Martin Zavala, who has run Milagro Café in Stonington Borough for 14 years, has become a renowned restaurateur in the area.
In late April, he expanded his reach and opened a new restaurant: Zavala Mexican Bistro in East Lyme.
Zavala had almost opened a restaurant on the same site after Frank’s Gourmet Grille closed in 2011.
Zavala even had a lease for the Boston Post Road spot, but his wife, Genine, was hospitalized and he had to give up the lease. (Genine had a heart defect and died in 2016.)
Since then, Flanders Diner has had a short stint in the area, followed by Rebeka Fresh Pasta restaurant, which closed earlier this year.
When Zavala found out the site was now available, he said, “I had to take it.”
“Having been across the (Gold Star) bridge for so long, something like 14 years, I still hear people say, ‘You should open one on our side,'” he says. “I wanted to try it. I have this vision in my head of what I want this restaurant to be.”
People who saw the sign out front have already called the restaurant to ask if the owner was connected to the people who ran Zavala in New London (at the foot of State Street, next to the station) for more than eight years , until 2010.
Zavala is, in fact, this Zavala. He and his mother-in-law, Jan Loomis, are business partners in this new venture and they are co-owners of Milagro. (They also co-own Manana in Groton with Loomis’ son, Justin Primeaux; Zavala doesn’t run that venue.)
Zavala has nothing but praise for Loomis and says, “Basically, I got it all because of her. … I’m so grateful.”
The dishes they serve
So what’s on the menu? Here’s a sampling of some of the Zavala Mexican Bistro dishes: Citrus Roast Pork, $22, pork simmered in its own juices, until tender, in lime and lemon, served with mashed black beans and salsa borracha; and Mole Con Pollo, $20, seared chicken breasts, in a savory sauce containing plantains, nuts, a variety of different chilies and spices, and dark chocolate.
A good portion of the menu features dishes like tacos and burritos that Americans tend to expect in Mexican restaurants, but aren’t served much in Mexico.
Zavala learned with his first restaurant that customers here tend to order these offerings, and he could then slowly add more authentic Mexican food specialties.
At Milagro now, the vast majority of customers order the specials. Daily specials change at least three times a week, accompanied by a set menu.
While that hasn’t been the case so far at Zavala Mexican Bistro, Zavala hopes customers will eventually turn to the specials. He says he has to find what works in East Lyme. He knows Stonington is a fish town, and his promotions at Milagro reflect that. He thought it might be the same in East Lyme, but so far he hasn’t sold a lot of fish.
This is the second Mexican restaurant to debut in East Lyme in just over a year, the other being La Llorona at Niantic. Zavala said he was not concerned about this when establishing Zavala Mexican Bistro and compared it to when he was learning to cook in New York; there were so many restaurants, one after another, all doing business. And, he says, there are a multitude of pizzerias in our region. In other words: there’s an audience for it.
Likewise, he says, “I remember when I came to Connecticut, there were no Mexican restaurants. Now there’s one in every town.”
Also, he notes, “If I give the same ingredients to 10 different people, each (result) will taste different.”
And Zavala doesn’t follow recipes. Thus, a special today could be different from the same next week. He says that’s why he doesn’t like baking, which is more of a science.
Help with hiring
As with most businesses, it hasn’t been easy for Zavala to find help, but he says he feels very lucky and grateful to the people who work at Zavala Mexico Bistro.
He notes that most high school students work at Zavala, which is different from his employees at Milagro.
“In one restaurant (Milagro), I have everyone over 50. In my other restaurant, I have everyone under 20,” he laughs. “My employees at Milagro, I have always had them.”
Everyone there knows how much he loves things and knows him as a person – his sense of humor, for example.
He brought in one of those longtime employees, the manager of Milagro, to work at the Mexican restaurant Zavala instead.
A difficult Cinco de Mayo
Zavala Mexican Bistro happened to open just a few weeks before Cinco de Mayo, which tends to be an extremely busy day for most Mexican restaurants. Zavala says Cinco de Mayo has been rough at the East Lyme venue. Many customers were upset that orders took so long, and some left without their food.
“For that, I’ll apologize to everyone. … That’s no excuse, but we’ve only been open for two weeks. And everyone’s new and we’re trying our best,” he said. .
Do things by hand
Zavala grew up in Mexico City and made furniture there with her family.
“I like doing things with my hands,” he says.
When he arrived in the United States, his first job was in construction before starting as a dishwasher in a restaurant. it was there that he met Genine, who was a waitress at the same place.
He became interested in cooking and worked in various restaurants in New York for 12 years.
“I worked for free in fancy restaurants because I wanted to learn,” he says. “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. And I never really cooked Mexican food until I opened my own business.”
In those early years, he took jobs based on what he could learn there.
“I wanted to learn how to make eggs, so I worked in a restaurant for six months. I wanted to learn how to make soup, I worked in a place that only makes soups,” he says.
Zavala had considered going to culinary school, but his old boss told him he didn’t need to go to school to be a great chef.
Getting positive customer feedback is something Zavala appreciates.
When it comes to cooking, he says, “I like it when people say, ‘Wow, that’s really good…How do you do that?'”