I have a tendency to be a creature of habit, especially when it comes to things I love, like travel, food, Netflix/Hulu binges. With food, it’s one of those things that has the risk of being boring very quickly: the same flavors over and over again, the same textures, ingredients. Very few cuisines rock my fancy much. In practice, I like to adhere to what I call my “Triple M” rule: Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Mexican. I can eat these meals forever and never grow weary of them. I’m not an active cook (please don’t ask me to meal prep!), but as of late, with the demands of my job intensifying with every passing work week, I have to admit, I’ve found myself okay with being that bachelorette forking over all of her money to the god of Seamless…and Grubhub…and UberEats...basically anyone who will bring food to my apartment door and accept me as I am in my frog house slippers and Syracuse sweatshirt sans makeup.
I’ve lived in Parkchester for almost three years. I wouldn’t call my section of White Plains Road a food desert, but I’m not sure how many Mexican and Chinese restaurants one really needs a block from each other (note: this is not a complaint!). In fact, for the longest, I sort of avoided most spots near my house, scouring and scavenging for good eats closer to Little Italy or even going as far as Riverdale as these areas were often perpetrated as prominent “food hubs” in the Bronx. I’ve gotten better at exploring neighborhoods in the East Bronx: Van Nest, Morris Park, Westchester, and some of Throggs Neck and Castle Hill. I have every intent of exploring them all to the fullest extent, but with all these nor’easter storms trick or treating the east coast all winter long, I have risked going hungry to avoid braving the elements, even to go around the corner.
On one cold afternoon, my hunger got the best of me and Seamless had the nerve to threaten me with a 45-60 min delivery wait. I was reluctant to travel far. My makeout session with Netflix was getting hot and heavy (going on hour four), but I figured I’d give the outside world closest to my front door a chance. Nearing the corner of White Plains and Guerlain, I quickly flipped through a directory in my head of some local spots near me: North bound, “Oasis”, “F&J Pine,”“La Masa,” South bound, “Taqueria Tlaxcalli,” “Al-Aqsa Restaurant,” “Step-In.” As often as I frequent these spots, I really wasn’t in the mood for any of them. Standing at the corner, sandwiched between a tire shop and a barber shop, I spotted a restaurant I pass every evening on my way from the 6 train, “Ajo y Orégano.” I remember trying their food back in November and liking what I ordered. I figured it couldn't hurt to try them again.
Upon entering, my glasses immediately fog up. The place was small yet packed. The line stretched from the central hot line counter all the short distance away to where I stood near the front door, roughly ten feet. I was practically leaning on a patron seated at the table next to me. I stood quietly, taking in the bright decor of the green walls and paintings around me, eyeing food being delivered to the four tables that made up the small dining space while I inched my way towards the front. For how tight it was, it was incredible to not hear a single person complain, groan, or grunt while waiting for their food. In fact, everyone waiting in line stood in remarkable peace and patience. The turnaround was quick for both take out and sit down orders. When I finally arrived at the front of the line, I ordered what I had last time (and what I have been ordering ever since!): rice and beans, maduros, and stewed chicken. I was in and out in ten minutes (take that Seamless!). Once home, I sat on my couch and silently devoured one of the best take out meals I’ve had in a long time. I ate everything but the tin take out container. Ever since that afternoon, I have devoted ten minutes of my Saturday afternoons to stand in line for their food and have not regretted a single minute (or dollar) spent.
Ajo y Orégano has only been around for roughly four months, but one wouldn’t assume such based on the level of traffic this family owned restaurant seems to muscle through every weekend. Owned and managed by brothers Enver Perez and Jeudy Alexander, Ajo y Orégano has attracted a strong following. With over eleven thousand Instagram followers, the restaurant draws in people from all over the city, including patrons from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
“A lot of people who come here aren’t from our neighborhood,” says Enver. “It’s a great part of this…Every single one of these tables, none of them live within a 2 mile radius, and I promise you, someone at these tables here crossed a bridge: from Queens, from Brooklyn, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, [or] Connecticut.”
This success was not an immediate reward. The restaurant originally started as a meal prep service, Slim-to-Go. The initial business struggled with typical issues for a startup food service company, including implementing an effective marketing strategy.
