For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with longtime resident and local chef Luis Arce Mota.
How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?
I moved here from Mazatlán, Mexico (where I was born and raised) in 1992, and have been living here ever since.
Why did you move here?
I met my wife, Lisa (who has owned a co-op in Seward Park since the mid-1980s), back in 1990 when she was traveling in Mexico. It was a Sunday morning and she was walking on the malecón in Mazatlán. I yelled out to her, “¡Hola, güera! ¿Cómo estás?” and she answered in perfect Spanish and…yada yada…the rest is history!
What do you do?
I am the chef and owner of La Contenta, located at 102 Norfolk Street. I’ve been working in the restaurant industry more than 20 years now. I started as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant and slowly worked my way up the ladder while gaining a professional culinary education at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and the Culinary Institute of America.
Eventually I opened two restaurants in the West Village and now La Contenta in the Lower East Side.
Tell us about your apartment—the good, the bad and the ugly.
I live in the Seward Park co-ops. I love the location and the reasonable maintenance. Unfortunately, the walls are thin and you can hear your neighbors—which means they can hear you too!
What’s your favorite spot on the LES and why?
Hands down, my favorite spot on the LES is the new Manny Cantor Center. This is the best thing to happen to the neighborhood in a very long time. It brings together people from all walks of life and is a microcosm of the diversity of the LES. You really feel a sense of community when you visit Manny Cantor. Besides the gym, they’ve had some great art exhibits, rooftop happy-hour get-togethers and excellent panel discussions.
Favorite cheap eats?
I love Pho Grand, a great Vietnamese spot on Grand Street near the Grand Street subway station. I also love the coffee and muffins at 12 Corners on East Broadway. Prices there are very reasonable and the quality is excellent.
Favorite place for a special night?
Actually, my wife and I really like spending time together in our apartment. I’ll cook some lobster and king crab legs for us, and serve with a good bottle of champagne and a nice French baguette for a great romantic evening!
How have you seen the neighborhood change?
When I lived in Mexico, I used to read a lot about New York City, including a lot of graphic novels, and I had really high expectations and was expecting a much more orderly city. When I moved here in 1992, it was shocking to see so much trash in the street and rats even bigger than those in my home town of Mazatlán!
Also, walking on Allen Street and Delancey Street and seeing prostitutes and people shooting up was really surprising because it was in broad daylight. This was the time when Joel Rifkin, the serial killer, was active.
Now the hipsters have come in and taken over, and big development corporations are putting up multi-million- dollar high-rises. Once Essex Crossing is finished, the neighborhood will have been completely transformed and gentrified.
What do you miss from the old LES?
I miss the old movie theater on Grand Street [Essex Theatre], where people never actually went to watch a movie. Some were talking throughout, while others were fighting with the characters on the screen. Going to the movies was really an experience! I also miss the cheap electronic stores on Canal and Division Street selling their 220-volt products, and the heavy bargaining. I also miss the One-Stop bodega on Grand and Suffolk Street. Now, unfortunately, we have 7-Eleven.
Is there a new arrival you love?
I love all the new art galleries which are sprouting up throughout the neighborhood.
What drives you crazy about the neighborhood?
The traffic on Grand Street is getting crazy and it’s only going to get worse. Also, the large amount of drunk people on the weekends in the so-called Hell Square really annoys me.
Who’s the best neighborhood character you’ve met and why?
There’s a street cleaner I always see around on Delancey Street who literally never stops talking and seems to know about everything going on in the neighborhood.
Tell us your best LES memory.
I remember going to Ratner’s with my wife back in 1994. The waiter—short, fat, with an apron with a big tomato stain—came to our table and threw the menus at us. He brought us water and gruffly asked us, “Whaddaya want?” We ordered, but he ended up bringing what he thought would be better options for us. At the time, I thought he was really rude. Now I realize that’s just the way things rolled on the Lower East Side. At least we still have Katz’s!