The Jewish Foodie Behind The Black Ant


Don’t complain about the bug in your soup — it’s supposed to be there. The Black Ant, a modern Mexican restaurant that opened in May, might be the most treif restaurant you can find.

Located in the East Village, on Second Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, the menu is crawling with unlikely critters. The corn-juice-and-herb cocktail arrives with an ant-salt garnish. Crispy grasshoppers come loosely tucked under cheese and fresh salsa in a crispy tortilla in the Tlayuda con chapulines. A plate called maiz y tierra brings vegetables, purees and flower petals, finished with ant dust and gusanos de maguey, a.k.a. the worms found in mescal liquor. The signature guacamole is much like any other guacamole — minus the parade of ants.

“A special excitement and curiosity accompanies trying bugs for the first time,” said Cliff Freid, restaurant co-owner who was raised in a “traditional” Jewish household. Freid, who grew up in Riverdale (and whose mother was a “faithful Jewish Week reader”), spoke about the radical difference between the Ashkenazi Jewish food of his upbringing and the modern Mexican cuisine he works with as an adult.

“My grandparents are from Russia and Poland, so I grew up on gefilte fish, borscht, matzah balls, you name it,” said Freid. Cooking at the cutting-edge of Mexican food was “a radical change. The two foods are from two different worlds,” he said. “But I have developed a great fondness for these new tastes. My absolute favorite is our black ant guacamole.”

His 19-year-old daughter, however, won’t go near it. “No way,” he said, laughing. “I thought about trying to sneak it by her, but she’d get very angry.”

Though Freid, 44, has been working with different types of food for 17 years, he reserves a special place for the Jewish food of his youth. “I have ‘chai’ tattooed on my body,” he said. “I will always hold Jewish traditions near to my heart.”

Though the age-old diatribe against bugs found in Leviticus has been boldly thrown aside (“And any creeping creature that creeps on the ground is an abomination; it shall not be eaten” Lev. 11:41), the Black Ant is not treif for the sake of treif.

According to food experts, eating insects, officially termed entomophagy, is the way of the future. Economically viable, environmentally friendly and nutritionally rich, bugs are a completely viable food source that could become increasingly more vital as our natural resources are stretched. Nutritionists have long been impressed with the high-quality protein that insects deliver; a serving of grasshoppers contains about as much as chicken or beef but with less fat and more calcium. And though the practice still may seem foreign in the United States, 2 billion people worldwide are already snacking on insects as part of their daily diet.

Since its opening, the Black Ant has been impressing food critics, scoring mentions in The New York Times and New York Post. “This quirky establishment’s creativity is evident,” a review in the Latin Kitchen proclaimed. The restaurant matches “both its trendy neighborhood and surprising flavor combinations.”

Though some grasshoppers are kosher, it’s unlikely that the OU will be making an appearance at The Black Ant anytime soon. That’s one too many sheratzim (the biblical term for creepy crawlers) in the lettuce.