At its core, Villa Cemita’s decision to transition from a café to a full-service concept was rooted in the message. Owner Alejandra Aco and her family wanted to shake up New York City’s Mexican dining scene, so often misguided in its streamlined approach, and present the authentic fare of her hometown, Puebla, to guests seeking a more accurate and traditional experience. But then came the hard part.
“We did the renovation in six days, working overnight,” says Doreli Cuatzo, Aco’s 22-year-old daughter who runs the front of the house. “It definitely was pretty stressful.”
Villa Cemita opened around the end of March, offering sandwiches and coffee drinks to diners on the go. And by the time late November rolled around, the restaurant was reopening as a full-service space with reenergized décor and the kind of menu Cuatzo says is a true nod to her family’s heritage. Aco came to the U.S. when she was 20 years old.
“We felt like we could do more with the space,” says Cuatzo, who was 3 when her mother made the move. “And also, we realized from going to different Mexican restaurants in the city that we didn’t find what we wanted to. If you’re from a country and you grow up around that homemade food, and you go to a restaurant and you look for that food, you often don’t really find it. … We decided to transition from a café to a restaurant because it allows us to offer more to people, and I feel like we can offer better plates. The same plates, like enchiladas, but it will have our homemade touch.”
Once the decision was made, the learning curve widened. The experience of owning a restaurant was already a trial-by-error one for the family. When they decided to pursue the dream, Cuatzo went and worked as a waitress in a restaurant to absorb any information she could. Her father built the space, and her brother, Omar Cuatzo, also took on front-of-the-house duties. “We had to learn everything from scratch about the industry,” she says. “Before we opened, we got some feedback from other restaurant owners that helped us out.”
When Villa Cemita was a café, there would typically be only one person on the floor, and another serving food and working the register. Cuatzo says that quickly changed, and now there’s a runner, two waiters, a bartender, and, one of the biggest changes, those new employees had to arrive with a certain wealth of experience.
“Also, it was hard to reintroduce yourself and explain to the customers your new menus. It’s like starting again,” she adds.
New equipment was brought in as the footprint changed drastically. The bar, which was previously in the back, had to be built in the front, giving patrons a chance to eat and dine there. The walls were painted, tables added, bathrooms changed, and the overall space reimagined to fit a modern/rustic look featuring commissioned paintings by graffiti artist Christopher Florentino. In addition, the restaurant only has a wine and beer license, so it’s had to get creative with the beverage program. It uses wine-based alternatives for liquor; including tequila that Cuatzo says is 24 percent and is on par taste-wise with the traditional spirit. Some examples include Margaritas infused with jalapeno and cucumber, mango, and other flavors; Pico de Paloma—Tequesta, jarrito, grapefruit soda, lime, and jalapeno; and the Beauty Elixir—Klir Red, Quinn’s Cove, strawberry puree, ginger, lemon juice, simple syrup, cucumber slices, and Rosé sparkling wine.
Check averages have gone from around $10 to $30, and the restaurant is doing 30 percent of its sales in drinks, 20 percent at lunch, and 50 percent for dinner.
“Everyone has seemed to like it more,” Cuatzo says. “We’ve had good feedback. We have different people coming in, and I can tell the difference between then and now. It’s a different market. The prices could go more up and people don’t mind. It’s more about the atmosphere, people are willing to enjoy themselves in a place and eat and dine at a higher cost than a café.”
Cuatzo says they’ve also had to adjust to new technologies, like OpenTable, that weren’t needed before. And there have been plenty of teaching points with the cuisine itself.
One lesson came with serving big parties. Cuatzo recalls the first experience, around the holidays, when the restaurant hosted 30 to 40 people buffet style, which was something they had never tried before. “The first time we under charged,” she explains. “I feel like we gave away too much. The second time we knew, we calculated how much, if they wanted a buffet style, how much they would actually be eating. I definitely feel like there’s been a lot of mistakes, but the next time around, we fix those mistakes.”
The kitchen staff has also grown from one person to three cooks. She says customers have had to adjust. “A lot of people, because they think it’s still a café, they expect the food to come fast. The food is not fast food; it’s prepared. It takes a little time because it’s freshly made,” she says.
Puebla cuisine is a fusion of culinary traditions dating back to Mexico’s colonial period in the 16th century. Spanish, French, and Arabic influences show up in the dishes, many of which come directly from Cuatzo’s grandmother’s kitchen.
For appetizers, there are dishes such as the Quesadilla de Huitlacoche—corn tortilla folded around melted string cheese imported from Oaxaca, with jalapenos, and huitlacoche (corn smut, which is a type of mushroom grown on corn). There are Taco Arabes—a dish that was created when Lebanese people migrated to Mexico, and instead of lamb, uses pork marinated in parsley and Mexican oregano, wrapped in a flour tortilla with chipotle sauce, and marinated onions. The Mole Poblano is one of the area’s most recognized dishes. The sauce is created in a day-long process that involved toasting, grinding, and frying spices, combining chocolate, chile ancho, chile pasilla, almonds, peanuts, and cinnamon to make a paste before mixing with chicken stock. The restaurant’s namesake is the Super Cemita Poblana—a jumbo layered sandwich that features bread resembling brioche, but is a roll created as a fusion between the Jewish bread Semita and the hollow Spanish bread Bizcocho de Sal. The cemita roll is loaded with avocado, breaded chicken or steak, marinated chipotles and onions, papalo herb, queso Oaxaca, and ham.