Spotlight: Lali Restaurant

In this week’s Spotlight, we’re featuring Lali Restaurant, a family-run business Dominican restaurant located in Hell’s Kitchen. This is part of a longer story that Executive Editor Karina Taveras wrote as her thesis for graduate school (which she just completed last week, WOO-HOOOO!).

On an unusually clear and breezy June afternoon, Lestiel Lopez, her curvy silhouette crowding the doorway of Lali Restaurant in midtown Manhattan, declares her latest plan.

“We start selling frio-frio today,” she announces to her staff.

Dressed in a cotton t-shirt and skirt, Lestiel, 30, known as Les, swiftly enters the restaurant, hugging a green jug filled with fresh mint that hides half her face with its wild stems. She walks past the vinyl stools at the counter and plops the greenery down on a table. A gold headband keeps her dark curls in place. Her skin is the color of brown sugar.

“Frio-frio?” her mother and business partner, Ibis Lara, explodes in Spanish. “What for? Is this another one of your crazy ideas? Do you think that’s going to make money?”

“It’s another way to let people know that we’re here!” says Les aggravated, and rushes towards the kitchen. She picks up a half dozen bottles with spouts, each one containing a different kind of syrup labeled in blue ink with limeade, passion fruit, tamarind, pomegranate. She stops at the counter next to a young employee who sits quietly on one of the stools, fixing her dark straight bangs and looking nervous.

“Hurry, hurry, let’s get to work,” she tells Lauren, waving her hand and telling her to go help set up. Lauren is one of “Lestiel’s girls” and will be selling Dominican shaved ice, known as frio-frio, for $1 a cup from a makeshift stand outside of the restaurant.

As Les walks to the freezer and pulls out a block of ice, her mother rolls her eyes and looks away, touching up her mouth with gloss before disappearing into the human traffic moving along the Tenth Avenue sidewalk.

“She’s just so set in her old-school ways,” Les says, turning on her flip-flops to take the ice outside and place it on the wooden table that has been folded out. Ice, shaver, bottles, ah, the mint. Les goes back in and brings out the jug of wild mint, placing it on the corner of the table.

The mother-daughter dynamic is played out on a daily basis at Lali Restaurant , located at 630 10th Avenue in Manhattan. Ibis, who goes by the name of Lali, took over the restaurant 14 years ago after working there since the mid-80’s. Before becoming Lali Restaurant, the space was owned by Lali’s neighbors, a pair of sisters from Puerto Rico who ran the eatery under the name Capitol. Today the restaurant continues to serve Latin food, with four tables in the back and ten stools at the counter. It has a steady clientele, regulars who have been coming for years for their morning café con leche and heart-warming dishes from the Dominican Republic like meat stews, creole beans and mofongo.

But a year ago everything changed. Les came back from five years in the Navy and a year at culinary school and became Lali’s partner. At first Lali welcomed the help but then she saw that her daughter had ideas of her own. The frio-frio was only the latest.

In recent months, Les has incorporated some unconventional ingredients to the largely Dominican menu, dimmed the lights, added curtains, lounge music and a tarot card reader. Lali has fought Les but it’s been to no avail. For one thing, business is steady in the evenings and has brought along extra revenue, but it’s been difficult for Lali to accept the changes that Les has brought along. Mother and daughter have arrived at a separate peace: Lali is in charge of the restaurant in the morning and through the afternoon, while Les takes it over from there, at times handing over her 2-year-old son Miggy at the restaurant before beginning her shift.

This is the tale of two restaurants under one roof. In the morning, it is run with an iron fist by the 54-year-old Lali, much as she has run it for the last 14 years, serving up generous portions to ravenous taxi drivers and construction workers that come seeking refuge during their lunch hour. But in the afternoon, it is transformed into something completely different under the direction of Lestiel, turning old-fashioned into kitschy, and making a bid for crossover appeal by catering to savvy diners in search of good deals, authentic food and a fun ambiance.

One is Old World, the other New. It is still not clear whether two restaurants with such different personalities run by two exuberant women can survive under one roof. The regulars at Lali Restaurant certainly hope so.

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