Lil’ Deb’s Oasis: An Ever-Evolving Art And Food “Installation”
By Jamie Larson
Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, in Hudson, New York, is a hard restaurant to define. And that’s enticing. Painted up like a tiki bar, yet still retaining the comfort of a local diner, Oasis feels fresh and relevant in a way you might intellectualize a modern art exhibit. And that’s intentional.
Run for 20 years as Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant, owner Debbie Fiero handed the keys to Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo, who splashed the walls with bright pastel pinks and greens and blues, draping the place in art and texture.
“It’s an overall food experience,” says Black. “It’s an ever-evolving art installation platform. We are creating our own language.”
We could talk design all day, but let’s move on to the specials. Bright, herbaceous, citrusy flavors are the linchpin to the whole experience. The menu board can feature any number of unexpected plates but there is always a ceviche of the day (market price) that tastes as good as it looks. There’s also a whole fried fish. It’s striking visually and there’s just no place else you’re going to see it around here — not regularly anyway — and not at their price point (around $30, depending on market).
“We weren’t sure it was going to work, but it sells out,” Black says.
“It’s emblematic of what we are trying to do,” Perez-Gallardo says. “I’m really happy people have responded.”
The friends often finish each other’s thought, or speak in tandem. “We love warm vivacious flavors,” Black says, followed by Perez-Gallardo. “It’s tropical comfort food — food from warm places. It’s about creating taste pictures.”
They are artists first and their other roles as cooks, community members, friends, bartenders, proud female business owners and role models for some ever-present young girls are all positions informed by that. Their artistic approach to cooking has been attracting a loyal following of locals, weekenders and at least one celebrity.
“This is the only place to eat in the Hudson Valley,” actress Gabby Hoffman said as she grabbed a smoothie and dipped out one recent afternoon.
Perez-Gallardo at the smoothie window.
Oasis is open for dinner from 5-10 p.m. but it also serves fresh smoothies out the front window from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The ladies confess they aren’t morning people so they don’t serve lunch, but since they’re at the restaurant in the afternoon prepping anyway they figured they’d sling tasty, healthy drinks while they do it. It’s such a refreshing, well-executed play you’d think it was the plan from the start.
Black and Perez-Gallardo, a Bard alum who cut her teeth at Panzur, met when Black needed help on the much-loved Catskill Mill Vietnamese-style food truck two years ago. They quickly bonded over their similarities in artistry, travel and taste. Last summer Black and Perez-Gallardo started doing artistically curated catering as Table/Table and did four popups at Debbie’s on Tuesdays (the night when most Hudson restaurants are closed), before getting the offer to take over in January.
“Debbie is this small feisty fireball,” Black begins, and Perez-Gallardo continues. “She’s run the place on her own. She’s inspirational. This feels like a continuation.”
Both women have spent recent stretches of time traveling South America and Mexico, Perez-Gallardo in Ecuador, where she has family, and Black, from Alabama by way of Rhode Island School of Design, working at a Mexican beachfront restaurant. Those are the places where their culinary influence starts but then it’s adapted on the fly. Both women bristle at the ubiquitous descriptor “fusion.” The influencing tradition is there but the dishes are their own.
Not to be outdone by the specials, there’s also a tight menu of staple offerings including mojo chicken with rice, lentils and orange salsa verde ($16), grilled octopus with radicchio and smoked avocado ($18), mussels in a coconut tomato broth ($17) and others. You can also snack on deviled eggs with pickled onion and chili oil ($4), yucca fries ($7) or salt cod fritters with green plantains ($9) as a side or with a glass of wine. The ladies recently received their tavern license and are pretty happy about it, writing poems to describe their wine’s flavors, rather than the traditional old list of nouns and adjectives.
Black and Perez-Gallardo
“We get people interested in the wine instead of wine words,” says Perez-Gallardo.
Lil’ Deb’s Oasis feels relevant. What Perez-Gallardo and Black are doing differently there is delicious in flavor and funky in atmosphere, and a happy addition to Hudson’s culinary neighborhood.
Lil’ Deb’s Oasis
747 Columbia St., Hudson, NY
Smoothie Window: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: 5-10 p.m.