If you choose to live on the East End of Long Island, serving the public year round in a coffee shop might not be the first thing you would choose to do. In 1991, it was the right decision for me. I started serving breakfast and lunch by first building a staff and then a customer base. When we eventually opened for dinner, our original focus was on pasta. It went well, and then the Zone Diet came along.
By 1998, it was time to shift to bolder, more flavorful and lighter fare. The most direct approach that I could think of at the time was to focus on the staff that had helped me build the business in Amagansett. Two members of my team stood out. First, in the kitchen was my right-hand man Ruben Bravo. Second, in the front of the house was the ever-friendly and energetic Carlos Pinzon.
These two men made my decision to change the restaurant’s name to Estia’s Cantina. The only things I needed to do were submerge myself in the Mexican culture, apply for a liquor license and build a margarita bar. With the help of Michael Cinque (Amagansett’s premier spirits specialist) and Evan Thomas (Paul Simon’s lead carpenter), that is exactly what I did. The development of the Cantina concept took shape.
On a chilly winter day in late February, we met in the growing line at the Air Mexico counter at JFK International. Five hours later, we were seated at a table in the deepest reaches of Mexico City at a restaurant called El Bajillo. The meal was magical. We also spent some wonderful time touring the restaurant’s vast space with the chef. Our adventure had begun.
After our evening in Mexico City, we flew to Zihuatanejo, where the beaches are endless and the fare focuses on the sea. Up early the following day, our trio headed to the village beach to watch the fishing boats come in and unload. Within an hour, as the tangerine hues of early morning turned into a crisp blue sky, we saw the bulk of the day’s catch sold and shipped inland to restaurants, fish mongers and homes hours away. While our time in “Z” was memorable, our real cultural experience was still ahead.
Next stop, Guadalajara, with an eye on the town of Tequila. It took a day to get there and worth all of the effort. We toured the agave fields that seemed be endless. That was followed by the distillery experience at Viuda de Romero and, of course, the larger Cuervo. We liked the smaller tequila company’s approach and the decision was made in the Viuda de Romero tasting room that this would be Estia Cantina’s house tequila.
On our return drive to Guadalajara, the conversation shifted from tequila to our final day in Mexico. Carlos Pinzon had told me of a small town not far from Guadalajara called Tounalla. We had a Sunday lunch ahead of us and the decision was easy. Our guide explained to us that Tounalla is an ancient city with a long history in the arts. What interested me more was finding the small bodega that Pinzon had described. He couldn’t remember the name of it but he did remember the flavors of the sandwich that made it famous. Pinzon said, “If the chance to try the torta ahogada presents itself, you must not miss it.”
He was right.