Merengue Cafe


Tucked back in a quiet street in the Berry Hill neighborhood of Nashville sits Merengue Cafe. We sat down with the owner, chef, and restaurateur, Dee Castillo, to talk about her Dominican and Puerto Rican roots.

Dee was born in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic. She spent the first part of her childhood learning the ways of cooking from her mother, grandmother, and neighbors. There she mastered the ways of using garlic, oregano, and plantains in her cooking. She then moved to the neighboring island of Puerto Rico, ran a business, and now resides in Nashville and loves to share her culture with the people of Nashville.

What brought you to Nashville?

I came to visit a friend in Nashville by coincidence and I fell in love with it. I love it! I’m a country girl. I love nature. I would say Nashville, nature, and the weather was what most impressed me and I decided to stay.

When did you open your first business in Nashville?

I opened my first restaurant 4 years after I moved to Nashville. It was very, very hard. It was a restaurant and sports bar. It didn’t work out and I learned so much. So I started to help out other Spanish speakers be able to open their restaurants after the things I learned. I’ve helped 12-14 businesses open. The most popular business I’ve helped open is Fonda El Cubileta. Flores Super Deli is another restaurant I helped. It’s Honduran.

What inspired you to open Merengue?

I missed my food. I missed my culture. And I always had the vision of having a business in Nashville. Every single business I’ve helped open is a gem.

Tell me about the food

It’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. We serve a lot of congri which is black beans and rice which is very Cuban. The funny thing is all 3 countries eat the same thing, we just call it a different name. Mofongo is Puerto Rican, 100%. Mangú which is boiled plantain with onions on top with mashed potatoes is Dominican 100% which is also our breakfast, believe it or not.

What is Merengue’s speciality?

Mofongo which is a Puerto Rican dish. 100%. Traditionally Mofongo is green plantain, deep fried, smashed with pork, garlic, and seasoning..then you add the meat. Here we decided to think outside of the box. We started to make Mofongo with shrimp in a coconut garlic sauce.

Popular ingredients:

Garlic, oregano...but not just any oregano. Authentic oregano from the Dominican Republic. It’s different. To get the authenticity, you can’t use stuff from here. You have to use it from your own country. Onions, plantains, pork, rice, beans, all types of meat. The most popular meat that we have is the oxtail.

What do you recommend at Merengue Cafe?

At first, we always recommend the buffet. In the buffet, you can get an idea of what we eat for lunch and you can have different things..the rice, beans, and meat.


What would you like people to know about the DR and it’s culture?

We eat a lot! Good food, fresh food, and we are actually a little bit different than other cultures by the way we treat others. Like, if you come to visit, we will treat you like family. People know each other and it doesn’t matter what part of the country you go, people will treat you like family. Most people will call you cousin. “Primo!”. We have beautiful beaches. White sand and completely blue water.

Thank you, Dee, for taking the time to speak with us and for sharing your beautiful culture and incredible food with Nashville!

Go visit!

Merengue Cafe

654 West Iris Drive

Nashville, TN 37204

Zoo's Kitchen

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We are so lucky to have spoken with the wonderful and talented Arazoo Halgurd of Zoo’s Kitchen of Nashville, TN. Arazoo began her Kurdish catering business after she and her family arrived in the United States a few years ago from Kurdistan. Arazoo and her family are strong pillars in the immigrant community as you’ll see from her interview.

Where are you from?

I was born as a refugee in Iran, but grew up in the town of Rawanduz in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

How did you learn to cook in your home country? Was cooking a big part of your family tradition?

I started cooking since I was 11 years old. After my mom passed away and I had to cook for and take care of my family of 7, which was a very hard part of my life. I started learning from my father at the time. Cooking and large feasts are a big part of our family tradition we would usually have a lot of people over at our or my grandparent’s house, it was very communal. We would even cook for the Kurdish revolutionary Peshmargas in the surrounding mountains because a lot of them were our brothers, cousins, and family members, it was all very secretive of course. At these gatherings I would cook with the older women in our extended family and learn the intricate recipes, techniques, and skills. Ever since then I have been cooking at large family gatherings and at weddings of family members back home.


What are some traditional Kurdish foods you like to make?

Two dishes that are my favorite and my family is famous for are Dolma and Kifta. Dolma is different kinds of vegetables carved out and stuffed with rice that’s been marinated, it can also be prepared with beef/chicken or just vegetarian. And kifta is a kind of dumpling, that is filled with ground beef and boiled in different flavored soups, such as beetroot, yoghurt, or chickpea.

What makes Kurdish food special? Are there certain spices you like to use?

Kurdish cuisine is very regional. Different regions of Kurdistan have different takes and spins on these recipes. In general garlic, onions, sumac, pomegranate molasses, and yoghurt are used extensively, my hometown is known for its use of sumac and pomegranate molasses which gives an acidic and spicy flavor to the meals, but where my husband is from which is in the plains region, don’t like the acidic and spicy taste. Leafy greens are also a staple in Kurdish cuisine, that is eaten alongside the main meal, kind of similar to American “side items”. Leafy greens such as parsley, garlic chives.

Your catering business. What do you enjoy about it?

I enjoy being a business owner, as someone who is learning English it is very hard for me to find employment. With my business I can take on challenges at my own pace and grow as a result of it. I love getting all the feedback and reactions from people eating Kurdish food for the first time.

I love getting all the feedback and reactions from people eating Kurdish food for the first time.

Does cooking help you feel connected to home?

Yes, cooking helps me feel connected to home. It is a very important reminder of my roots and my home. Unfortunately I can’t get a lot of my traditional produce, spices, and food items here in the US. It’s a beautiful part of me and my culture, and is one of my only ways of expressing myself in a place where I can’t communicate verbally, it makes me feel connected with the rest of the society.


What is one thing about Kurdistan that you'd like people to know?

Hospitality is one of the biggest parts of Kurdish culture, issues like homelessness and hunger are very rare because no one would allow their neighbor or relative to end up in such a situation. As a traveler if you end up in a Kurdish town or village and you strike up conversation with someone, you’ll most likely be invited to their home for lunch/dinner and be offered accommodation without any discrimination.

If people wanted to hire you to cook for their events, how would they do that?

To hire me as a cook please send your request to or text 615-606-4914. Follow Zoo’s Kitchen on instagram at @Zooskitchen

Yassin's Falafel House

Amanda Friedman  for Reader’s Digest    Yassin Terou with his wife, Jamileh Al Saghir, and daughters Shaam (left) and Judy

Amanda Friedman for Reader’s Digest

Yassin Terou with his wife, Jamileh Al Saghir, and daughters Shaam (left) and Judy

Just down the road from Nashville in Knoxville, TN is an authentic Mediterranean restaurant serving homemade falafel called Yassin’s Falafel House. What makes this place even more special is that it was voted “Nicest Place in America” by Reader’s Digest.

Yassin Terou, a refugee from Syria who came to Knoxville in 2011 and has become a beloved local celebrity. It’s easy to understand why. The moment you step into his Falafel House, a sign welcoming people of all religions, faiths, sexes and beyond hangs proudly on the wall. In Yassin’s own words, “When you break bread, you break hate.”

Read more from the Reader’s Digest interview.