“Originally we started as a meal prep company. [But] in order for you to do it at the level that we were trying to do it you need a huge budget...we noticed that we needed to bump a lot of money into marketing and what not. So that was a tough business to try to sustain. Since we were already familiar with cooking healthy and we are all Spanish, we tried to incorporate that. ‘How do we go from healthy to Spanish?’ And the best way to do it is to make it as organically and old school as you possibly can.”
Enver paused and pointed to the food laid out on the hotline counter. “This is as healthy as Spanish food is gonna get, you know? Nothing here is saturated in salt, nothing is saturated in things like oil, and stuff like that. Every single thing that we do here is all blended up and spice up inside our kitchen. We take our time. We buy tons of red peppers, green peppers, garlic, and blend up all of these ingredients and spices to give it that grandma touch.”
The touch is working and keeps customers coming back and dragging out of towners for a quick visit. One patron I interviewed had barely been back home in the Bronx from Dallas before a friend of his brought him out to eat at the restaurant. “I’ve only been here for 6 hours,” he said, “but she was adamant about getting me here and trying their food.”
Others made their way from just the other side of the Bronx, having discovered the restaurant reposted on a Dominican food Instagram page. “From there, I just started following them, and I [saw] how close they were from us, from where we live,” stated one patron. “There are Dominican restaurants everywhere, but it’s hard to find a good one around here in this area.” His companion went as far to even take note of the restaurant’s hygienic measures compared to other establishments she’s visited, how just their constant use of gloves and keeping their hair covered provided her a level of comfort and appreciation for the food. “I think it’s really popular because of the way they serve it, because [the food] also comes in those little [decorative] pots.
The pots which she referred to have become a distinctive trademark for the restaurant. These colorful hand painted metal pots portray a snapshot of the Dominican Republic countryside; pastel colored houses posed next to vibrant trees with the name of the restaurant scripted across the top edge.
“The crazy part is that, the pots were kind of... I’m not gonna say it was a brilliant idea because I didn’t even think about it,” Enver began. “What happen was, we sent [for] some things to get picked up from DR. Everything here is from DR. One of the chefs here has a family member in DR and he was coming [to the states] and I said ‘Bring me this, bring me that.’ and he literally brought me six small pots and six medium pots. At first, you know, we were kind of like, ‘This is the perfect size’. You can put the right amount of rice, the right amount of beans, and the right amount of meat and it looks good on a plate. So that was a mistake that magically and brilliantly happened. The pots really put us on the map.”
Of course, it is the food that keeps bringing people back. During its peak on a weekend, roughly three to four parties can be witnessed waiting outside to be seated inside the restaurant. “I think the biggest compliment for us here,” said Enver, “is when people say ‘I want to bring my mom’ or ‘I want to bring my grandma’. Because they want to get it passed them, they want to make sure, like ‘Mom, this is official right? This is authentic, right?’”, he laughed.
Enver seemed to empathized with this feeling all to deeply. He witnessed one of his favorite spots, Malecon, which he frequented with his own mother, almost get pushed out due to gentrification. However, because of the loyalty and love for the restaurant and its owner, local neighborhood members rallied together and paid for the restaurant’s rent, “because they didn’t want to lose that spot,” he added.
It’s worth noting that all the while throughout the interview, the restaurant remained steadily busy, Enver working alongside his brother Jeudy, both manning the hotline, taking to-go orders, delivering food to tables, pausing every now and again to answer my questions and share with me their story as a family owned restaurant. A number of close friends and cousins also worked in the kitchen and prepped food. And lastly, their own mother provided her time and energy to being both a server and a cashier for the restaurant.
It goes without saying that the coziness, the intimate environment, and the delicious food, are a reflection of the family who put in their time and hard work. It’s a small space, but its homestyle Dominican cuisine can make anyone feel like at home next to a complete stranger. Though only four months into it, Ajo y Orégano has the air of having been a neighborhood hot spot for years. The restaurant will see it’s first summer season this year, and plans to expand and meet its ever growing fanbase will allow for many more Bronxites to come and experience them. In the meantime, I recommend everyone take a pause from their respective binges and checkout Ajo y Orégano. I promise you won’t be disappointed, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself back there again and again as I am every weekend.
You can visit Ajo y Orégano at 1556A White Plains Road, Bronx NY, 10462