Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Working Class or Upper Crust, Tacos for All in the Hamptons

Julia Moskin, writing for the New York Times, has a very interesting article highlighting the intersection of immigration and restaurant menus, with spicy Latin American food provoking some tension from White Americans. I've posted the full article.

WHEN Bruce Damark took over his family’s deli in 2000, he didn’t realize how bitter plantains and empanadas would taste to his neighbors.

Small food businesses like Damark’s have always struggled in Long Island’s beach towns, with too many customers in the summer, too few in the winter. And Mr. Damark found he had a new problem: the women who worked at the counter were openly hostile to the increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking customers, he said, sending them to the back of the line and pretending not to understand their orders.

“Just about then, it seemed like the entire population of Cuenca, in Ecuador, moved to East Hampton,” he said. “I decided to see it as a market to be served.” Mr. Damark hired Julia Sangurima, a woman from Cuenca who is still in charge of the kitchen, to begin making food that would bring in Latino customers. “I make the food from my home, but so that everyone will like it,” she said. That means guisado de puerco (pork stew), frijolitos con carne (red beans with meat), and traditional Ecuadorean breakfast food like mote pillo, chewy dried hominy scrambled with eggs and peppers.

Not everyone did like it. “I immediately heard about it from the Bonackers,” Mr. Damark said, using a local term for the full-time residents of the East End of Long Island, many with roots that go back generations in the sandy soil. “They said that if I started giving the Latinos their food, they would never leave.”

Although Ms. Sangurima’s mote pillo is surely not the only cause, the year-round Latin American population of the Hamptons has multiplied many times in the last 10 years.

And since authentic Latin food like Ms. Sangurima’s arrived in the Hamptons, there are now places where drivers of Range Rovers line up on Sunday afternoons with irrigation workers in ranchero belts, waiting their turn for bottles of Corona and tacos de barbacoa de borrego.

When Mr. Damark’s grandparents opened their store, in 1949, they sold fried-egg sandwiches, quarts of milk and brown-bag lunches of fried chicken and lobster rolls. Since then the Hamptons have evolved from farming and fishing villages sprinkled with a few old-money estates into a string of high-gloss beach towns. In midsummer the place resembles an oddly composed sandwich: a thick slice of wealthy summer people who come to play, another thick slice of Latin Americans who come to work, and a thin filling of year-rounders, mostly white and working-class, in the middle.

After Sept. 11, 2001, it became more difficult for the summer workforce of landscapers, carpenters, cashiers and housekeepers to move between their home countries and the United States.

Now, many have settled here full-time with their families, finding relatively affordable housing in nearby towns like Riverhead and Hampton Bays. They are the loyal patrons and, increasingly, the owners of the Latin restaurants on the East End.

“It’s not so hard to cook for both kinds of people,” said Juan Hernandez, an owner of La Hacienda, a restaurant in Southampton. La Hacienda has two menus, one a printed, rather dull English listing of hard tacos and burritos; the other a series of photographs hanging over the counter of Guadalajaran specialties like birria, a beef stew spiked with cinnamon, clove and chili; and torta ahogada, a sandwich on crusty bread (“Like a French bâtard,” he said), drowned in deeply spicy tomato sauce and covered with crunchy rings of raw onion and oregano leaves.

“The Americans are always only worried that it will be too spicy,” he said. “But I always tell the truth, and I always offer a taste. And then they come back.”

At La Fondita, in Amagansett, the chef Juan Geronimo has resisted adding Americanized Mexican food like hard tacos, and makes his own chorizo sausage and four different sauces from scratch every day. (Mr. Geronimo is from Acapulco and the restaurant is owned by the partners in Nick and Toni’s, a casual upscale restaurant in East Hampton that grows some of its own produce, including tomatillos and cilantro for La Fondita.)

“I don’t believe in just putting the same hot sauce, like Cholula or Tapatío, on everything,” he said. Fish calls for a more acidic flavor, like that of tomatillos. Chicken is good with the suaveness of pumpkin seeds. Red meat responds to the depth of smoked chipotles. Onion, garlic and tomatoes are the common undertones to his sauces, which make the simple food here bright and savory.

Hector Maldonado, a regular at La Fondita and a native of Puebla, Mexico, who was pumping out a rain-flooded fairway on the Maidstone Club’s golf course in East Hampton, offered a history of the taco in the Hamptons.

“Ten years ago, we had to go all the way to Patchogue,” over an hour away, he said. “Now the tacos right in Amagansett are pretty much like at home.”

The customers are almost all Hispanic at Chiquita Latina, a bakery and grocery store that offers a daily hot lunch of “comida Latina” — a blend of cuisines that doesn’t exist in Latin America, but will satisfy anyone fond of plantains and corn, rice and beans, pork and chilies, cilantro and cumin. (The daily guisados, stews, and fresh pan de bono, cheese rolls, are excellent.)

“We passed this place for years and never went in,” said Ryan Donohue, a lawyer in Manhattan who was having dinner with his two children at Enramada, a Colombian restaurant on the highway near Southampton. Mr. Donohue was eating a strip steak with green chili and cilantro sauce; his 8-year-old, Ella, was gnawing on a piece of chicharrón, fried pork skin.

“The restaurants out here are not worth the money, compared to the food you get in the city,” he said. “In July we started coming here for rice and beans and flan, and now we eat the whole menu.”

Colombian food is well represented in the Hamptons. Brasa y Sabor is known for its roast chickens, and there is a tiny freezer with luscious homemade ice-cream pops flavored with guanábana, passion fruit and coconut.

“There are many, many more Latinos here than when we opened” in 2003, said an owner, Robert Gonzales, who sells both staples and treats like dulce de leche, guava-stuffed pastries and Chupa Chups lollipops. “But you will never be able to count them.”

Colombians, Ecuadoreans and Mexicans make up the largest immigrant groups, with smaller communities from Venezuela, Guatemala and El Salvador.

“We need a serious study, because the census tells you nothing about the undocumented population,” said Isabel Sepúlveda-de Scanlon, the publisher of Voz Latina, a bilingual monthly newspaper for the local Latino community. She came to the East End from Santiago, Chile, in 1991 and found work as a waitress.

“I know that the preschool in my town is 50 percent Latino,” she said. “That will tell you the direction things are going.”

Bruce Damark, meanwhile, plans to expand Damark’s and has arrived at a working formula.

“Now I keep the menu 60-40, 60 percent American and 40 percent Hispanic,” he said. “Everyone is getting along just fine.”

A Latino Sampler

These businesses may keep limited hours outside the summer months; it is best to call.

BRASA Y SABOR 622 Montauk Highway, East Hampton, (631) 267-2227.

CHIQUITA LATINA 480 Montauk Highway, East Hampton, (631) 329-6624.

DAMARK’S DELI 331 Three Mile Harbor Road, East Hampton, (631) 324-0691.

ENRAMADA 450B County Road 39, Southampton, (631) 259-8999.

LA FONDITA (open May-October), 74 Montauk Highway, Amagansett, (631) 267-8800.

LA HACIENDA 48 Jagger Lane, Southampton, (631) 287-6814.

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