It’s been an invigorating several months for Juan Alvarado of Holbrook.
The 47-year-old immigrant from El Salvador has been cooking in restaurants for over 30 years.
But last year he went all-in on a dream he and his daughters had talked about for a long time: opening their own place.
That happened on Jan. 21, when their El Matador Restaurant opened its doors in the former Pita House location in North Patchogue.
Alvarado says the response has been tremendous.
“On social media, people will tell us their real feelings and it’s so many nice things that people say about this place, sometimes I just want to cry,” he said. “Because it’s not me saying it, it’s other people. It’s that connection between us and the customer.
“That’s what will keep us pushing our limits moving forward.”
Alvarado’s daughter Emily Alvarado, 23, is managing the restaurant and his other daughter, Emilie, who’s heading into the 10th grade at Sachem North High School in September, will help out as hostess.
Emily and her dad said business has been growing steadily since January, despite a tough winter and an unpredictable spring.
Emily attributes the climb in customers to both her father’s food and, for her part, a welcoming family environment.
“When I talk to the customers, they love to hear that my dad is the chef,” she said. “They know they’re getting the best, someone who is very passionate about cooking.”
Juan describes his Spanish and Latin fare as home-style cooking that’s “elevated a little for that commercial level.”
He started cooking during his high school years in Houston, Tex., where he thrived in baking courses. he later moved to New York in 1988 and took a pastry chef job at Mediterranean Manor.
He then worked at Windows on the Lake in Lake Ronkonkoma, again as a pastry chef, when it opened in 1992.
His last role was as executive chef at Trumpets on the Bay in Eastport. He also spent several years at Mario’s Italian Restaurant in East Setauket.
Mario’s is what shaped his views on cooking.
“Mario’s is just really an amazing place, one of the best places I ever worked,” he said. “And they really do home cooking style, just like i do here, just amazing food.”
Juan then attended culinary school about eight years ago, despite already compiling decades of experience in the kitchen.
“Even if you know the business, you always have to be learning something,” he said. And he learned a lot in school.
Juan also prides himself on perfecting family recipe for preparing chicken, taught to him by his mother, and using only fresh ingredients — most notably for his plum tomato sauce.
“And my customers can tell right away, as soon as they start eating.”
The menu offers dishes from Mexico, South America and Spain, in no particular order of importance or emphasis.
Emily says the empinadas are extremely popular, as is the arroz con pollo.
“And the papaya; everyone is amazed by it, especially how big it is when they first see it,” she said.
Despite its size, her dad credits his plum tomato sauce that’s made from scratch for the papaya’s popularity.
“We never use any sauce out of a can here,” he said. “What that does is add acidity and sugar and it alters the flavor and texture of the dish.”
She also pointed to an array of healthy dishes, such as the chicken with vegetables.
Just like her dad, Emily also thrives on the human connections she’s been making these past five months in Patchogue.
“We always give a dessert on the house and I get to talk to the customers,” she said. “I get to know them a little bit and when I see them again I remember their names and what they had.”
“I just think everyone likes to feel special,” she continued. “And when they come out to eat, you’re going to spend a little extra money so you should be able to experience something special.”
“And the reviews have been a huge help,” she added.
IF YOU GO
El Matador Restaurant is located in the former Pita House location at 680 Route 112. The phone number is 631-569-5082.
If you’re looking to make a night of it, there’s also a five-course Margarita Tasting Dinner planned for Wednesday, Jun 27 Call for details.
Below are five Instagram posts we love.
Top: Juan Alvarado and his daughter Emily behind the newly refinished bar at El Matador Restaurant on Route 112 in North Patchogue on Tuesday. (Credit: Michael White)