Photo by Patricia Rey Mallén. Alfredo Diego in his soon-to-close Coquí Mexicano.

Cherished neighborhood eatery set to close due to mounting debt

In his now desolated restaurant, Alfredo Diego had trouble holding back tears. He hugged the soccer ball signed by Spanish team captain Iker Casillas and smiled sadly.

 “If anything, I can say that the captain of the world soccer champions came to my restaurant. One of my dreams come true,” he said. “It is all I have left now. Memories.”

 Coquí Mexicano, Diego’s beloved restaurant in Melrose, is closing its doors. Diego and his partner, Danisha Nazario, both owners of Coquí, can no longer meet the debts from the Health Department, overdue bills and rent. They have decided to put an end to what had become the meet-up center in the neighborhood since they opened three years ago.

 “We will see what happens,” said Diego, 41. Last October, he had a hearing about the rent and got an extra month to try to obtain the $7,310 he owes, or vacate.

 A week later, Diego and his attorneys had a second hearing. This time, they obtained a reduction on the fine Coquí received last June from the Health Department which cited presence of mice and improper vermin isolation, among other violations. Out of the initial $4,500, he will pay $1,800. The Department of Health refused to comment.

 Last August, Diego’s restaurant license expired, and because of the overdue fines he has not been able to renew it. “So I closed, some two months ago,” Diego said. “If I can’t cook, there’s no point in staying open.”

 Diego has decided to put the restaurant on the market, and he is looking for potential buyers. “My girlfriend has given up, now it is only me fighting,” he said. “It might not be enough.” The initial price is $60,000, but he hopes he will get a better offer.

 “Maybe a miracle will happen”, said Diego. “Like it happened to the Spanish team in the World Cup,” he added with a laugh.

 Diego and Nazario got a miracle in April 2010, when they received their first eviction threat from the landlord, and the neighborhood rose in their defense. Congressman José Serrano, a self-proclaimed fan of Coquí Mexicano and Diego’s personal friend, was among the over 300 neighbors who signed a petition on the restaurant’s behalf. Bronx Defenders’ assistant Agnes Rodriguez organized a fundraiser that eventually led to saving the restaurant.

 “Coquí Mexicano is not a business, it is a community entity,” wrote Melrose neighbor Isabella Moreno in the April 2010 petition.

 “I could only wish more businesses became as involved in their communities as Coquí is,” said Lisa Apolonio.

 “With its wholesome food and grassroots endeavors, Coquí Mexicano serves but one purpose and that is to enhance the community,” wrote another fan, Wanda Molina.

 This time around, not even the love of the community has been enough to save Coquí Mexicano. The gas and water services have already been cut off because of the unpaid bills, and the bookings phone number no longer works.

 “I have been taking my tours here for years, and they loved it” said City Tour’s guide Hector Correa. “It is such a shame.” Antonio Vilchín, owner of Mexicocina in 149th St, agrees. “I hope they make it work,” he said.

 “I don’t want to close,” said Diego, looking over the photographs on the wall, which include one of President Obama and another with the Spanish team captain. “This is my dream, my first love. And you know what it’s like with first loves, it’s hard to let go.”

 What Diego is not letting go of, at least for now, is hope. He has been offered a job as a cook in the nearby restaurant The Rib Bar & Grill, which he is considering taking. And he has not ruled out opening another business in the future.

 “This is just the first game,” he said with a sad smile. “It is not over yet.”

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