El Parador Cafe
Neighborhood: Murray Hill
325 East 34th St.
El Parador Cafe is a small Mexican restaurant on E 34th St. near the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. It seats 120 people and opened in 1959. It is considered to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in the city. That said, it's not a major destination for many New Yorkers—most of them have never heard of it. According to its current owner and chef, Alex Alejandro, that's totally OK. Dedicated patrons have been coming to El Parador Cafe for generations, and they are the real key to its success. I recently had the opportunity to visit Chef Alejandro, a genial man with a warm smile and a welcoming handshake. He invited me to join him in a quiet corner of the restaurant adorned with a small plaque commemorating a couple who got engaged over dinner (these plaques can be seen all over the walls.) After a few sips of a margarita and taking in the understated hacienda-style decor, the chef and I discussed mass market Mexican food, La Cocinera Poblana, and the inherent, under-appreciated value of authenticity.
Can you tell me a bit about El Parador's history in New York?
El Parador was conceived by a man named Carlos Jacovitt, he was a Mexican fellow raised in the States. He met a Spanish lady and her family had a restaurant downtown in the village called El Charro, it’s still there on Charles St. He didn’t want to work with his in-laws so he talked his wife into opening a restaurant by themselves. So they opened El Parador on 31st and 2nd. It was a small place, big bar, small dining room, one of perhaps four or five [Mexican restaurants] in the city at that time. It was an instant hit. In 1959 they relocated here. My family bought it in 1990 and seven years ago I bought it from my father.
I like to bring back what’s been forgotten because classic cooking and classic recipes are almost impossible to find because everybody is so focused on making a name for themselves...Yes, we are being exposed to a lot of interesting cuisine, but I happen to like certain dishes the way my grandmother made them, and that’s what I’m trying to replicate.
How often do you change the menu? How do you stay current in a market that’s constantly reinventing itself?
I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the food we are showcasing here so the menu has changed, but not much through the years. A dish will disappear and another will replace it, but the core of the menu has been the same for fifty years. On a daily basis we bring new stuff in. We have a specials page in the menu, and it's a roster that rotates and you’ll see certain dishes on and off every couple weeks, and then there are things that we only pop in there once every few months or just once, period. And those are market dishes or new ideas or our way of introducing something new for those who seek that.
In the Times piece, the writer mentions that the clientele here is generally older. How are you going to stay relevant if you don't appeal to younger patrons?
I would say 60% of the clientele here is under 30. Right now it's 5:30. When I was twenty-something I had dinner at ten o’clock. Come back at that hour and you will see the other face of El Parador. Right now is when you see most of our older clientele, and I don’t necessarily mean older by age. I mean older by longevity. This is when you see the people coming back home from work, stopping in, grabbing a bite. The younger people start coming in maybe 7:30. On Fridays and Saturdays, maybe 5% of the clientele is over 50.
What's your secret for surviving in New York?
When you’ve been here for so long, people are going to come back because they are the children of the people that brought them here first. Sometimes they are even the grandchildren of our original customers. Other people come out of curiosity, others come because it's cool to take someone to a place they've never been to before and probably don’t know about. There are many factors that you can attribute to the longevity of a restaurant. I always tell everybody that the key to success is consistency, making sure that every time somebody comes back they receive the same type of attention, the same taste in the food, and the same overall feel as they did the first time they decided they were going to visit.
I always tell everybody that the key to success is consistency, making sure that every time somebody comes back they receive the same type of attention, the same taste in the food, and the same overall feel as they did the first time they decided they were going to visit.
How does it feel being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the city?
You don’t want to stress it so much that it becomes our selling point and then what you’re doing is calling all the tourists. Nothing against tourist, I love them, but it’s not my main thing to tell everybody that we’re the oldest. So what? We strive very hard everyday to make sure that we are current and up-to-date and keeping the place noble and the food interesting. The same mole that was here fifty years ago is still on the menu, it's still delicious. We do everything we can to get the best ingredients possible, to keep it as authentic as we can. You’re not gonna find ramps here.
I'm from California, and I often ask myself, "What do these Yankees know about Mexican food?" What are your thoughts on that criticism?
It’s a bunch of crap. Californians think Texans cannot make any Mexican food. And Texans think Arizonans can’t make Mexican food and everybody thinks that Mexican food is the best. When El Parador started, Mexican food was not very well-known, so the dishes that we served were the dishes that most Americans knew. Now we are trying to broaden that horizon. We are trying to show people that there is a lot more to Mexican food.
What is your philosophy as a chef regarding Mexican cuisine?
I own a copy of La Cocinera Poblana, it is the first cook book published in Mexico. 1862, I believe. I own a second edition. If you look up the recipe for mole poblano in that book, that’s what you’re going to find here. Can you say that that’s authentic? Well it’s as authentic as I know. I mean, heck, I’m from Spain! So I have to trust the opinion of the Mexican people I have working here with me and I have to trust the recipes that are over 150 years old. Between those two things, I think I have the authenticity point well represented. I try to stay true to the flavors of Mexico and to the preparation. I like to bring back what’s been forgotten because classic cooking and classic recipes are almost impossible to find because everybody is so focused on making a name for themselves by trying to create something that is totally original and no one else has heard about. Yes, we are being exposed to a lot of interesting cuisine, but I happen to like certain dishes the way my grandmother made them and that’s what I’m trying to replicate. I try to stay true.
Do you have an opinion about mass market Mexican food?
I used to love it at 2 o’clock in the morning [laughs]. I used to live in San Antonio, Texas. At 2 o’clock in the morning I'd go to these delicious taco joints along the Interstate. I don’t have anything against mass market Mexican food. It’s like a hamburger at McDonald's and a hamburger at one of the most famous steakhouses in the city. We are talking about two different examples of the same thing. One upscale and one for 2 o’clock in the morning.
Do you have a lot of Mexican clientele?
Yes, quite a few. They like it a lot. What I like the best is that my staff brings their families here to eat. That, to me, says everything. I always ask them, how does it taste? They say it’s good. I believe that, unless you grew up eating it, you really don’t know what it's supposed to taste like.