The first time I came in contact with Armando “Tito” Tam was through my interview with César Vargas. Thank you, César, for the connect! This is the advantage of social media and the reason why it is so important to me to continue building connections through this platform by sharing the stories of these magnificent human beings who are making a difference with their work whether is creating art, sharing ideas, building brands, spreading positive energy…there is something extraordinary within them that inspires me and my wish is to inspire you all by sharing their stories.
Tito is a multifaceted entrepreneur, a passionate and badass cook whose mission is to highlight all things Latino. Proud of his heritage (Nicaraguan and Chinese) and as many Latinos always striving for a better life, was in la cocina combined with his love for food that the idea to pursue his first venture (pop-up dinners) was born and propelled his ambition to go even further. Today, his vision expanded beyond his initial venture of pop-up dinners and in this interview, he shares with us his love for food and music, some of his favorite spots to enjoy Latino and Asian food in the US and even one of his signature recipes!
WA: Tell us about Armando “Tito”, where were you born, what do you do?
AT: Armando AKA Tito Tam was born in Rivas, Nicaragua to Chinese Nicaraguan parents. We came to the US after the situation got bad politically in Nicaragua in the 80’s like many Nicaraguan immigrants. I’ve done many things to this day and I feel that I am just getting started in what I was set out to do. I currently work at a business trade association called the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) while working on my passion to profession projects such as my food and apparel ventures.
WA: When and where did you first start cooking professionally? Was it a conscious decision to become a chef or did you find you fell into it?
AT: I have always done several things even if I had a day job. I would teach dancing and run nightclubs at night and in between those gigs, I used to watch cooking shows on TV and developed a passion for it. To be clear, I am not a chef as a profession in the technical terms. Times have changed the food game. Social media, the term food porn, and pop-ups have taken a life of its own. One day, I decided to see how far I could take my passion for cooking. I began to host dinner pop-ups with menus that incorporated my upbringing and travels. So with respect to chefs, I am not a chef but I do consider myself a badass cook lol.
WA: Who are the people that have had the biggest impact on your culinary outlook, and what did they teach you?
WA: My mom and dad showed me the story behind cooking a dish, the history and tradition so I would begin from there. Mami and Papi, would wake us up early to make the nacatamales we used to sell when we got to the US. That taught me what good food and flavors were. Then I would give credit to folks that I used to watch on TV back then such as Alex Garcia, Aaron Sanchez, Bobby Flay and of course the big daddy of them all Douglas Rodriguez. D Rod or “socio” as I call him continues to impact me to this day along with today’s badass chefs in the game. Even till now, the majority of the food discussions with D Rod are more about the philosophy of the dish and understanding what makes it. From there what I learn most from him is how he takes his tradition, experience and mana (swagger) just translates his own rendition, Notice, I say own rendition not “fusion” I’m not into the game of fusion lol.
WA: If you were going to choose a couple of songs that best represent your dishes, and that might be playing while you’re making them, what would those be?
AT: Hmmmm good question…When I am exploring a new dish or cooking one with tradition on the playlist will always have
- Jose Feliciano – Usted
- Marc Anthony – Que Precio Tiene
- Jodeci – Feenin
- Ozuna – Quiero Repetir
and the finale plate lol would be Otra Vez Zion & Lenox with J Balvin lol…I’m a hopeless romantic so it rocks the #sexyhomecooking tag I created with those 5
WA: What are your top 5 ingredients in Chinese cooking?
AT: My top 5 for Chinese are shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, Chinese sausage, soy sauce and Chinese broccoli
WA: What are your top 5 ingredients in Latin cooking?
AT: My top 5 on the Latino side – lime, yuca, maduro, plátanos and chimichurri
WA: Tell us your top pick of Latin-Asian fusion restaurants in the US?
