By Alessandra Hickson
Finding authentic, delectable Dominican food is as simple as taking the 1 train. Sure, everyone boasts they’re the best. But only Margot Restaurant has been hailed time and time again — in magazines and on Yelp comment boards — as the best Dominican food in the greater New York area.
Margot Restaurant was featured as the place to get Dominican cuisine in a September 2007 Gourmet article [Special Collector’s Issue, Latino Food: America’s Fastest-Rising Cuisine] titled “He’ll Take El Alto” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Díaz.
“Margot’s is so addictive that people from the Bronx and Brooklyn will pay for cab service just so they can get their sancocoho delivered to their door. That’s how slamming they cook at Margot,” said Diaz, adding, “Their rice, their beans, their gandules, their pollo guisado, their sancocho are all cooked to island perfection…”
When you hear high praise like that — from a Dominican-American no less — you need to investigate.
Travel to 159th Street and Broadway in Harlem’s Barrio, past fruit buses and cell phone shops. There it is with the bright yellow sign and picnic-checkered table cloths visible from the street; that’s Margot Restaurant.
The pages of Gourmet magazine were decorated with slick black and white photos, highlighting Margot’s smile as she held a platter out to you. These pictures might give you the impression that her restaurant is fancy; it’s not.
It feels like you’ve just walked into your family’s kitchen. The pollo is stewing, the frijoles are ready and there’s always good company.
Look beyond the tables of loyal customers slurping down their sancocho and you’ll find a darling older woman, a cute abuelita, sitting in the back by the kitchen door.
Her smile is warm and wide. Her hands are gentle, but firm and worn from years of cooking. She greets you with a hug and a friendly rasp of, “¡Hola! ¿Cómo está?”
Margot Santana embodies the quintessential immigrant success story. She’s been living in the United States for 49 years. Born and raised in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capitol, Margot learned to cook at an early age in her mother’s kitchen.
“No fui a ninguna escuela a cocinar. Soy cocinera de casa,” says Margot. Her father was a coachman, her mother sold goods to survive. It was a humble life; no money for fancy cooking classes. But then again, who needs them when your mother is the best teacher you could ask for.
Passing the technique down from generation to generation is typical and why Margot insists that “la mujer Dominicana de mi edad, todas saben cocinar.”
Her mother, Doña Altagracia de Leon de Correa, who died three years ago at 103 years old was “muy buena” in and out the kitchen. Margot speaks about her mother with great pride, mentioning that no one ever said a bad word about her. Doña Altagracia’s kindness and cooking made her beloved in the community, which may explain the immensity of people attending her funeral masses in Santo Domingo and in the United States.
Margot’s mother cooked for members of her community and now Margot’s food is a staple in her own neighborhood.
When she first immigrated to the U.S., Margot had very little. Unable to continue her nursing career in the United States and with two children to provide for, Margot took work at a factory. But it wasn’t enough, so she began cooking meals for locals in her basement apartment. Word of mouth about her delicious dishes meant more customers. So in 1989, Margot opened her restaurant.
Since then, success has brought in the who’s who of Dominican society: baseball players, a Dominican president and the greatest living Merenguero, Joseíto Mateo.
The locals keep pouring in for her mouth-watering dishes, which include pollo frito, pollo guisado, pescado, carne frita and her mother’s favorite dish, pollo al horno. The dishes are prepared by cooks who Margot has employed for decades (Her cooking staff has been here for an average for 20 years). They’re all friendly and happy to joke with you, just like their employer.
Margot is welcoming; her hospitality feeds the restaurant’s friendly vibe. She’ll seat you, greet you, feed and entertain you with stories in that raspy voice and hearty chuckles will pepper the conversation.
While you’re devouring her tostones cooked to perfection — not too crunchy, not too soft — and sipping down a soda, Margot’s sister Nurys stops by for a hello before launching into an anecdote about Margot’s sons (a psychologist and a law student). Margot briefly mentions how much she loves eating her eldest son’s cooking. And you can only imagine that if this woman, the cocinera with the golden spatula, praises his cooking, well it must be something special.
If you ask Margot why her sancocho del rabo is so flavorful, satisfying and hearty or why her tostones are so tasty that you find yourself picking crumbs off the platter long after they’re gone, she’ll simply say, “Es un secreto,” before giving a tiny laugh. (Though she may add that the secret is sazón Dominicano, which “consiste de ajo, el orégano, sal y agrio. Y el amor.”)
The truth is that Margot cooks for you like you’re family.
“La comida es muy importante en la familia y fuera de la familia,” says Margot. According to her philosophy, “Hombres y mujeres deben de saber algo de la comida. Siempre. Porque es la cosa más importante de la vida.”
Not just important because food is essential to life; important because food brings people together. It’s tradition that binds generations. The food makes this restaurant more than a hole-in-the-wall in the Barrio, but a little slice of Santo Domingo.
Just like Margot, the food’s not fussy, but warm and homey; Not complicated, but comforting. It’s that sazón Dominicano.
Margot Restaurant is located at 3822 Broadway, New York, NY.