On November 28th I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Carlos “Junior” Portal, the chef and general manager of Betty’s Wok and Noodle on 250 Huntington Avenue in Boston. I love this restaurant and have always wanted to know how they came up with the idea to have a fusion of Asian and Latino food. Read on and learn the answer to this question any many others.
Q: What is it like to be a chef in a Boston restaurant?
A: It is exciting and it is stressful. Bostonians are demanding, they know what they want and they obviously want quality, so it’s exciting but it’s very stressful, but it’s fun.
Q: Do you find you constantly have to compete to keep up with other restaurants?
A: Well I don’t feel like we do that because, you know, we’re not Chinese, or we’re not Japanese, or we’re not Latino. We are very unique and we do our own thing. So we compete obviously in service and we hope the quality of service is good. But not in food per say, because you know what you get when you come to Betty’s.
Q: Who came up with the idea to have a restaurant that serves a fusion of Asian and Latino food?
A: My partner, Karen Albrektsen. She was in sales and then she always had the idea that she wanted to go into the service industry. She lived in Chicago and there was a restaurant in Chicago that inspired her.
Q: Why Asian and Latino food in particular?
A: Well they actually mix very well. There are a lot of similar flavors; there are a lot of similar spices. They are both very interesting, they are both very colorful, but very flavorful and they are trendy. There is a big boom in Asian and Latino food now.
Q: Is there any special meaning behind the name of the restaurant?
A: There was. We wanted to call it “Betty Crocker,” but it couldn’t be done because of Betty Crocker and then it just ended up being Betty’s. Betty is the mother of the 50’s she is looking beautiful, she’s cooking good food, she is having a good time.
Q: Basically you could not name the restaurant Betty Crocker because of copyright issues?
A: Yes ma’am.
Q: Who are your clientele and how do you adjust your cooking styles to fit them?
A: Well we target all groups, all demographics, from children to adults to the symphony crowd which is usually 48 and up. The variety on the menu, we do have everything. For example if you want to be healthy we will steam your vegetables. Whatever you want. I think our menu pleases all types of customers. There is a lot of variety and flavors.
Q: Do you find you get a lot of college students?
A: Yes we do, and we appreciate them a lot. They are the one’s that come after 8 o’clock. We do our first part of the day for the symphony crowd. Our music is different, our lighting is different, the whole mood is different for that type of crowd. And then after 8 o’clock is when we get the younger crowd. We dim the lights; we play all retro music, more kind of lounge like, more fun, louder. At 8’oclock we just go crazy and that’s when the college students like to come in.
Q: What type of music do you play?
A: We are all retro. Everything that I play is retro: 50s, 60s, and 70s from funk to disco to rock and roll. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of good music. And for everyone’s taste.
Q: Do you find with individualizing meals and having such a wide clientele base it is hard to please everyone?
A: It’s easier to please everyone. The hardest part is that some people might be overwhelmed and then we have to guide them through the process, it makes it easier. What’s great is that any kind of diet you have, you could eat at Betty’s and I don’t think all the restaurants could say that.
Q: Have you created a system to be able to individualize meals?
A: We had to create a whole system in order to do this, absolutely. Here one dish is completely different from the next so that’s part of the challenge and we had to find a system that would work for us. I have to say we do it very well. In other restaurants they screw up your pizza and your stake. We try to not make mistakes. Food should come out really really fast. In two and a half minutes we cook your meal.
Q: Do you have any last commentary on being a chef in Boston or Betty’s Wok and Noodle in general?
A: Well like I said before, it’s challenging, it’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of people with great ideas. It’s a labor of love. And you have to love what you do and you have to love to work with people and you have to love to listen to people.
We do our own thing here. We have been on Rachel Ray we have been on T.V. Diner we have been on everywhere. We just try to do our thing, we are not really worried about other people and we try to be always on the creative side. And we understand what going out is, you go out with friends you want it to be fun and you want it to be cool so we want to meet everybody’s expectations. It is a restaurant for everybody.
Betty's Wok and Noodle