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Photos courtesy of Fresco's Cantina
Photos courtesy of Fresco's Cantina

Strolling down 31st Avenue in western Astoria, you’d be pleasantly surprised to come across a charming Mexican restaurant at the end of the block. But Fresco’s Cantina is hard to miss.  The Spanish music swelling from the interior can be heard from the next block over, coaxing you closer. And once you’re in front, there’s no turning back, for the warm staff and the smell of fresh tacos will make you want to stay forever.

This is owner and creator Brian Martinez’s goal. He wants every customer to feel like they’re entering a friend’s casa for dinner.  Every detail, from the dresser that sits next to the host stand and the mirrors on the walls, to the friendliness of the wait-staff, work toward this concept.

Located on 12-14 31st Ave., Fresco’s Cantina has been open a little over three months, but it already boasts long lines during happy hour (Monday through Friday, 3 to 8 p.m.), despite its residential location. The joint welcomes a steady flow of neighborhood regulars who are delighted to have a watering hole in their backyard — especially one open seven days a week.

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This neighborhood gem was discovered somewhat by accident. Martinez was searching for a second location for his successful Bronx Latin-fusion restaurant, Travesia. When he saw this narrow space on 31st, he fell in love, but knew it wasn’t quite right for Travesia.

Brian Martinez

“I knew that from the moment I saw it,” Martinez recalled. “But I love the space. I like the area. I liked the fact that there weren’t any restaurants around here, so I wanted to be that local neighborhood restaurant. It’s a good area: up-and-coming. I had been playing with the Fresco’s Cantina concept in my head for almost a year. I was like, I think it’ll work perfectly for Fresco’s Cantina — it’s cozy, it’s very friendly.”

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And with some work, that’s exactly what it is now. The interior is warm and brightly colored, with recognizable home elements scattered throughout like in an “I Spy” book — all designed by Martinez himself. There is a garage door that remains lifted overhead to create an open-air feel. The atmosphere is fun, but not tacky, which Martinez was sure to avoid.

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“That’s why you don’t have skulls all over the place,” he explained. “You don’t have the flowers or whatever. It’s like a nice, cozy home, like a hacienda, almost like my house — you’re here in my house. You’re having dinner in my home.”

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The name itself harkens back to Martinez’s personal life. He was known as “El Fresco” by most everyone at his alma mater, Le Moyne College — a name given by his fraternity brothers for his ability to dish out a witty comeback for anything.

Martinez, 35, is no stranger to the food industry. His first job at 14 was at McDonald’s. Since then, he’s made quite the name for himself. After majoring in business and working for a spell in airline catering and sales, Martinez opened Travesia, then a barbershop in the Bronx (The Bronx Barbershop), and now Fresco’s Cantina. He even has a coffee shop in the works.

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“Started from the bottom, now we’re here!” he said, laughing. “It’s something I’ve always liked. I’m an overall businessman. I’m not going to open a restaurant because I know how to cook; I open a restaurant because I have a passion for it, because I like the business and I see potential money in it.”

Even though he doesn’t cook himself, Martinez crafted the menu, influenced by his Latin-American background. His mother came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic two months pregnant with Martinez, and he spent every summer there as a kid. He labels the fare “Mexican reinvented”: a fusion of traditional Mexican mixed with Asian, Indian and other Latin American influences.

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“I like to offer my customers stuff I like,” Martinez said, chuckling at the simplicity. “If I like it, I’m sure they’re going to love it.”

Cantina Carne Asada

His favorite is the Cozumel taco: beer-battered mahi mahi in a soft taco with honey jalapeño coleslaw. It was the perfect combination of spicy and sweet, complete with the crispy finish of the fish.

The Cubana al pastor taco was packed with tender pulled pork, topped with a sweet, fresh pineapple marmalade.

But my personal favorite was the pastelon, made with cooked sweet plantain. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and unlike anything I’ve tried in my life.

These tacos have a combination of flavors I would never think to put together, but the taste combos somehow work in a magical way. I wolfed down the plate in about two minutes and didn’t feel one ounce of regret. Martinez certainly is right when he says they’re “different.” The unique fare is 100 percent worth your time.

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There is also a full bar, but they specialize in killer margaritas, made with fresh ingredients and flavors, with no artificial syrups or additives.

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“It’s a lot of work,” Martinez said, reflecting on his empire. “It’s very rewarding. I meet people on a day-to-day basis. I have pretty good, successful restaurants. Customers love our food, they love the service, so that makes it all worthwhile. It’s been challenging. I work seven days a week, but it’s rewarding nonetheless because I’m doing it for myself. Do it because you have the passion for it; don’t do it for the money.”

So what’s next for a man always on the move? Brunch! Fresco’s Cantina opens for brunch starting Oct. 8. It sounds like they will have a to-die-for churro-French toast, so you’d best make those reservations now.

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