Lil’ Deb’s Oasis: Inspired Tropical Eats from an Artist-Powered Kitchen in Hudson, NY
747 Columbia Street | Hudson, NY
Slightly removed from the spiffed-up commercial artery of one of Upstate New York’s buzziest food cities, Lil’ Deb’s Oasis is not your average farm-to-table Friday night. There’s a warmth and freshness to Hudson’s year-old tropical comfort food fix, and it isn’t just the bright, full-flavored cooking of balmier latitudes (sweet plantains, leche de tigre, callaloo). The restaurant is louder and looser than many of its Warren Street neighbors — and definitely more colorful. There’s poetry on the magnetic menu board and art covering almost every surface, including the floor. The word “restaurant” doesn’t quite capture the energy of what co-founders Hannah Black and Carla Pérez-Gallardo have brought to life. Then again, they never set out to be “chefs.”
For Hannah, an Alabama native and RISD-trained painter, and Carla, a Bard-educated installation artist raised in Queens by Ecuadorian immigrants, restaurant work was, initially, a way to pay the bills post-graduation. They were artists who happened to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, especially as the isolation of the studio and the austerity of the formal gallery system left them craving a more participatory form of expression.
It was a gig at a Vietnamese food truck in Catskill, New York, not an art project, that brought the two of them together, but the creative chemistry was electric. “Carla came on and we just started riffing,” says Hannah. “We’d finish each other’s sentences,” says Carla. “Not having formal training was beneficial to our ability to speak to each other in our own language. There was no fear of doing the wrong thing or having the wrong approach or cutting it the wrong way. That was really freeing.” As they launched a catering operation and began co-creating in earnest, that language, whose building blocks were lime juice and coconut and fresh herbs, absorbed the Latin influences of Carla’s upbringing and Hannah’s stint cooking at Tulúm’s Hartwood. In January 2016, after hosting a pop-up dinner series at a Hudson diner called Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant, they received an unexpected text message from Debbie, herself. She was ready to retire; would they consider taking over?
With a posse of talented contributing artists and collaborators, Hannah and Carla reimagined the worn-in breakfast joint as a space where they could cultivate the community they’d been missing. “We wanted a place that our friends could come every night,” Hannah says, “and our neighbors down the street.” Within a few months, they were serving pupusas, ceviches, aguas frescas, and natural wines to a diverse clientele that included young artists and low-income families. “I think for me it’s the manifestation of a place that really feels like a home to a lot of people,” says Carla. For those people — staff members and regulars — who now belong to the extended Deb’s family, home is a place where weeknight dinner happens to taste like a dream vacation, and everyone down to the dishwasher is having fun.
“Lil’ Deb’s Oasis” is a play on the establishment’s previous moniker — “Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant” — and a tribute to its former doyenne, Debbie Fiero, a longtime small business owner of singular mettle. In a city undergoing radical growth and change, Hannah and Carla were determined to make the space their own without erasing its history. They raised the ceiling but embraced the quirky indoor shingles (a vestige of the building’s original career as a Stewart’s convenience store) and gladly inherited their predecessor’s tables, chairs, and banquettes.
Instead of searching for financial backers to bankroll their redesign, the first-time restaurateurs drew upon a vital infusion of creative capital. “We literally could not have done this without our people,” says Carla, referring to the roster of Hudson Valley makers who painted, upholstered, schlepped, and consulted in order to bring Deb’s to fruition. Hand-me-down barstools now flaunt custom marbled fabric by Christin Ripley of Studio n’ the Round, and perforated pendants from Likeminded Objects’ Elise McMahon throw festive shadow art. Tropical vibes prevail even in the bathroom, home to a Henri Rousseau-inspired jungle mural by illustrator Alex Guerrero.
In part because of the collaborative DIY build-out and in part by design, the restaurant doubles as an interdisciplinary canvas for creative friends, art student neighbors, and bartender-poets, many of whom contributed to a zine the staff produced for this year’s Food Book Fair at Ace Hotel New York. Works by Hudson-based painter-writer- performer Annie Bielski are currently for sale as the in-house gallery prepares to welcome its second local artist-in-residence.
With its tiki-inspired maximalism and punchy sherbet palette, the upfitted space is a force field of irresistible summer energy. On shelves and in corners, a jaunty mix of fresh fruit, faux flowers, neon, streamers, and glitter hints at the co-founders’ years of collective prop-styling experience. It’s the most emancipating kind of art installation: one that doesn’t have to be broken down at the end of a run — one that can simply evolve with their whims.
