“When I travel, I don’t book a hotel. I book a car.”
Henry Mendez is sitting across the table from me at Steinway Street’s newest offering, La Vecina, and explaining his explorer’s approach to seeing the world. He’s a lifelong entrepreneur, a born traveler and an insatiably curious person.
“There was one woman I met in Colombia who stayed with me,” he said. “She invited me into her house and just cooked for us. I’ll never forget it.”
He’s referring to the namesake of La Vecina, or “the neighbor,” a woman he met while traveling through South America who insisted he come to her home and eat at her table with her family. Until that moment, Mendez brought profits to other people. From then on, he had to bring the neighborly spirit of La Vecina to his home borough of Queens (being raised in Jackson Heights himself), and when this real estate opened up, he jumped on it within the day.
Mendez, a former business banker turned purveyor of arepas (fried corn or flour pancakes with ingredients in or on top of them), has poured everything he has into this place. This first foray into the vecina spirit definitely feels South American, from the upholstery to the art to the enormous colorful splash of the continent splayed across the wall at the front of the restaurant.
But it’s most apparent in his menu, a personally curated trip through Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela and more that he spent weeks perfecting in conjunction with his chef. As Mendez said, “We’re in Astoria. We’ve got to come with flavor.”
First out of the kitchen was Mendez’s yucca croquettes, a light, punchy, tangy yucca root fried and served with a lemon garlic dipping sauce. The panko crust was delightfully crunchy and gave way to a meaty, almost potato-like interior that soaked in the sauce.
Next was a sweet plantain served with queso fresco and Parmesan cheese, and while it was certainly sweet, baking the plantain brought out a certain depth that I’ve only ever experienced when baking sweet things. The cheese was incredible — so much so that my sole complaint is that there wasn’t more of it. I had never considered pairing cheese and plantains, but damn if it didn’t work.
To round out the appetizers, Mendez brought out salchipapas, garlic fries with sliced hot dogs, cilantro and Parmesan cheese. While I’m certainly no stranger to hot dogs and fries, this came together beautifully. Along with its creamy, spicy sauce, this would make for excellent late-night fare.
I had a passion fruit juice that felt more like a milkshake than a juice to cleanse my palette, but the heat and my walk out to the shop earned me a little extra calories, so I wasn’t too upset about it. Besides, it was time to make room for the main courses.
Mendez’s chicarron special was out next, avocado and chicken on sweet, spongy arepas. The chicken, soft on the inside with a thick skin, paired nicely with the tangy slaw, and the green sauce helped pull it all together.
Portobello mushroom on a white arepa was out next, and I have to say, I was truly surprised by it. Not just the robustness of the mushroom, though portobellos will never cease to amaze me, but by the unexpected sweetness of the thing. Elements of General Tso’s chicken came off this ‘shroom along with savory notes of mustard. I didn’t see it coming, but I didn’t say no to it when it arrived, either. It paired great with the write arepa.
Next was the ropa vieja, a pulled beef arepa that was easily my favorite of the night. Savory beef marinated for hours mixed with sweet plantains over garlic spinach topped with pico de gallo, and the green sauce from the chicarron really stood out here.
Finally, we rounded out our night with sweet potato croquettes, lovely little fried potato balls that were soft and filling, a refreshingly different take on fried potatoes.
Thought La Vecina has been open since July 15, Mendez is only getting started. He’s spent weeks getting every single one of his recipes right and claims to have recipes for 15 more arepas ready to go. When I asked him what’s next, he said he envisions a La Vecina in every borough in the city.
When I asked why, he just shrugged.
“She’s the neighbor. She moves in wherever she can.”