"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."
There is no question that the independent bookstores of New York are disappearing, which is why I am always thrilled to come across one that is thriving. Book Culture was originally founded as Labyrinth Books in 1997 by Book Culture's current owner, Chris, and Cliff, his partner at the time. Chris' career had begun in the 1980s when he started selling books for Papyrus Bookstore. He also worked at the old Book Forum, located across the street from Columbia, and at Great Jones Books. In 2007, Book Culture broke off from Labyrinth Books. Two new locations opened in Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side in 2009 and 2014. In 2010, Annie Hendricks joined Chris as a co-owner.I spoke with Cody, who became the store manager at 112th Street in 2013. He explained that the real estate is owned by Columbia, and so the shop sees a lot of college students, especially in the early autumn months. Book Culture's customer base, however, is varied: after all, he pointed out, the Upper West Side has not really had an independent bookstore since Endicott Books closed in 1995. Book Culture carries a wide variety of subject matter including English, anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology.Despite how many independent bookstores have been lost, Cody has optimistically seen a trend over the last four years, which he called "a natural renaissance of independent booksellers." He noted that chain stores are not sustainable in the literary world, since people "want bookstores to be tied to the communities." Cody acknowledged that Book Culture has tried to fulfill its role as a community center by offering events, such as family outings and bagel breakfasts. He then went on to say that since Book Culture takes care to cater to the neighborhood, the store "oftentimes offers a better curated selection" than one's average Barnes and Noble. "In many ways it's more than just a bookstore. It's a great place to spend a couple hours."Cody has noticed a few other recent trends. The store, he told me excitedly, had become increasingly busier. He has noticed that there has been a "return to fiction" with specifically a "growing interest in translated works." In response, Book Culture's literature section has expanded. Customers are encouraged to spend time figuring out what interests them. He then stated, "It's rare that someone doesn't leave with a book or at least a good idea of what they'd like to read next."
Many who stand on the corner of 112th Street and Broadway will immediately recognize the facade of Tom's Restaurant. Its iconic sign (minus the "Tom's"!) was used as the exterior of Monk's Cafe in the television sitcom, Seinfeld. The name of the eatery should also be familiar to those in the folk-pop world: Suzanne Vega wrote a song about Tom's, choosing to call both the track and her album "Tom's Diner." That is where most people's knowledge stops. After visiting, however, I discovered that it also represents a slice of timeless New York life, with a history of its own.Inside, the diner appears to be identical to how it must have looked fifty to seventy years ago. Tom's Restaurant has existed since the 1940s, when the previous owner, whose last name was Kane, sold it to Thanasi, a Greek immigrant whose name is Anglicized to Thomas. Before the change in ownership, little is known about the establishment. I spoke to Mike Zoulis Sr., who said that based on an old, somewhat blurry photograph, he believes that the place was called "Kane's." Tom was a hard-worker who, according to Mike, had been in restaurants his whole life. "He worked so hard he had back problems." One day, Tom hired two Greek employees, one of whom was Minas Zoulis, which is how Mike's family got involved with the business. The restaurant continued to grow, in terms of followers, profits, and physical size: Tom bought the lot next door enlarging the restaurant to twice its original size. As Mike pointed out, however, the kitchen has remained the same - tiny compared to the rest of the space. Eventually, each member of the Zoulis family was given a share of the company. Mike Sr. took over in 1980. I found it interesting that Mike Jr., rather than being Mike Sr.'s son, is his cousin: "In Greece, the first-born takes the name of the paternal grandfather, so there are a lot of Mikes."As Mike spoke to me, he sat behind the old fashioned cash register, surrounded by a wall of international currency. The sight rivaled that of the cases of muffins on the bar, as well as the red and cream booths, for nostalgia value. Suzanne Vega and Seinfeld memorabilia covered one wall, but otherwise, the diner functions as a neighborhood watering hole, where Columbia students, hospital workers, and local residents can come by for a bite to eat at almost any hour of the day or night. "We're getting people for the food," Mike said. Instead of Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega fans, the diner gets dedicated diner-lovers. "It may seem surprising, but not to me," Mike stated, noting that patrons have come to eat at Tom's from as far away as Australia. Mike credits the food quality with what goes into the dishes. After traveling through Europe, he realized, "The purer the ingredients, the better the food." The pancakes, for example, are still made using the same formula that was created in the 1940s, involving fresh buttermilk and real olive oil. The only thing that has changed is the toppings with the addition of blueberries, chocolate, and banana nut pancakes in the 1990s. As for savory foods, Mikes calls the burgers, "equivalent to the best burgers in the city.""Tom's is an institution here," Mike asserted at the end of our conversation. He told me that whenever there is a tragedy or an event that disrupts normal life, whether it is the blackout in the 1970s or 9/11, Tom's is there. "We feel an obligation to the neighborhood," he said, recalling that a lot of the elderly in the surrounding blocks had nowhere to eat, so Tom's stayed open for them. "Literally generations have grown up here," Mike said. "Many still think of this as home."