Melrose eatery is more than a restaurant

Alfredo Diego, owner and chef of Coqui Mexicano.Photo by Carla Candia

A popular lunch spot, Coqui Mexicana is a library, community center, too

A Puerto Rican man in his 60s stormed into Coqui Mexicano, the restaurant on Brook and Third Avenues recently. He was offended by eatery’s name. “That is wrong,” he said. “The Coqui is not from Mexico; it is from Puerto Rico.”

Indeed, the coqui is a little frog commonly found in Puerto Rico, and the visitor’s reaction when he saw the name of the place is not the first of its kind that Diego and Nazario have witnessed. “Puerto Ricans feel offended because the coqui is from Puerto Rico,” said Danisha Nazario, 35, who owns the restaurant along with Alfredo Diego, 39.

Offended national pride aside, however, Melrose residents as well as those who work in the area have adopted the little restaurant, which opened two years ago. And as far as its owners are concerned, the name is a symbol of the fusion of cultures represented on the restaurant’s menu.

In addition to such well-known Mexican and Puerto Rican specials as tacos, plantain-leaf-wrapped tamales, and arroz con habichuelas–the Puerto Rican version of rice and beans—the restaurant serves dishes from far-flung Latin cuisines. For instance, instead of the typical Peruvian ceviche, they serve an Acapulco-style ceviche—made with Mexican jalapeño peppers.

Other specialties include Salvadoran pupusas—corn tortillas filled with chorizo and cheese, among other ingredients—and a salad of Chayota squash. Desserts include Piña Colada pie and guava and cheese muffins.

Like its name and its offerings, the proprietors are the result of cultural fusion: Nazario is Puerto Rican, Diego Mexican, and they serve a neighborhood that has become home to many Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.

The proprietors have lived in the area for nine years. Diego always wanted to own a business where he could serve people. He and Nazario put together $18,000 in savings, borrowed more and began to scout for a place to open a restaurant.

“We looked for places in Brooklyn and East Harlem but they were too expensive,” said Nazario. Then they learned that that the out of business deli not far away from their apartment was available and thought that it would make sense to invest in the neighborhood.

Coqui Mexicano has three tables and three chairs by the bar. Hanging on the turquoise walls are pictures of President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, along with a picture of Diego posing with Congressman Jose E. Serrano.

Since they couldn’t afford to hire a cook, Diego took over the kitchen, and remains responsible for all the cooking. However, Nazario says his true calling is to interact with patrons. “Diego lives to be surrounded by people,” she said.

“We say this is not a restaurant; it is not a bodega; it is more like a community center,” said Nazario.

The couple wants to provide residents with services that are scarce in the area. Not only does the restaurant sell food made from fresh vegetables, but also crafts made by locals.

And customers can take books home for free.  Finding that there were no bookstores in the neighborhood, the couple decided to collect used titles and placed them on a shelf next to the entrance.

“Reading should not be a luxury,” the owners say on the restaurant website. “Books can be expensive and during these hard times, why should we not learn how to share with each other?”

Coqui’s customers include police officers from the nearby 42nd Precinct, construction workers and teachers from area schools.

“Eighty percent of my employees come here to have lunch,” said Bobby, 46, who works in construction and refused to give his last name because of his company’s policies. The restaurant “sells what we really need.”

Prices are affordable: tacos and tamales sell for $2.50, desserts for $3, and a plate of arroz con habichuelas with a side of meat for $5.

However, Diego and Nazario are struggling to keep Coqui Mexicano in business.  The salary that Nazario makes as a hotel employee is their main capital. “The place doesn’t make enough money to sustain itself,” said Nazario.

In May, when Nazario and Diego fell behind on the rent and received a notice of eviction from their landlord, patrons, including Congressman Serrano, signed petitions to keep Coqui Mexicano open. The restaurant’s owners and their landlord agreed to a six-month payment plan, and visitors have continued enjoying Coqui’s food.

They’ve pinned their hopes on nearby Boricua Village on East 163d Street and Third Avenue. The complex, scheduled to open soon, will include 750 apartments, Boricua College, with an enrollment of 2,400 students and 40,000 square feet of retail space that should bring plenty of foot traffic to the area.

In the meantime, the owners are coping with hard times. “We still owe six thousand dollars of the late rent,” said Diego.

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