The menu, like the backdrop, is visually exuberant — and just as playful: a fluid exploration of diverse culinary traditions that adapts, borrows, and reshuffles with sophistication and obvious pleasure. Cocolón, essentially a Persian-inspired crispy rice in translation, originates in the festive Iranian New Year dish tahdig. But with a shift in perspective and a clever rebrand (in Spanish, cocolón literally means “toasted rice that has stuck to the bottom of the pan”), the crusty golden goodness becomes a popular lunchtime vehicle for fried eggs and avocado. Shakshuquiles, a shakshuka-chilaquiles hybrid that recently made its menu debut, is likewise vivid, irreverent, and the brunch equivalent of a mic-drop.
Without being prescriptive about it, Hannah and Carla source energetically from local growers like Ironwood and Whistle Down, and much of the produce served at Lil’ Deb’s hails from within 15 minutes of the restaurant’s front door. Of course, plantains and pineapples also have an important place in their kitchen. The “fresco” section of the lunch menu features a salad inspired by the spicy fruit cups often found on Mexican street corners; the Deb’s version, salty, limey, and chile-dusted like the original, is served with both tropical and seasonal fruit — and winkingly dubbed the “Tropi-Local,” a label that could apply to most of the vibrant, traveled menu.
With its crowd-sourced tasting notes like “ripped denim” (a dry local cider) and “1970s kitchen” (a funky orange from Catalonia), the wine list is equal parts earnestness, levity, and poetry — a “serious team effort” and a disarming read. “Wine is such a language,” says Hannah. “To us it was like, how do we approach wine without being intimidated by it?” What began in jest — a casual volley of spoof descriptors fired off at a late-night tasting (“old gym sock,” “rose petals at dawn”) — has evolved into a staff-wide creative ritual. Even customers who happen to be in the restaurant on tasting day are given a piece of paper and invited to jot down their thoughts.
Hannah and Carla have designed and redesigned their menu with approachability in mind — and a vision for a place where eaters of all persuasions, budgets, and palates will feel cared for and satisfied. “Our thoughts were always like, how do we do this in a responsible way?,” says Carla. “In a town that’s evolving so quickly? How do we have a voice and a home and offer ourselves without alienating people?” Her hope is that a craveable Ecuadorian street snack like llapingachos, which inspired her richest childhood food memories, will also speak to Hudson appetites. Served with peanut salsa and a fried egg, the griddle-fried cheese and scallion-stuffed potato pancake is the kind of dish that can win converts. “It’s delicious and filling and cheap,” she says. “It may not be a bridge, but once you cross the bridge, it’s the first place you land.”
“You can come in and spend five dollars or thirty dollars — or get a whole meal for ten dollars,” says Carla, referring to the Plato Tropical, a nourishing and substantial one-plate dinner of spiced lentils, herbed rice, and garlicky greens. “Or you can ball out and buy an eighty-dollar bottle of wine and have the whole fried fish and do the whole thing.” The latter is served (forgivingly) on banana leaf-lined cafeteria trays Hannah picked up at a ’90s period piece high school film sale. Which means there’s no sense in being careful with the addictive citrus-ginger vinaigrette.
“The foundation of my relationship to food was definitely my family,” says Carla, who adapted her grandmother’s signature flan for the menu. “She’s huge. She raised me. I don’t think either of us ever expected me to be doing this. I think she feels honored.” At 82, Abuela Inés, who, as a recent immigrant, also earned a living in New York kitchens, still drives herself up from Queens to check on her namesake dessert or even pitch in with the dishes.
Neighbor María Romero, another spiritual matriarch, supplies the homemade pupusas Deb’s serves with salsa and cabbage curtido. Since the restaurant’s early days, her nine children (and many grandchildren) have also provided constant, critical backup in the kitchen. “It’s a beautiful relationship that we have,” says Hannah. “There are so many people in her family that they kind of replace each other. We’re never totally sure who’s showing up.” Sunday is the only day the Romero family doesn’t cover a shift on prep or dish. Even five-year-old Flor can often be found juicing limes or manning a driveway lemonade stand. “The whole first summer we were open they pretty much lived here,” says Carla. “It’s a clan. We’re a family. And we’re even more of a family with them.”
“People ask us still, ‘Are you making work?’,” says Carla. “And it’s this funny thing where we’re like, this is the studio. This is the work. This is the installation, the performance, the whole thing.”
“There are days when it’s hard,” says Hannah. “We’re in it. It’s hot. We don’t have nice stuff. But there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. After struggling to be in the studio, it’s a satisfaction to know that everything I’ve done — that it’s all making sense.”
“When friends I haven’t seen in awhile ask how things are going, my answer is that I’m exhausted all the time, but I’m happy,” says Carla. “Really happy. There are days when it’s like, how are we doing this? But it’s always the joy — it’s always the joy at the end of the day.”