Johanna Hellrigl seems determined to cram all 2.3 million square miles of the Amazon Rainforest into a single ring mold.
Mercy Me, the anticipated “Sorta South American” cafe and restaurant in the West End that Hellrigl leads in collaboration with the power couple behind Call Your Mother bagels and Timber Pizza Co., will welcome the public for its first sit-down service at brunch time tomorrow on the back patio of the recently rebranded Yours Truly hotel. Hellrigl is rolling out a midday menu full of dishes that will command attention as soon as they’re caught on camera: sourdough banana pancakes with a salted dulce de leche syrup and hazelnut pralines; a riff on a New Jersey-style pork roll with a facsimile of Taylor ham Hellrigl created with her staff butcher, Matt Levere; circular, annatto-red Colombian arepas that are flash fried with a runny egg inside. Maybe the most far-out item, the one that speaks the most to the chef’s efforts to honor ingredients from the continent, is a vegan “Amazonian” tartare full of Brazilian fruits.
Hellrigl sources raw hearts of palm and and tosses them in pequi oil — a product of a spiky fruit that lends the plants a deep orange color — before charring them for the top layer of the tartare. The same palm trees produce a peach that Hellrigl describes as sweet and savory with a texture akin to a chestnut. She brines the palm peaches before pureeing them and mixing them with cupuaçu fruit, a relative of cacao that has a buttery quality, like “caramelized pear meets pineapple,” she says. Hellrigl serves the tartare with crackers made out of Brazilian rice, coconut oil, and tucupi, a sauce made from manioc root that’s fermented so long it turns black.
“I wanted to spend like 10 times more time on a vegan dish than I did on anything else,” Hellrigl says. “I really wanted to make sure that I found a way to translate something that showed the effort for vegan cuisine. I do think it can sometimes be, you can go to tofu or you can go to processed things.”
Hellrigl, who has traveled extensively through South America while working for a democracy building organization, consulted with anthropologist Greg Prang to source a number of Amazonian ingredients, including a pimenta Baniwa, a pepper blend created by women from the indigenous Baniwa community that supplies a potent burst of heat to Hellrigl’s rice crackers. As a co-founder of Culinary Culture Connections, Prang translates two decades of work experience in Latin America into a company that brings responsibly sourced products to the United States.
Merken, a smoky Chilean spice that indigenous Mapuche people have traditionaly made out Goat’s Horn chiles, is a key ingredient for Hellrigl’s play on chicken and waffles. The spice goes into a buttermilk brine, a breading, and a maple syrup for a fried Cornish hen served with savory corn and green onion pancakes. The merken is also used as a significant flavor in Argentine choricillo Hellrigl puts on a picada, a charcuterie and cheese platter.
When Mercy Me eventually opens for dinner, Hellrigl plans to show off dry-aged steaks that come out of whole steers Levere breaks down from APD, a regenerative farm in Warrenton, Virginia. For now, the grass-fed, grass-finished beef will go into butcher’s cuts for steak and eggs, a brunch burger topped with sofrito and Colby cheese, and a sirloin dip with spicy jus and pickled vegetable slaw.
While brunch will run on the patio — and potentially a few indoor tables bordering floor-to-ceiling windows — Mercy Me’s cafe counter will continue to offer takeout items it introduced about seven weeks ago: breakfast tacos with Venezuelan avocado salsa, Call Your Mother bagels with cream cheese full of dried chimichurri herbs, sugar-dusted and guava-stuffed medialunas from pastry chef Camila Arango, who owns the Pluma by Bluebird bakery by Union Market. Hellrigl says Arango, who hails from Colombia, and Daniela Moreira, the Timber Pizza/Call Your Mother chef who hails from Argentina, have been crucial resources to give her feedback on South American staples.
Desserts from Arango, including a chocolate bread pudding French toast with passion fruit maple syrup and Colombian floats made with vanilla or vegan strawberry-guava soft serve, will be available at Mercy Me’s brunch, along with her alfajores and lineup of pastries.
Micah Wilder is another long-tenured collaborator. Along with his roles as a co-owner at Chaplin’s ramen bar and Zeppelin sushi in Shaw, he’s also Hellrigl’s husband. He’s built a cocktail menu with spritzes, boozier options, and tropical frozen drinks. The latter category features a “Kick Ass Colada” made with caramelized pineapple, toasted dried coconut, coconut powder, and fresh coconut pulp.
Mercy Me (1143 New Hampshire Avenue NW) is accepting brunch reservations on Resy from 11 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.