On the outside, Ariel’s Latin Bistro looks like a Lower East Side newcomer, and in some ways, what you see is what you get. But the restaurant at 293 East Houston St. (at Clinton Street) is also deeply rooted in the neighborhood. The other day, we stopped by to talk with co-owner Ariel Mendez, who’s debuting a new menu beginning tomorrow.
For several decades, the corner spot has been a go-to destination for Dominican home cooking. It used to be known as the “Clinton Restaurant,” and then as “Pinalito City” before Mendez and his father bought the business. They finished renovations a year-and-a-half ago and have been gradually tweaking the concept.
The family came to New York from the Dominican Republic and settled on Forsyth Street. Ariel’s dad owned a bodega on Broome Street at a time in which, Ariel says, the Lower East Side was “a little bit more raw.” The Clinton Street restaurant was a regular hangout for his dad. It always had a reputation for solid Dominican food, but was also a drinking and socializing spot for the men of the neighborhood.
Four years ago, the previous owners decided it was time to sell the restaurant. They knew the area was changing and weren’t all that interested in changing with it. Ariel’s father came to him and asked, “Do you want to do this, do you want to get into the restaurant business?” After working as a bartender, a club promoter and in other jobs, Ariel answered, “Yes,” and he’s never looked back.
Renovations took more than a year. The look of the restaurant, as well as the menu, were modernized to appeal to a broader clientele. One of the cooks, on the job at this location for 18 years, stayed on after the ownership change. “I waned to continue what was already here,” says Mendez, “but the niche was too tight. The atmosphere was not welcoming, to be honest, and the presentation of the food needed to be improved.” In the past, the restaurant was a classic “baked chicken with rice and beans” spot. “Mostly, only Dominican people and some Puerto Rican people came here, explained Mendez.. “I want everyone to come here, so there are more people to please, but you have to change with the times.”
The new “Latin-inspired” menu really does offer something for everyone.” There’s a tapas section, featuring dishes such as empanadas, potato croquettes and steak arepas. The kitchen excels at seafood. One standout is an appetizer portion of seared scallops with red cabbage and a carrot puree. Larger plates include shrimp in garlic sauce with fried plantains, a t-bone steak with fried onions and vegetables and even a Portobello burger. You can see the full menu below.
Mendez said business has picked up steadily in the past year. Speaking of the constant churn on Clinton Street (businesses coming and going), he says it’s both a challenging and exciting place to be operating a small business. The block seems to be gaining some stability, with a few longtime operators (such as the newly expanded Clinton Street Baking Company), mixed with a handful of new arrivals. “We all want each other to succeed,” said Mendez, “because it’s better for Clinton Street.”