The flavors of our neighbors

  • People from across the region drive several hours to order a plate of Don Quijote’s mofongo, Almonte says. GABRIELA LOZADA photos / NHPR

  • Don Quijote owner Sandra Almonte prepares a mofongo, a dish that’s popular in the Dominican Republic. Courtesy photos

  • Sandra Almonte, owner of Don Quijote, prepares an order with one of her cooks. Almonte opened Don Quijote on Union Street in Manchester 20 years ago. Courtesy

NH Business Review
Published: 7/24/2021 9:10:12 PM

As the mid-week lunch rush picks up at Don Quijote, salsa music plays in the kitchen as oil crackles and the chop-chop of onions, peppers and cilantro echoes. Huge pots of carne guisada simmer on the stove.

Green plantains are ready to go in case a client orders one of the Manchester restaurant’s defining dishes: mofongo.

Mofongo is popular in the Dominican Republic and combines fried plantain, garlic, adobo, butter with chicharrón or shrimp and, if desired, a side of pernil.

One of the cooks adds everything into a wooden mortar and pestle, known as a pilón.

“The most important thing about this mofongo and this kitchen,” the cook says, “is that everything is made with love.”

Owner Sandra Almonte says that’s the spirit she’s wanted Don Quijote to embody ever since it opened its doors on Union Street in Manchester in 2000. Her business was one of the few Latino restaurants in New Hampshire when it opened. Back then, about 1.6% of the state’s population was Latino, according to the 2000 census. Throughout the years, Almonte prioritized not only her restaurant but serving the broader Manchester and Latino communities as the state’s Latino population has grown.

“You have to make each person who walks through here feel as though they were stepping into their grandparents’ house,” she says.

Almonte and her ex-husband opened Don Quijote after moving from New Jersey. For the past 10 years, she’s led the business. Almonte faced many challenges while working to serve her community inside and outside her restaurant.

“It should feel as though you’ve arrived on the island,” she says. “If you’re from Puerto Rico, you feel like you’re in Puerto Rico. If you’re from Santo Domingo, you feel like you’re in Santo Domingo.”

Clients can play the music of their choice on a jukebox as they wait for their order. Don Quijote does provide a regular lunch menu, including empanadas, rice and beans, stewed chicken or meat. But an order of arroz con pollo or fried fish is made to order.

“It’s going to take 30, 45 minutes,” Almonte says.

“You can’t come in a rush, come in and think it’s like McDonald’s: come in, order and you’re out the door.”

People travel several hours to eat at Don Quijote.

Some come from Boston; others stop by on their way to the Manchester airport. Almonte says a family from Colebrook makes the three-hour drive down and buys a week’s worth of meals.

Loyalty from clients

Almonte says that when the restaurant opened, the seasoning was strictly Dominican: lots of oregano, lime and orange. But it changed as other Latino immigrants made their way to the state and brought their palates and preferences with them.

In 2004, Almonte says, lots of immigrants from Honduras started settling in New Hampshire and coming to her restaurant.

Sandra Almonte says she always writes down customer comments to improve Don Quijote’s dishes.

“They told me, ‘Ay, Sandrita, the food is great, but maybe a little less garlic and oregano,’ ” she says. Almonte made sure to write that down, like she does for all customer comments, good or bad.

“We started modifying (our seasoning) until we got it right,” she says. ”That took us about two or three years.”

Now, her seasoning reflects the diversity of the Latino community in New Hampshire and how it’s grown.

There’s a little bit of everything in the food: cilantro, celery, peppers and fresh oregano from the Dominican Republic, among other ingredients.

Almonte earned loyalty from her clients with this level of detail and dedication. Her relationship with her customers has been critical to Don Quijote’s survival during the pandemic. Nationally, some statistics show that one in 10 of restaurants have permanently closed in the last year.

“Thank God it hasn’t affected me. It’s been a blessing,” Almonte says.

But the restaurant still had to change during the pandemic. Delivery and takeout orders tripled in the past year, and Almonte says she had to hire two more employees to keep up with the demand. She also added her restaurant to delivery platforms UberEats and DoorDash.

Vision for the neighborhood

It’s not just the food or the atmosphere of the restaurant that keeps people coming back.

“I’ve always loved to help my neighbor, and I always say that if it goes well for one Latino, then we all shine,” she said. Her conversations over the years with customers and her location in the center of the city means she’s familiar with the many challenges Manchester’s Latino community face.

“There are absentee landlords who just collect rent and don’t fix their tenants’ apartments. They take advantage of immigrants because they know they won’t go to court to fight for their rights,” Almonte sighs.

But she does have a vision for the neighborhood and her city. She wants the city to have more Latino property owners instead of renters, bike lanes and other thriving businesses. She pushes projects forward on those issues through her work at the Conservation Law Foundation and as chair of NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire.

“I think if we as a community can be unified and empowered, then we can improve quality for everyone, not just for the middle class,” she says.

Almonte says she wants her community to feel at home, not just in her restaurant, but in all of Manchester.

This project was developed through a collaboration between leaders of Latino communities in New Hampshire and media partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. The stories, audio and video for the project were reported and produced by Daniela Allee of NHPR and Jasmine Torres Allen, Oscar Villacas, Kevin Genao and Esmeldy Angeles of First Gen Multimedia.

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