"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."
After celebrating the one-year anniversary of its opening in June of 2019, Santiago’s Beer Garden has quickly propelled to one of the most popular and hearty eateries in El Barrio, or East Harlem. As the Manhattan Sideways team sat down to interview Matt, the restaurant’s twenty-eight-year old owner, a customer assured us, with great enthusiasm, that we were in “the best spot in the whole area, on everything!” For such a young business owner with little experience owning his own restaurant, Matt has excelled in every direction, allowing Santiago’s to become a distinctive community staple. We discovered Santiago’s Beer Garden as we were walking through El Barrio, cross-checking the Sideways website for updates. Our eyes were instantly caught by the wide open gates on 120th St that led to two colorful murals and a large garden terrace. We entered, introduced ourselves to Matt, and two days later we were licking our fingers after a frank, lively interview and a full and authentic Dominican meal. From the Bronx, and having worked “everywhere but the kitchen” in the restaurant business since age seventeen, Matt recently moved on from managing and bartending at various restaurants to return to “what [he] knows”: Dominican food. He climbed up the chain of the restaurant and bar industry quickly after he graduated from college, landing gigs at the W Hotel and, eventually, sports bar Tonic East, where he became a manager. He partnered with two other co-workers to invest in the space that is now Santiago’s Beer Garden and was originally a well-reviewed Brazilian restaurant called Vidigal. It closed in 2018, and Matt bought it and took over, making it his “house.” He pushed through a tiresome initial setback; he was unable to work to his full abilities as a bartender as the restaurant was opening due to his being rear-ended by a drunk driver and injuring his back. Surviving financial difficulties and allowing himself to heal properly, Matt successfully transformed Vidigal into Santiago’s, keeping the “earthy, spiritual” murals on the wall and innovating with respect to his personal and professional background. Not a huge fan of hard liquor, Matt decided to utilize the outdoor space as a beer garden and center his drink menu on a variety of different beers. As Santiago is both a popular name and a Dominican city, he found it a perfect fit to complete the name of his restaurant brand. Describing his favorite drink on the menu, the Belgian Duchesse, as “sour” and sometimes tasting “like wine,” Matt happily demonstrated a passion and love for quality beer. “You can only get it here,” he exclaimed about the Duchesse, stating that it went well with red meat, while recognizing that most typically eat Dominican food along with a Presidente, a classic Pilsner. Matt created the menu himself, collaborating with his two chefs, sixty-two year-old José and sixty-three year-old Isabel, “focusing on the meats...and the rices.” He highlighted popular menu items like yellow rice, coconut rice, ox tails, and beef and chicken stews. We were served a shrimp cocktail, fried plantains, steak and onions, and fried chicken, along with various rice and beans. The portions were great and surely filling, the steak pre-marinated for days, and the rice and beans rich. Matt proudly claimed his chicken better than the chicken bites at popular burger chain Shake Shack, and the food walked the talk. Matt offered honest and reflective advice to young entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry, emphasizing the importance of saving money and gaining experience in a variety of restaurant settings. Down-to-earth and funny, Matt showed us the livelihood and struggle that goes into founding a business that often goes overlooked. With his day-one, Rafa, by his side, Matt has effectively opened a community-oriented and trend-setting restaurant to which he is inspirationally dedicated.