AT: I’ll give you names of the joints I like to go to (not using fusion lol) La Caridad in NYC – comida cubana china criolla. It’s on the Upper West side where I can have my rabo encendido with chow mein and tostones. Then there is Flor de Mayo its Peruvian con comida china. I just had my pollo asado with arroz chino the other day….slamming. Only in NYC do I see these type of combos. Lastly, would be my pop-ups because I showcase chino Latino combos. I want to explain my take (even if it may be criticized) for not using the word “fusion” both of those spots, I didn’t just eat the food, I spoke with the staff, the cooks and sometimes the owners…they both have Chinese and Latino connections, they were born in either Cuba or Peru and were of Chinese descent. In Cuba’s barrio chino, the Chinese guy married a cubana…so you go and try the lechon and fried rice after a sopa de wonton…slamming lol but back to my thoughts on not using fusion. My upbringing introduced me to two different flavors and ingredients that came to become one. Same as the two spots above, there was history before you even sit down and order it.
WA: What are your 5 favorite places to eat Asian food in the world?
- Mission Chinese Food in NYC – shout out to Danny B, he’s a genius.
- Yung Kee in Oakland …very calle in Chinatown and I have been going there for 20 years
- BaoHaus in NYC… I can relate to the flavors of the bao bun Eddie Huang sells there as well as the experience when ya walk in…hip hop and the whole 9
- Yuet Lee in San Fran Chinatown… they grab the fish from the aquarium so you know its fresh and of course the ginger green onion crab
- I would say that you can be safe and make sure: 1. its a hole in a wall and ask if they carry the scrambled eggs and prawns over white rice and you’ll be set. They are OG if they offer that.
WA: What are your 5 favorite places to eat Latin food in the US?
- Jaleo – in DC from Jose Andres, he’s one of my favorite chefs out there now.
- Mojito Bar in Ft Lauderdale by socio Douglas Rodriguez, he’s got some smoked jerk ribs in a tamarindo glaze…
- Cuchifritos on 116th Street, NYC. I have to have my morcilla y arroz amarillo
- La27 in LA – I can have my leche agria y morongas anytime I’m in La La land
- Pubbelly – Miami…Jose Mendin is another bad ass. He takes comida boricua and uses them with his background of working in the sushi business. So I can have my crab roll with mofongo.
WA: Being of Nicaraguan and Chinese descent, did you ever have issues with your identity?
AT: I get this asked often, for me…I’m proud of my grandfather’s Chinese heritage, they settled in Nicaragua at a young age and assimilated while starting a family and life. My parents were born in Nicaragua as I was, we grew up con las costumbres Nica. We came to this country and maintain our cultura, our idioma while always respecting our sangre china.
I grew up in the hood or barrio so we always dealt with Latinos. Had I grown up in an area that didn’t have as many Latino’s perhaps I would have a different answer? I will share a funny story, back then I would get asked how I spoke Spanish since I look Chinese…and most of the time, either they didn’t speak Spanish OR I speak it better, that usually settles the question. Entonces, I’m proud de mi sangre china y soy un Nica orgulloso.
WA: Why it is so important to you to highlight “all things Latino”?
AT: It’s important to show the beauty of the Latino culture. I never let anyone dictate how I should spend my time or my future, I learned the cooking at home with moms and pops, which led me to pursue my pop-ups. My dad put us into martial arts where we got our black belts, taught me to be great at whatever I do. My mom said I was a horrible singer so I should stick to dancing, well that motivated me to do something great, I ended up performing with Will Smith’s Welcome to Miami. I then went back to music lol and I produced and teamed up with Grammy award winner Chino Nunez on a couple of albums. The same goes for NAHREP, the organization that helps Latinos build great businesses achieving wealth for a better quality of life. I started my real estate company and NAHREP helped me become a better businessman. Then we have la comida, I want to see how far I can take my passion. So siempre le doy gracias a Dios, my parents and the people I spend time with for making me strive to be the best I can be. I’ve been fortunate to have a dope understanding of culture, business, food, and music because I have lived it.
WA: Do you find it a challenge to constantly innovate?
AT: I don’t find it a challenge to constantly innovate, I really look at it as telling my story. I’m one of the 55 million Latino stories out there. There is plenty of belleza out there, we just need to showcase more of them. I don’t like the term Nuevo Latino, I’ve been around 40 years, we are just beginning to tell more stories, we are not new lol. In this country there is a diff culture, it’s called your surroundings with your tradition. Romeo Santos, for example, is Dominican and Puerto Rican. Its unique because as more of these situations grow, imagine how many boxes they will want to add for us to check in to identify us lol.
WA: Where does your inspiration come from?
