Calexico began as - and still is - a food truck run by three brothers. Jesse, Brian, and David Vendley grew up near Calexico, a real place located on the border between Mexico and California. Missing the food from their hometown, the three began cooking and serving their grandmother’s recipes out of a truck on the streets of New York. They earned their first Vendy award in 2006. That award was followed by many more, and they eventually opened their first brick and mortar location, collaborating with Chef Pete Oleyer, in 2009 in Brooklyn. I have dined on their food over the years and was thrilled to discover their newest location on East 78th Street just a few weeks after it opened in 2015. The restaurant, as advertised, is a delightful mixture of Mexican and American culture. Parts of the menu are in “Spanglish,” such as the “Happy Hora,” which is every weekday from 5pm to 7pm. We were met by the bright light-up “Hola” sign, a staple in all Calexico restaurants, and Michael, the general manager.
Michael brought Manhattan Sideways team members Olivia and Tom some food to sample, starting with carne fries. “Everyone serves nachos, as do we, but these are a new twist on a Mexican classic,” he said while Olivia and Tom tucked into the plate of cilantro fries generously covered in carne asada, beans, guacamole, and cheese. Michael also brought out a “lunchbox,” a reasonably-priced, personal-sized combo platter containing two tacos of the customer’s choice, rice and beans or salad, and chips and guacamole. Needless to say, our team was happy. After tasting the food, they understood when Michael noted that the Upper East Side was really embracing the new restaurant.
In addition to the main restaurant, Calexico sports a taqueria where customers can grab food to go or sit in their mini seating area. The whole restaurant caters to a diverse customer base, from young professionals to senior residents, to young families who come in for an early dinner. Michael humorously described how families come to dine in the restaurant at 5pm and turn the taqueria into a “stroller parking garage." The main dinner crowd starts around 7:30pm and by later on at night, Calexico fosters a party atmosphere with a great bar crowd and pumping music. “It’s a cool, fun oasis,” Michael happily stated. “It’s so relaxed…people come for food, friends, and fun.” Michael had us try two of the more popular drinks from the bar, the signature house margarita and a jalapeno mint margarita. Olivia and Tom could not figure out which one they liked better!
Whether its drinks at the bar, tacos at the taqueria, or a full meal, everything at Calexico is homemade. Even the little details, like the lime juice and simple syrup in the margaritas, are done by hand. As for the future, Michael is excited to continue growing. Fajitas are in the cards, and catering and delivery service started in 2016, shortly after we visited. In addition to being enthusiastic about the menu, Michael could not help but gush over how pleased he is with the Vendley brothers. “They’re the nicest people I’ve met in my entire life. It keeps you motivated.” Overall, Michael is happy to have found Calexico after working for many years in the corporate restaurant world. “I had faith in goodness, and I found it,” he told me. “Everything is authentic here, the food and the people.”
Ed and his wife Heidi know that being small has its advantages and disadvantages. Their reputation has been growing, which is wonderful, but on many evenings this can also mean up to an hour wait for people hoping to get into the tiny restaurant. Based on its popularity, there is no doubt that the cozy eatery has filled a void uptown. Unlike the East Village, for instance, where every nook and cranny is filled with enticing bars and restaurants, Heidi’s House is the only one of its kind in the immediate area. Ed emphasized that he would not want it any other way - he loves being “part of the fabric of the neighborhood” and interacting with the steady, loyal crowd.Ed and Heidi are both former teachers. The full name of the restaurant is “Heidi’s House by the Side of the Road,” a reference to a poem of the same name by Sam Walter Foss. While Heidi is presently studying for a masters degree, Ed has been taking on more of the responsibilities in running the restaurant, though Heidi is still the master of the wine list, which has a wide, interesting selection and rotates with the seasons. Ed is the beer man and has steered away from draught, preferring craft and bottled beers. He is also in charge of the space. He put his skills as a former carpenter to use in building the restaurant, finding salvaged wood from the building itself, some of which is over 100 years old.Ed brought out a couple signature dishes for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph. Cipriano and his sous-chef Heleo Aviles whipped up a plate of bruschetta as well as the seared sirloin steak special, served with fingerling potatoes, red pepper puree, and fresh horseradish sauce. Though it was early, the small space was already bustling, and bartender Rosendo Hernandez had his work cut out for him.When Ed and Heidi first began planning their restaurant, they wanted to create a place where they, themselves, would like to go. They designed an intimate, TV-free zone with great jazz and good food where customers could meet and enjoy a conversation while dining on an eclectic mix of comfort food. For the latter, they found Cipriano Pita, who has been with Heidi and Ed since they first opened Heidi’s House in 2010. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, he is a “natural born cook,” smart and intuitive. Because of the limited space in Cipriano's "workshop," Ed said that the produce, meat, and fish are delivered daily. "We have nowhere to store it, so it has to be fresh." Everything is hands-on, without any corporate elements.The atmosphere is similarly guided by what Ed and Heidi want to see in their space. They brought decorations from home, including framed post cards, quirky sculptures, and a Nepalese window frame. There are board games at the front of the restaurant including checkers, chess, Scrabble, dominoes, and Trivial Pursuit. I was struck by a poem on the wall behind the bar written by a child who came to dine with her family, detailing her experience at Heidi’s. “Everyone wants to be around things that they like,” Ed pointed out. It was refreshing to experience a place where every detail is decided by what the owners like, not what they assume the customers prefers - in the end, it appears that they are one in the same.
