First up was sushi, which he tasted during an “expensive dinner” with Ozomatli’s record label. That’s weird, but I’ll try it, is what Sierra thought at the time. “And I remember loving it. And then I went to Japan, and I was like, Oh, this is different. It was amazing.” Part of his enthusiasm, he says, came from learning the history of sushi—how vinegared rice and seaweed were originally used to preserve fish—though he was also inspired by the pure excitement of eating Japanese food in Japan.
Which is not to say that Ozomatli managed to leapfrog over the tragic eating-on-tour experiences of most hardworking bands. The band members speak with horror of truck stops, of Denny’s, of a poorly catered tour, of an unprintably disgusting midshow food-poisoning incident involving a band they were touring with.…
But as Ozomatli’s tours took the group ever farther afield—a travel schedule that broadened dramatically in 2007, when the band became official Cultural Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department—they took the opportunity to sample increasingly exotic cuisines, to the point where formerly sushi-shy Sierra was trying pig heart in cow’s-blood broth in China. (“It tasted great,” he claims, adding that he was the only one with the nerve to order it.)
In interviews with the band members, Vietnam came up again and again as a favorite destination, and not just because they’d managed to sell out an 8,000-seat arena in Ho Chi Minh City in 2009. (“They were free tickets and kids were scalping the tickets!” says Poree.) The band unanimously loved the food—in particular at Nhà Hàng Ngon, a Ho Chi Minh City restaurant where street-food artisans from all over Vietnam cook their specialties under one roof. “They have these huge snails,” Poree recalls. “And they have these big things—they were like pancakes—and you’d stuff different types of, like, grasses in there, and herbs and the snail meat. I forget what they call it, man, but that shit—it was good, dude.” [ Our research suggests the ecstasy Poree describes was either banh xeo or banh hoi—Ed.]
To figure out where to eat on tour, Ozomatli relies on a variety of sources: its State Department handlers, online recommendations from blogs and Yelp!, and fellow musicians (one in Miami introduced Abers to the arepa burger, consisting of a burger, ham, Colombian chorizo, and a fried egg sandwiched between two arepas, or corn cakes—“like a Cuban sandwich on crack,” says Abers). Even fans attending their concerts can be helpful, like the one whose family ran the spiciest curry restaurant in Osaka, Japan.
“We always try to find local spots that have some kind of history, cachet, whatever,” Pacheco maintains. “And it can be anything—common, everyday food, it can be a high-end restaurant. People know that we enjoy that experience because part of it is connecting to the iconic aspects of a particular area.” Ironically, the band members have discovered that making those connections to places and people is often easier through food—their avocation—than through their actual profession.
Music, says Pacheco, “is just not as intimate in that sense. It’s a big woo-hoo. That’s what you want in that scene: a lot of people moving together, singing together. It’s an affirmation. It’s a relief. But when you’re sitting at a table or sitting at a stand or sitting in a restaurant, you get to have a little moment that’s just eye-to-eye. You don’t have all the lights-camera-action vibe.”
In recent years, Ozomatli has also been getting “eye-to-eye” with serious chefs here in America. Spanish culinary wizard José Andrés, whose restaurants in L.A. and Washington, D.C., won him last year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, is a huge fan, and once showed up backstage bearing an entire leg of jamón Ibérico. And last summer, chef Susan Feniger, of Border Grill and Street in L.A., hosted a party for the band, who are her longtime customers. Feniger’s Taste of Ozo menu featured foods inspired by Ozomatli’s travels: Indian pani puri, miniature Vietnamese banh mi, Syrian lamb meatballs, Burmese melon salad—street foods, essentially, Feniger and Ozomatli’s shared love. “You know, every time I travel, I eat on the street,” Feniger said. “And every time they travel, they eat on the street. ”