoulder in red curry sauce.
Although the restaurant has comfortably moved shop from private house to public restaurant, enjoying an evening at Sunae Asian Cantina still feels very much like stepping into Sunae’s home, where everybody is welcome and a hot dish is always on the stove.
Sunae Asian Cantina
Humboldt 1626, Palermo Hollywood
Tuesday through Saturday 8:00pm to midnight