Martin Zavala, who has run Milagro Café in Stonington Borough for the past 14 years, has become a restaurateur of note in the region.
In late April, I have expanded his reach and established a new restaurant: Zavala Mexican Bistro in East Lyme.
Zavala had almost opened a restaurant in 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 passed away in 2016.)
Since then, Flanders Diner had a short-lived stint in the locale, followed by Rebeka Fresh Pasta Restaurant, which shut its doors earlier this year.
When Zavala found out that site was available now, he says, “I had to take it.”
“Being over the (Gold Star) Bridge for so long, something like 14 years, I always 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 how I want this restaurant to be.”
People who have seen the sign out front have already been calling the restaurant to ask if the owner was related to the folks who ran Zavala in New London (at the foot of State Street, next to the train station) for eight-plus years, until 2010.
Zavala is, in fact, that Zavala. He and his mother-in-law, Jan Loomis, are business partners in this new venture, and they co-own 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 have all of this because of her. … I’m very thankful.”
The dishes they serve
So what’s on the menu? Here is a sampling of a couple of the items at Zavala Mexican Bistro: Citrus roasted pork, $22, pork simmered in its own juices, until fork tender, in lime and lemon, served with black bean puree and salsa borracha; and Mole Con Pollo, $20, pan seared chicken breasts, in a savory sauce containing plantains, nuts, a variety of different chiles and spices, and dark chocolate.
A good portion of the menu boasts dishes like tacos and burritos that Americans tend to expect at Mexican restaurants but that aren’t served a lot in Mexico.
Zavala learned with his first restaurant that customers here tend to lean toward ordering those offerings, and he could then slowly add specials of more authentic Mexican dishes.
At Milagro now, the vast majority of customers order the specials. The specials change at least three times a week there, accompanying a set menu.
While that hasn’t been the case so far at Zavala Mexican Bistro, Zavala is hoping patrons will eventually lean toward the specials. He says he has to figure out what works in East Lyme. He knows that Stonington is a fish town, and his specials from him at Milagro reflect that. He thought that might be the same in East Lyme, but so far, he hasn’t sold much fish.
This is the second Mexican restaurant to debut in East Lyme in a little over a year, the other being La Llorona in Niantic. Zavala said he wasn’t concerned about that when establishing Zavala Mexican Bistro and compared it to when he was learning to cook in New York City; there were so many restaurants, one after another, all doing business. And, he points out, there are a multitude of pizza places 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.”
Besides, he notes, “If I give the same ingredients to 10 different people, each (result) is going to taste different.”
And Zavala doesn’t go by recipes. So a special today might take different from the same one next week. He says that’s why he doesn’t like baking, which is more of a science.
As with most businesses, it wasn’t easy for Zavala to find help, but he says he feels very lucky and grateful for the people who are working at Zavala Mexico Bistro.
He notes that mostly high school kids are working at Zavala, which is different from his employees at Milagro.
“In one restaurant (Milagro), I have everybody over 50. In my other restaurant, I have everybody under 20,” he says with a laugh. “My employees at Milagro, I’ve had there forever.”
Everybody there knows how he likes things done and knows him as a person — his sense of humor, for instance.
He brought one of those long-time employees, the manager at Milagro, over to work at Zavala Mexican Restaurant instead.
A challenging Cinco de Mayo
It happened that Zavala Mexican Bistro opened its doors just a couple of weeks before Cinco de Mayo, which tends to be an extremely busy day for most Mexican restaurants. Zavala says that Cinco de Mayo was rough at the East Lyme venue. A lot of customers were upset that orders took so long, and some left without their food.
“For that, I will apologize for everybody. … It’s no excuse, but we were only like two weeks open. And everybody’s new and we try our best,” he says.
Making things by hand
Zavala grew up in Mexico City and made furniture there with his family.
“I like making things with my hands,” he says.
When he came to the US, his first job was in construction before he started as a dishwasher in a restaurant; that’s where he met Genine, who was a server at the same venue.
He became interested in cooking and worked in a variety of restaurants in New York City for 12 years.
“I worked for free in fancy restaurants because I wanted to learn,” he says. “I was lucky enough 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 be taught there.
“I wanted to learn how to make eggs, so I worked at a diner for six months. I wanted to learn how to make soup, I worked at 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 feedback from customers is something Zavala appreciates.
When it comes to cooking, he says, “I like when people say, ‘Wow, that tastes very good… How do you do this?'”