"It has not been easy being hidden on East 117th Street, but I am trying hard to spread the word," Nestor Leon revealed to me as soon as we sat down together. I could sense the intensity emanating from deep within Nestor as he spoke passionately about his "home country," and his strong desire to share the Mexican flavors, art, culture, spirits and wine with his guests.Nestor had worked in hospitality before coming to New York in 2001. He had a "big dream" to learn English, and chose to work in other restaurants before taking on the challenge of running his own. Because he was unable to return to Mexico for several years, in 2012, he decided that he needed to bring his personal experience to East Harlem. His brother had also opened a restaurant in Manhattan, but Nestor said that he really learned to cook from his mom. "I always loved food, and I liked experimenting and coming up with different combinations."The fare is authentic at El Kallejon, but as Nestor describes it, "with a twist." When I peeked inside the tiny kitchen area, I met Bertha Torres who grew up in a little village in Mexico. She also enjoys "putting interesting ingredients together," and watching the reaction of the customers. It was great fun standing there as Bertha cut and chopped preparing an outstanding guacamole, served in a cocktail glass with ceviche on top. Next up she quickly made a "tamalex" - a corn cake with cheese, roasted tomato sauce, and finished with some watercress. With very little space to maneuver, within minutes Bertha was presenting us with dish after dish. Everything was uncomplicated allowing the intensity of the chilies, garlic and their own infused olive oils to explode in each bite.While Bertha was busy in the kitchen, Nestor was making the drinks. As I sipped on the Hibiscus Flower that was made with a rose pedal infused tequila and lime, I was given a lesson about the difference between the restaurant's vast selection of artisanal mezcales and tequila, as well as the extensive Latin American wines.Everything at El Kallejon reflects a piece of Nestor's life in Mexico. The entire space is brightly painted with turquoise, orange, yellow and fuschia, and each piece of art and other decorations have a personal story. Even the bathroom is filled with memorabilia and history. I was particularly taken by an interesting looking instrument that Nestor explained was made from the jaw of a donkey.It was the middle of the winter when I visited, so it came as a great surprise when Nestor said that before I left, he had to show me something special. How fortunate he is to have a very colorful backyard garden, complete with a mural painted by his brother. In the warmer months, the food is grilled outdoors and there is live music. This restaurant is not just a business to Nestor, it was so clear to me that he has poured his heart and soul into it. "I have a positive attitude towards life, and I understand that owning a restaurant is difficult, but as long as you love it, you can survive - everything is possible."
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during my walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events.The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I had had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures - including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams - to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone.The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother.This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles - and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
Crepe Master opened in November 2017. After a trip to Japan, owner Fumi wanted to bring the uniqueness of the country's crepes to Harlem. Unlike French crepes, Japanese crepes are traditionally served in a cone. They are a classic street food dish in populous cities throughout the country. Top recommendations include Chocobana, a sweet crepe comprised of banana, crushed chocolates, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, custard cream, and almonds, the Suzette, a simple butter, sugar, lemon crepe, or any savory crepe with tofu.
Bright colors abound inside the semi-covered market on West 116th Street - and it has been this way since 1994 when vendors gathered under one roof to sell their African wares. From traditional fabrics, and handmade clothing, to jewelry, accessories, and wood carvings, to native instruments, the collection at Malcolm Shabazz represents numerous countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Kenya. I found the experience to be exhilarating as I strolled through the stalls carrying on conversations with the vendors. There is a true camaraderie amongst them that is palpable.