Pil Pil, named for a specific kind of sauce originating in the Basque region of Spain, fills an important role on the Upper East Side. It is a neighborhood watering hole, upscale and with enough ambience for a perfect date or friendly hangout, but still casual enough to lure locals back multiple times each week. I spoke with Nikola Romic, the owner and general manager, who explained that this is exactly the environment he wanted to create when he opened Pil Pil in 2010: a “homey atmosphere” where locals could have good food and wine.Nikola, originally from Serbia, spent a lot of time in Spain. He gained a true appreciation for the cuisine there and now owns vineyards in the Spanish countryside. Most of the wines at Pil Pil come from either his own grapes or family-owned vineyards. Nik told me that he personally travels to each of the vineyards to speak with the vintners and try the wine. Despite being so selective, Pil Pil features wine from over eighty different kinds of grapes. Considering the breadth of his experience, the property he owns, and his education, I was even more impressed with Nik when he revealed his age - when we met in early 2016, he was only twenty-seven!Pil Pil's home on 78th Street had previously been occupied by a sake bar where Nik actually worked. When it became obvious that the space would have to shutter, Nik turned it into a Spanish restaurant, decorating the interior with wine bottles and twining tree branches to make the intimate ambience for which Pil Pil is known. His initial plan was to serve traditional Spanish food, but he has added many American classics with key Spanish ingredients to the menu to appeal to his New York audience. For instance, there is a mac and cheese with chorizo and sliders made with manchego cheese.On the day we visited, Nik was offering a special mulled wine. He handed each member of the Manhattan Sideways team a glass, seasoned with citrus and cloves, which warmed us from the inside out. He showed us to the recently redesigned wine cellar before beckoning us into the kitchen where he casually added shrimp to a pan filled with butter and spices with one hand and stirred the pot of mulling wine with the other. Everything Nik and his sous chef Pedji did seemed effortless, like a well-timed culinary dance. He brought out a few dishes for us to try on the hightop tables, including the shrimp, called gambas al ajillo, which had just the right amount of spice and left enough sauce for the perfect buttery bread dip. We also tried the freshly baked flaky mushroom flatbread, seasoned with truffle oil. The last to arrive were the macaroni and cheese croquettes. These light balls of noodles and cheese, with a dash of paprika, were sensational.Nik is proud of what Pil Pil has become, both in terms of the food and the staff, many of whom speak both Spanish and English. There is no hierarchy of waiters and food runners. Casually dressed, they all work seamlessly together, emphasizing the relaxed atmosphere that Pil Pil has fostered. On Wednesdays, Nik occasionally brings in a Spanish acoustic guitar player from Barcelona…and sometimes Nik himself even plays.
The James B. Duke house is the first building one encounters on a block known as "Millionaire's Row." It was built for James Buchanan Duke, one of the founders of the American Tobacco Company, in 1912. It is now an academic building used by New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.
Stores like Martine’s Antiques are exactly the kind of businesses I look for on the side streets. Though small, every inch of the shop has some new treasure to discover. There are watches, jewelry, glassware, and various knick knacks decorating the room. Though she has been in New York since 1992, Martine Leventer's lilting French accent added music to her descriptions of each of the pieces that she has hand-selected for her shop.Martine began her career as a journalist in Paris, writing about business and the economy. She occasionally wrote about art, but usually only in terms of auctions and its financial role in society. She told me, however, that she had always had a great love for antiques, “ever since I can remember, in fact.” She recalled the very first antique she bought as a teenager – a bronze candle holder. Since then, she admits, “I’ve been buying way too much in my life.” She spent some time between the United States and France, collecting antiques from each location, but when she first went into business in New York, it was as a chocolatier. She had two chocolate shops: one on the Upper East Side, where she lives, and a small shop in Bloomingdale’s. Chocolate, however, was not where her true passion lay: “Having an antique store has been a dream of mine since I was very young,” she told me. She began selling little pieces at her Bloomingdale’s location, mostly costume jewelry. She then opened an antique store on 82nd Street in 1997, while continuing to operate her chocolate shops. The current location opened in 2012 and she closed her chocolate business a year later.Martine is proud of the fact that her store is a specially curated selection of antiques. “Everyone tells me I have a good eye,” she said humbly. She does not work in bulk or in estate sales: everything is something that caught her eye. Martine is especially drawn to costume jewelry, old watches - “Old watches have a heart that beats,” she said poetically - and vintage American glassware. She used to use colorful glass plates and bowls to show off her chocolates. “I look for something that is either beautiful or funny, something that makes my day. It is important to have things in your house that give you happy feelings.”Though she still has a couple customers who have been with her from the very beginning, many of her original clients have moved away. She has realized that that is a pattern in New York: things are constantly shifting and changing. Though some change may be good, for the most part it means higher rents. “So many small businesses have disappeared. It’s so heartbreaking.” She elaborated, “Being from France, I don’t like seeing little old buildings being demolished.” In Martine's view, the city is starting to become too angular, as harsh modern architecture starts to take over from the old world.When she first came to the United States, she was surprised by the variety of antiques. In France, most of the antiques are French, with perhaps a few English or German pieces if you look hard. The United States, on the other hand, is a source of antiques from around the world. Martine had never come in contact with American Vintage before, and immediately took a liking to it. Additionally, costume jewelry was cheaper and more accessible in the U.S. She discovered, however, that New Yorkers were often more interested in European pieces. She explained her frustration to me: In terms of antiques, architecture, and art, Americans will travel hundreds of miles to view masterpieces but will not show any respect towards the beautiful works of art on their own shores. “I hope people wake up soon,” she said, “and learn to not throw away the beauty of their own heritage.”