A fter three intense days decorating wedding cakes in her New York City shop, Ana De Los Angeles’s father came to her while she was falling asleep. This didn’t much surprise her, though perhaps it should have. Her father died when she was 13 years old.
Exhausted, De Los Angeles asked her father if she’d always be working herself so hard. Her father told her that there would always be work to do—such was life—but one day she wouldn’t be decorating wedding cakes. Instead she’d own a different kind of business. He didn’t tell her what kind exactly but said it would be called manjares, or ambrosia—“the food of the gods.”
This bit of magical realism became real when De Los Angeles opened Manjares Bistro in Westville, by the northernmost point of Edgewood Park, and scarcely a few months after she opened, De Los Angeles noticed another bit of magic becoming manifest.
A group of 10 to 12 moms from the area started coming into the restaurant every Wednesday to breastfeed their newborns. As De Los Angeles got to know the mothers, she realized many of the infants had been born around the same time Manjares opened. Some were born on the very same day, and one, William Donius, within the same hour.
Some of these kids have since moved out of the neighborhood, but young William continues to grow up with Manjares. Every year the Donius family comes to Manjares to eat, chat and reminisce with De Los Angeles on the miraculous alignment of both the boy and the bistro.
The Paglias, too, are longtime regulars. They include Donald, who constructed a set of decorative shelves for the restaurant’s wine; his son Damian, an organizer of New Haven’s ‘ecstatic dance’ community; and Dominic, another son, who’s the general manager at popular East Rock Italian spot Da Legna. All three are creative spirits in one form or another, but it was Dominic who conceived the Paglia Pancake Sandwich ($8.50).
Daring to intertwine two morning superpowers—the savory and the sweet—it features yolky eggs, melted cheese and crisp bacon between pancake “buns,” with organic maple syrup for dipping or drizzling. Plenty of places allow all these items to share a plate, but the Paglia has them sharing space in your mouth. Its dueling impulses find accord and the result is a happy mushroom cloud of flavors and textures.
Another dish on the menu, the Naked Chicken Burrito ($10.50), does the reverse. Instead of fusing disparate elements, it takes one thing—the burrito—and deconstructs it. The plating resembles a Caribbean vignette, with a rustic hut at jungle’s edge. The hut is a mound of rice and black beans thatched with strips of scrambled egg, bite-sized bits of chicken and lightly sautéed spinach too. The jungle is a salad thick with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado and peppers.
Caribbean vibes—which ping De Los Angeles’s Dominican roots—hit still harder with the Manjares Eggs ($8.50), offering two eggs, any style, next to yucca fries, mashed plantains (mangú), red onions and an arepa. The yucca goes well with the egg yolk, the plantains go well with the red onions and the arepa goes well with either.
Aside from the Paglia Sandwich mentioned earlier, there’s at least one more customer-created item worth noting: the Hanifa ($5). Zesty and fiery, heated by ginger, this house-made juice is a verdant mixture of kale, green apple, pineapple and lime. The customer-creator herself, Hanifa Washington, suggests adding an avocado ($1.25 extra) if you like a thicker consistency.
Washington, who performs original poetry and music, is one of the many creative people who regularly socialize at Manjares. She lives in one of the ArLoW (“Art Lofts West”) artist apartments above and around the bistro, which she considers “an extended living room.”
“You never know who you’re going to run into,” she says, “but you know it’s going to be awesome.” Delightfully offbeat regulars include musician José Oyola, videographer Travis Carbonella, Reiki practitioner Thema Graves and potter Violet Harlow. Manjares has become such a microcosm of Westville’s creative impulses that Minyan Zhu—photographer, guitarist, sushi chef, tai chi practitioner and, thus, Renaissance man—has dubbed the restaurant’s scene “Westlandia,” after the TV show Portlandia.
The reasons so many artists come to Manjares are many: the inspiring Chino-Latino artwork of De Los Angeles’s husband, Miguel Trelles, that adorns the walls; the lively, creative food options; and the lovable De Los Angeles who, with her sparkling and caring personality, is “everyone’s mother,” as one of the Paglias, Damian, puts it. Each contributes to the sense that Manjares, many years after taking root in a waking dream, still manages to straddle the divide between what is and what could be.
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.