Whether you are trying something new like tallarines y chorizo (homemade chorizo sautéed with lo mien noodles and baked with queso fresco) or you want a more typical taco, chef Tony Craig said at Georgina’s you’ll find “comfort food.”
“That’s the essence of my food,” said Craig, who owns Georgina’s. “It’s comforting. Even when you want spicy, even when you want something exciting, it’s comforting.”
The Grand Rapids location, at 724 Wealthy St. SE, is the second Georgina’s in Michigan. Craig opened the first Georgina’s four years ago in Traverse City in a small 400 square foot space and has since relocated the restaurant there to a larger facility.
Craig brings his unique background to Georgina’s, fusing Latin and Asian traditions to create a slew of tasty dishes that can’t be found anywhere else in Grand Rapids.
Craig was born in Nicaragua to a Chinese mother and Cuban father and by the age of eight he was adopted by his American father and came to Florida, growing up in Tampa and later moving to Miami.
All of these places left their mark on him and have fueled the way he cooks and the dishes he’s created.
Craig said his mother had the largest role in teaching him how to cook. He’s always strived to be as good of a chef as her – and admits he’s never succeeded.
“My mother taught me how to cook. My mother had a restaurant in Central America. She is this little five-foot Chinese woman and she can butcher a goat and kill chickens. I used to be in awe of her. She uses this huge knife and cuts these perfect little carrot sticks and I can’t do it, still, and she’s 80 years old.”
Craig said his Chinese grandfather influenced his mother’s cooking and helped set her up under the tutelage of four of Nicaragua’s most highly regarded chefs, where she learned her skills.
“There are these four Chinese men who own the best steakhouse in Nicaragua. It’s called Lost Ranchos, and my mom learned to cook with those men,” he said.
Craig said what always surprises people is the connection between Asian and Latin food. “A lot of people don’t know that the Chinese influence is so huge in South America. Peruvian food is influenced so heavily by the Japanese. At one point in time, 15 to 20 years ago, the president of Peru was Japanese.” he said, by way of explanation.
Craig said the food he cooks is just like that found in Nicaragua, but with one big advantage, it benefits from fresher ingredients. He said oftentimes in Nicaragua poverty and lack of education make for poorer food quality as farmers struggle to grow their crops.
“I’m aware of the quality of the product here, I’m blessed. We are blessed,” he said.
Craig said Georgina’s and his story is the epitome of the American dream.
In 2003, Craig relocated from Miami to Traverse City. He said he was ready for a slower pace of life. He had $186 to his name and was gifted another $50 each from two cousins, one of whom he said particularly believed in his ability to succeed if given the opportunity (Georgina’s is named after her).
After a decade, he saved up enough money to open his first Georgina’s in Traverse City. The space was small, with seating for only 18 people, but it was exactly the sort of proving ground Craig needed.
He said he put $60,000 into “this little 400 square foot place,” and when people asked why he’d spend so much on such a small space he said, “My food needs a chance.”
Craig said over the years, Georgina’s in Traverse City has served customers from Grand Rapids who are visiting for the weekend or who own a summer home in the area, and they’ve made repeated pleas for him to expand to Grand Rapids.
He decided to visit the city and see what kinds of opportunities it offered. He fell in love with Wealthy Street and a very specific location. Craig said when he saw the “for sale” sign in the window of Phil’s Stuff; he knew that was the location for the next Georgina’s.
He said the brick-paved roadway reminded him of Tampa and he liked the energy of the surrounding neighborhood. “That is why I picked this place, the brick roads that reminded me of Tampa. When I came in the summer, the number of people walking around enjoying life. That is what life is about to me. They are in their neighborhood just walking around, getting to know your neighbor.”
With the second location, Craig said he didn’t want to veer too far from the original Georgina’s, but he also wanted to keep the many historic features of the building.
“We made the bar the focal point. That’s a little bit different than the other place,” he said. “At the same time, we wanted to keep what the building was, the terrazzo floor, the brick exposed walls. We tried to bring a little of Traverse City here. We brought the same tile.”
The result is a warm and comfortable dining room. It’s a place for lengthy dinners filled with gregarious conversation.
Craig said he really wanted to create a space that is an extension of his home in the sense that he wants visitors to the restaurant to have the same experience as if he invited them over for dinner.
He said there is one difference with the Grand Rapids location. It will serve as Georgina’s test kitchen for new items. He plans to try out a handful of fish and seafood items here first.
Craig said his ultimate goal is to share his food with everyone he can, because it’s sharing a part of himself with everyone and ultimately introducing people to a mix of cultures and the people of those cultures.
*Photos courtesy of Georgina’s