"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. "
La Marqueta, a retail and food market located underneath an elevated train track, is a vibrant space where people come to not only shop, but to sit and share their stories with one another. On the occasions that I have visited, I have witnessed the strong community felt by so many of the people spending time inside. This is, without a doubt, a venue that combines the arts, food and people in a beautiful way. Historically, La Marqueta has been a cultural staple of the Latino community of East Harlem. When it first was opened in 1936, it was a bustling economic and social center of the neighborhood. Later, it began to decline. Now, after recent efforts to revitalize the market, it houses a variety of specialty vendors and artists and regularly hosts community cultural events. When I entered, I was greeted by the smell of rising dough wafting through from Hot Bread Kitchen toward the back of the market. In addition to baking their own breads, HBK is a non-profit organization that invites startup food companies to use their kitchen facilities. On either side of the narrow walkways of the market, artists and vendors stood in their stalls, chatting, laughing, and working. As I strolled through, a stall filled with handmade dolls, jewelry, books and other curios caught my eye. This is where I met Mercedes. She told me that she was a single working mother of three when she began making her dolls. They were an instant hit and after she had created three for her own children, "suddenly everyone wanted one. " After a while, however, the work became overwhelming as every tiny face was hand stitched - but genius struck, as it tends to do. “My muse came to me again, ” recalled Mercedes, and she began to paint the faces instead. Today, people stop in to purchase her dolls for their children and grandchildren, as collectors’ items, and even for spiritual purposes. For this, Mercedes explained, she attaches a special panel of fabric at the top of the head through which people can put charms or talismans. Her stall at La Marqueta has now expanded to other items. Mercedes makes “piece dolls” from the leftover scraps of her bigger dolls, pins and magnets with two-dimensional images of her dolls. When a loyal customer told her “I want one for my baby’s hair, ” Mercedes began to make wearable dolls on pins and barrettes. Mercedes takes a great deal of pride in her craft, but similar to the other members of the community at La Marqueta, she is also very supportive of her fellow artists and vendors. On the back wall of her stall is a shelf she calls the “Artisan’s Bodega Exchange” where she showcases the work of her neighbors - from jewelry to books and much more. According to Mercedes, there is a tremendous sense of camaraderie at La Marqueta, and she feels that the community is in many ways a kind of family.