As the mid-week lunch rush picks up at Don Quijote, salsa music plays in the kitchen as oil crackles and the chop-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 combines fried plantain, garlic, adobo, butter with chicharrón or shrimp, and if desired, a side of pernil. It’s popular in the Dominican Republic.
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 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 to the Granite State. 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,” she said.
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, 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,” she 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 there’s a family from Colebrook who sometimes makes the 3-hour drive down and buys a week’s worth of meals.
Almonte says 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.
“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 comments, good or bad, from customers.
“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 ten 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.
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 this 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 this project were reported and produced by Daniela Allee of NHPR; and, Jasmine Torres Allen, Oscar Villacis, Kevin Genao and Esmeldy Angeles of First Gen Multimedia.