AT: My inspiration comes from wanting to put the whole picture together para nuestra cultura. From all over Latinoamerica to understand appreciate and love the foods, traditions, accents, and music etc. I have not seen anyone able to do that and unite us, to this day I still see some division entre nosotros. Con lo bueno or lo que tiene que cambiar…with time it’ll happen but yes, Latino till I die.
WA: Now, tell us about “Cielo by Tito” and when is the next one.
AT: Cielo By Tito was my pop up concept, I created dishes that include my travels, experiences, and flavors paired with my playlist…it would feel like you would be in heaven. I didn’t want to just create a menu, I wanted to create an experience people would remember. You think my parents cooked with no music up tight using tongs to plate? Remember, my take on food isn’t just the finished served up product, I include the history, my rendition of the music. Cielo sold-out San Francisco, Oakland, Orlando, LA and NYC pop-ups last year, so I am blessed and proud that I can do that. Remember, no formal training, just the will to hold me to achieve my goals.
WA: Besides being a chef you are also an entrepreneur, share with our readers about your clothing line “Tito’s Mundo” and also about Levanta Ventures.
AT: Levanta Ventures is where I practice what I call my passion to profession projects. I’m proud of TitosMundo which is the Inspira Gear. I wanted apparel with positivity that people could wear at home or dressed up sexy going out. I didn’t see anything that was in English and Spanish with a strong message as well. Today, Spanglish is the way we communicate. Each collection has its meaning or inspiration.
- Bendiciones – I wanted to take my abuelitas or moms word to me and turn it into a mindset.
- I Can Become Lo Que Yo Deseo – imagine if we woke up with this mindset daily? Imagine when our children, the future…think like this? We take control of our life journey.
- Dale Sabor – for my music and food inspirations, what makes us Latino and Latinas the sexiest? Our sabor baby!
- Buena Vibra – let’s wake up positive, siempre positivo so why not rock Buena Vibra its the same meaning but in Spanish.
- Achieving Dopeness – let’s go for greatness, we have one life, so lets make our goals and dreams come true, so I created Achieving Dopeness.
Wear any of the above and you will feel a certain swagger and confidence if ya don’t then I don’t know what to tell you. I like to disrupt once in a while, so I will create Spanglish or take urban words and make them sexy enough to wear. Times are changing, look at the food industry with the social media aspect? Some traditional chefs criticize it, we’ll understand it because its changed the game and it also opens doors for new folks. Same with music….look at what hip-hop has done to regular culture? 20 years ago, do you think that major commercials during super bowl or NBA finals would have a hip-hop influence? did you ever think that Bieber would consider singing a reggaeton song?
WA: You travel a lot, Where do you feel most at home these days?
AT: My home is where I can do laundry, catch up on my shows, cook a 2-hour dish to fill the room with aroma and memories, smoke my Padron cigar con flor de Cana rum and hang with buena gente. While I enjoy traveling, those things I mentioned always keep me grounded.
WA: What advice would you give home chefs who are inspired by your style of cookery?
AT: Surround yourself with people that can help you achieve your craft. I always try to be the dumbest or poorest in the room. Think about it, I want to learn from those that are on another level. Develop your style and market it to see what the market will say. One mistake chefs make is they are stuck in the tradition part, listen….you can play the same game and take your chances or you can create your own game. Create your social media brand and or YouTube channel. Remember, see what the folks that are going to pay for your food to give you feedback.
WA: What’s on your Playlist?
J Balvin duet – Otra Vez and Machika
Ozuna – Quiero Repetir
G Eazy – No Limit with Cardi B
Marc Anthony – Te Amare or anything this dude has
Romeo Santos – Heroe Favorito or same like Marc
Nicky Jam – El Amante
Drake – God’s plan
I try to play songs with a story thru lyrics, they never get old. If the message is dope then it’ll come in handy at some point or moment in your life that you need a pick me up.
WA: What’s next for Tito?
AT: Next is to one day become what Jay Z has done in business and culture for his community. I want to become that para nuestra gente. I want to give it more clarity, he’s in a position to tell stories from his point of view. Let us tell our own stories.
WA: Can you share with our audience one of your signature recipes?
TA: Since I am proud of being from the bay – the salad with maduro croutons topped with crab ( For the recipe click here) …enjoy and make sure you got the playlist ready!