Twisted Soul: A World of Flavors
WHERE CAN YOU get Argentine, Malaysian, Ethiopian, Korean, Colombian and American Southern cuisine, as well as bubble tea and cupcakes, all under the same roof? At first glance, Twisted Soul Food Concepts, a tidy hole-in-the-wall Poughkeepsie spot, may appear to be a confusion of flavors, but behind the menu madness, there is a method.
When chef Ira Lee opened the eatery in 2007, he wanted to share globally inspired street food with the local community. Drawing on more than eight years of experience as a chef in Mexico as well as the culinary influence of his Argentinian wife, Brenda, Lee returned to his home state of New York and chose Poughkeepsie’s Vassar neighborhood as the location for his unique fusion-food concept. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Lee was comfortable with the Hudson Valley food scene. “I guess it was fate to open here. I was comfortable with the market; the restaurant industry was starting to open up in the area, and the CIA is a good resource to have nearby,” Lee says.
I try out the street foods. I try to eat and explore what I think people would honestly eat here in the States,
Initially, Twisted Soul focused primarily on southern United States and Argentine flavors, but the menu quickly expanded to encompass such wide-ranging dishes as octopus empanadas, jerk chicken rice bowls, bubble tea and cupcakes. (Regarding the cupcakes: Lee’s wife, Brenda, is a pastry chef.) Lee travels to several different areas around the world every year, where he picks up inspiration and new flavors from street carts and small food vendors. “I try out the street foods. I try to eat and explore what I think people would honestly eat here in the States,” Lee says. Typically, he visits two countries in the winter and two in the summer, looking for home-style cooking that’s popular in each. When he returns home, Lee lets his ideas “marinate for a while” before incorporating them onto the menu.
With more than 20 different countries stamped in his passport, continents collide at Twisted Soul. Colombian-style arepa corn cakes meet Ethiopian-inspired BBQ tofu, while Filipino-style chicken adobo tops macaroni and cheese. The menu starts with basic global concepts—dumplings, empanadas, arepas, rice or noodle bowls, salads, steamed buns—which are then infused with international flavors. Lee acknowledges that local audiences might not be ready for extreme dishes like cured “century eggs,” a Chinese delicacy, or durian milkshakes, popular in Southeast Asia. “Sometimes I realize that there’s no way in the world that any American palate will be able to take in a dish as it traditionally is, so I’ll change it, adjust it and adapt it to where I think I can sell it,” he explains. For the large number of vegetarian and vegan customers he serves, he omits a dish’s traditional animal products, replacing them with components that offer a similar flavor profile and preserve the personality of the dish. This sort of adaptability and attention to customer demand has made Twisted Soul approachable and popular with locals. The price points and portion sizes also are approachable, making it easy for customers to try new flavors without committing to the ticket price of a full meal. Just about everything on the menu is under $10. Rather than paying $12 or $14 for an appetizer followed by a larger entrée as at traditional restaurants, the Twisted concept lets customers explore dishes like duck confit, octopus, lamb, plantains and other new flavors in small bites, presented in a user-friendly form of steamed buns or dumplings or incorporated into a rice or noodle bowl. It’s what might best be described as entry-level international. Lee has expanded to two other Poughkeepsie locations: Intro Food Concepts (directly across the street from Twisted Soul) and Naked Food Concepts next to Marist. Each one is just a stone’s throw from a college campuse and a diverse student population that appreciates eating well on a budget. Intro Food Concepts is a crêperie that also serves salads and tamales, while Naked Food Concepts specializes in vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free menu items. “For the crêpes, I went to Quebec City and Montreal just to eat and [to] research. When I find a niche [dish], I want to travel and see in what countries they’re most popular and how they set up their operations.” Crêpes also fit perfectly below Lee’s $10 price cap. Though Lee has a global mindset, he also understands the importance of local influence. To source his unusual menu, he frequents many of the area’s small ethnic grocery stores to find exactly what he needs. “We use Indian ingredients, we use Asian ingredients, we use Spanish ingredients, so I have to use a lot of different local ingredient outlets,” Lee says. Welcome Oriental Grocery, Krishna Groceries and Associated Supermarkets (all in Poughkeepsie) are just a few of the vendors where Lee checks off his eclectic shopping list. Over time, he has gained a sense of community through his network of small local businesses. “Like farmers, these people have families and support the area too, and I know their families,” Lee notes. What’s the next stop on his culinary travel agenda? Cuba is on the list—depending on how the country opens up in the wake of softened diplomatic relations with the United States—and he’s also itching to return to Southeast Asia. Singapore and Malaysia are also on his mind. Keep your eyes peeled for new arrivals to Twisted Soul’s menu; you never know what culinary souvenirs will turn up.