People do not only stop into Grandma's Place to pick up a gift for a birthday party, or something special for their own child. During my visits, on several occasions, it seemed that the entire neighborhood was dropping by simply to receive a warm hug from Dawn Harris-Martine, and possibly sticking around a bit longer to entertain their little ones, or share some local gossip with the owner of this remarkable staple on 120th Street. Without a doubt, Dawn has earned the beloved title of "Grandmother of the neighborhood."Discovering this children's educational toy and book shop, was totally unexpected. There was nothing to indicate that tucked away, just off Lenox Avenue, I was about to come upon this incredible Harlem hidden gem. Being a grandmother of three, myself, was enough to make me want to venture in, but having also owned my own children's book store, I was absolutely thrilled to look through every inch of space in this welcoming, well-curated collection of items for children of all ages.Kids are encouraged to play, to look through the books, and little ones are enthralled by being able to take the mini shopping cart and fill it up with different items that they can reach and take for a whirl through the space. Dawn and her pleasant staff never seem to mind and parents, in turn, are respectful of their child's play.From board books, to picture books, beginning readers and chapter books, there is something for every child at Grandma's - with a strong representation of both current and classic multi-cultural titles. There is also a wonderful section of non-book items. The shelves are filled with dolls, stuffed animals, puzzles, craft kits, bath toys and a selection for babies. Dawn told me that she is constantly on the lookout for things that are not sold in the big chains. "Since I opened, I have always felt that I must have a reason for my customer to want to shop in my store."Right next door to the shop, Dawn owns the brownstone where children's books are wall-to-wall including the bathrooms. On February 28th, 1982, Dawn "won" the brownstone where she resides - in the first New York City lottery. She paid $5000 for what she described as just a shell with no roof. "But I had a vision." Partially funded with a loan from the City, Dawn made it into a duplex. "Since this was a gift to me, I had to give back." Today, she continues to donate to shelters and to give books to local day care centers.Originally, in 1999, Dawn used the space next door to her home as a literacy center. She stayed with this concept for five years and then transitioned into a children's book store. "I was doing this as a school teacher and I realized that I could not stay in business this way." In 2006, she made the decision to add toys and dolls. "My thing was ethnic dolls, and I found a woman in Florida who made them based on the picture of a child." Dawn has watched the business continue to grow the last few years as the area has become more gentrified. There have been more and more people moving uptown and they have helped her to stay in business.Sitting in her 100 year old rocking chair, during the winter of 2016, Dawn revealed endless stories of her own childhood and those who impacted her seventy-seven years. She was born and raised in Harlem. "Every phase of my life I believe influenced me in so many ways."As a child, Dawn never had toys of her own. "Each holiday, I got a piece of clothing and fruit - I was never given a toy in my life." When she was twenty-one, however, she bought herself a GI Joe doll. She then became hooked on collecting toys. "I always wanted a toy store in the back of my head, but I never really intended on doing it."Listening to the description of her childhood, I learned that Dawn taught herself to read. In fact, she said that she raised herself, for her mom had three jobs. "My babysitter was the public library." It was Dawn's older sister who dropped her off each day at the library where Dawn read until her sister returned for her. "I read every children's book and then the librarian allowed me to move onto the adult section...I raised myself through parenting books, including Dr. Spock." Books became her best friends. If she read about skiing, she figured out how to get on a bus and try it. As Dawn got older, if she read about Puerto Rico, she managed to find the money to get on a plane and visit there. "I went on my own and just met people wherever I went. I didn't know that I wasn't allowed to do the things that I did, so I just did them."Dawn was the first in her family to go to college, "My mother was a chamber maid and my father was a barber." As she described her situation, "I was blessed with intelligence and blessed with teachers who recognized my intelligence. I came through the school system loving learning and loving reading." In 1957, Dawn graduated high school, but it was not until 1970, when she won a scholarship, that she was able to attend Sarah Lawrence College. After college, for the next forty years, Dawn was a teacher in Harlem.Continuing on, Dawn expressed herself with great emotion. "I am a conduit - I feel it is my responsibility to pass this on to others. I want other black parents to know who are raising kids alone to stay on point and know that they can do it. Things that are thrown at you are not reasons to give up, but rather get back on track."Her words of wisdom have certainly resonated with many in her life. Her own two daughters have gone on to become successful in their careers, and she is quite proud of her two granddaughters. They both are attending college while also working at Grandma's Place, and one even lives with Dawn. "It is the destination not the journey - the destination is the gravy, where you start and how you get there is what matters. We all have challenges but we manage and can be successful." To young people today, Dawn's message is a simple one. "I want them to follow their passion, for what's the worst that could happen?"On a subsequent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting Grandma Annette. She was the quintessential example of why Grandma's Place runs so beautifully. "I am the volunteer and good friend who comes every once in a while when needed." She exudes love and warmth to each person - big or small - that steps into the shop. And as Dawn, herself, so eloquently chimed in, "It is always good to have a grandma in the house."