Picante Picante en Broadway
When I first walked into Picante Picante with the intention of interviewing the owner, I was nervous. My hair was disheveled, I was carrying a large and admittedly threatening camera bag, and my Spanish was at the 7-years-of-prep-school-gringa level at best. A waitress by the name of Maricruz greeted me with a smile and offered me a seat in the empty restaurant. I told her about my project, and she offered to speak with me personally a few days later. I bought a fairly priced chicken taco with just right amount of cilantro, and came back two days later ready for the interview.
I’ve been to this restaurant several times before, which is why I chose it for this project. I love the food, the service is great, and the ambiance is relaxing yet professional. One of the walls has a mural of a woman walking through a small village, directly above a group of wooden tables where the owner (unbeknownst to me) was eating her lunch. I asked her if I could take pictures of her and the staff, and she gave me a kind yet strained glance. I explained to her that I was doing this for a project, and that a waitress a few days earlier had told me she would willing to talk (though where this waitress was at that point was a mystery to me). I described the waitress who had given me the permission, and the woman started to smile. It turns out I had spoken to her daughter who was running late, so she allowed me to take pictures as I waited. I started snapping and came across several brightly colored tiles on the wall with various Spanish quotes. I will proudly admit that I understood a majority of the text, but my face must have suggested otherwise because the same woman came over and began translating the tiles. She then began to tell me about the decorations she had chosen for the restaurant, which turned into the most honest, interesting, and impromptu interview I have ever conducted.
The owner’s name was Natalia, and to say she had been through a lot would be a disrespectful understatement. I had heard that her husband had recently passed from my neighborhood Pastor, but that was all I knew. What I didn’t know was that he had died of a heart attack most likely from stress from the missionary work he and Natalia had done in various Latin American countries. I also learned that her son had passed away from Leukemia the year before that, and Maricruz is taking time off from college to help her with the restaurant.
What struck me the most when Natalia was talking about this was her calmness. Her calmness, I presume, was from her inspiring and somewhat puzzling faith in God, which is what led her and her family to open Picante Picante 7 years ago. “When you have Jesus, you have love” is something she said at least 4 times throughout our conversation, and the concept of love, faith, and divinity was evident in the history of Picante and the products she and her staff produces.
Before Picante, Natalia and her husband owned a small night club in Riverdale. The hours were arduous but not too labor intensive, and the money they made from their alcohol sales more than justified their work. Money was their bottom line; they had two young children to care for, and the income was stable and necessary. We did not discuss how, but Natalia found God and her life “changed forever.” She no longer liked owning a nightclub, and she was convicted to run a business without alcohol. The clientele her business attracted were “people with problems” and she felt like she was enabling some of their addictions. She wanted to show love to the people in her community, and she wanted to give her neighbors something they needed. What that was exactly, she did not yet know, but she would soon learn where her soon-to-be restaurant would be located when she passed an old Dominican barbershop on Broadway 231st street. She had a “good feeling” about the location, and after months of persuading her husband to start over with her, they bought the property.
Staying true to her conviction, the new restaurant would not sell alcohol, and the few drinks they did make would be natural fruit juices, something Natalia felt people in the community needed access to. Their meats and vegetables are always fresh and Natalia approved, and a lot of their spices and various products are purchased from Mexico. The service industry is labor intensive, which was a stark contrast from owning a nightclub. The physical strength needed to cook, clean, prepare meats, etcetera is quite time consuming, and the little ex-barbershop suddenly seemed larger after she took me to the back rooms and basement storage areas. Picante Picante is a “labor of love” that leaves Natalia “satisfied” at the end of the day because she is “giving back” by serving.
Community for Natalia is an extension of her family; she believes that love and hard work translate into the food she and her staff prepare, and the customer is considered in every aspect of the business. Her delivery men are always polite and smiling (as I would know since I order from them at least twice a month…), and she encourages interpersonal connections when her staff canvases the neighborhood. They don’t just leave fliers on cars and trees, but they hand them out to people and engage in conversation. This missionary-like approach has proven to be successful, and Picante Picante is now a well-known and well respected restaurant in the area. Natalia and her family take care of us, and the community takes care of her in turn with our patronage, which is ever increasing.
Everyone is respectful to each other, and the efficiency with which the food is prepared is admirable. Each person in the small and dedicated staff has a task, and they complete that task without complaint and with love (which Natalia so proudly added). Not everyone in the restaurant is Christian, but the Christ-like dedication and transparency she so aptly described was apparent and almost felt like a Sunday afternoon church cookout. My family and I have wanted for nothing whenever I eat there, and I also wanted for nothing information-wise after this interview.
I have lived in the Kingsbridge/ Riverdale neighborhood for years, and I did not think the restaurant was going to last quite frankly. I have seen that property and the ones around it shut down at least 4 times within the past decade, so I did not think much of the new little Mexican restaurant when it opened. Thankfully, my pessimism was proven wrong, and Picante Picante is not only thriving, but expanding. Last year they bought the bodega next to the restaurant, which is now a small market that sells Mexican products that you can’t readily find at the local Stop and Shop. The main restaurant now has a downstairs party area, and they just bought the large Indian night club on their left hand side as well. Natalia wants to turn the nightclub into some sort of Christian ministry hall, which is almost biblically ironic.
Written by Victoria E. Smith