When she moved to Philadelphia for college, Samantha Schlegel immediately took an interest in food.
“There were a lot of foods that were new and different to me at that time and ever since then I’ve loved learning about more and different types of food and cuisine and cultures,” said Schlegel, a 2009 graphic and interactive design alumna.
Schlegel is now the co-founder of Usaquén, a Colombian pop-up restaurant housed in Fishtown’s Philly Style Bagels once or twice a month to serve traditional and fusion Colombian dishes.
One of Usaquén’s most popular traditional dishes is the fried Colombian coconut rice. The pop-up also serves fusion dishes like rice and chicken cooked in Coca-Cola chicken stock or Hawaiian empanadas made with pineapple and chicken.
Schlegel said Usaquén offers customers the opportunity to try traditional Colombian food in Philadelphia — for which there aren’t many other options.
“What we’re trying to offer is traditional Colombian food with our own creative flair put into it to make it a little bit more modernized for the foodies and the diners here in Philadelphia,” Schlegel said.
The name of the restaurant comes from co-founder and chef Mel Tenorio’s childhood home, Usaquén, a residential neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.
Schlegel and Tenorio visited Cali, Colombia together for three months last year.
“Every day [in Colombia] you can see something new in the grocery store that you don’t know or you go into a restaurant and there’s a menu with words that you don’t know,” Schlegel said. “So it’s a lot to take in, but it’s definitely great.”
Schlegel has worked in the food industry on and off for 10 years. She started when she was 16 years old as a dishwasher at a restaurant and continued to work at restaurants while she attended Temple.
Although she pursued a degree in graphic design, Schlegel graduated from the Tyler School of Art during the 2009 financial crisis — when the art industry felt uncertain to her — so she continued to work in restaurants.
“[Temple] said this [was] the worst year for entry level jobs in everything, including design, and you were seeing a lot of companies getting rid of their art departments,” Schlegel said.
She lived in France for three years after she was accepted to a teaching assistant program. After that, she moved back to Philadelphia and eventually met Tenorio. Together, they started the pop-up in October.
The menu for Usaquén changes with every pop-up event. The influences come from their own experiences in Colombia as well as some of Tenorio’s mother’s recipes.
“We talk around ideas about what is typically Colombian and how people might enjoy that here or how we can make it a dish that’s something that Americans would like,” Schlegel said.
Carlos Lopez and Olivia Holdsworth live in South Philadelphia, but said they have been to Colombia and love Colombian food. They visited Usaquén at its latest pop-up on Feb. 3 after a friend recommended it.
“This is the first time that we’ve come [to Usaquén],” said Lopez, who is from El Salvador. “So we’re very excited, we’re always looking for food [in Philadelphia].”
Schlegel and Tenorio aspire to turn their pop-up into a brick-and-mortar location in Philadelphia.
“We want to be a restaurant,” Schlegel said. “We’re already actively investigating potential locations for a restaurant.”
The owners love the joy their customers get out of trying new and surprising foods, like Colombian-style chorizo hot dogs or cheesesteaks.
“That’s just fun about what we do,” Schlegel said. “[We’re] surprising people with how good something can be that they’ve never had before.”
Taylor Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.