Cuckoo's Nest's eclectic mix sticks to a winning formula

Longtime employees Heather Emanuelson and Eddie Souza are now owners of the Cuckoo's Nest Restaurant. They purchased the Old Saybrook eatery when founder Jim Fitzpatrick retired after 36 years.

Old Saybrook - Other than the owners, not a whole lot has changed at the Cuckoo's Nest.

"It works pretty well the way it is," said Heather Emanuelson, who along with Edmilson "Eddie" Souza took over the Boston Post Road landmark this past spring.

Since then, the partners have tweaked the Mexican-Cajun-Creole fare, altered the look of the menus and updated the website at www.cuckoosnest.biz - not what you'd call a major repositioning.

But then, continuity has long been a Cuckoo's Nest hallmark.

Jim Fitzpatrick, an Irish-American considered "cuckoo" enough to open a Mexican restaurant on the Connecticut shoreline in the waning days of the Ford administration, ran it for 36 years and looked no further than his own staff when he chose to retire.

Emanuelson, 37, of Higganum, has devoted 15 years - her entire working life - to the restaurant, toiling as a waitress, bartender, hostess, manager and general manager. The 44-year-old Souza, who came from Brazil in 1993 and lives in Old Saybrook, has been there even longer, rising from dishwasher to executive chef over a 20-year period.

Some of the restaurant's 40 employees have been there nearly as long.

Peter McNeil, 51, an assistant chef from Madison, remembers when the restaurant, originally a cattle barn, only had tables on the first floor. Eventually, the upstairs hayloft space was converted to dining rooms, and over the years a patio and a sun porch were added. The restaurant's seven dining rooms now seat more than 200 customers. The décor is an eclectic mix of farm implements and Mexican artifacts.

In the 1980s, McNeil joined a contingent that traveled to New Orleans to bone up on Cajun and Creole cuisine. "First we learned it, then we educated the customers," he said.

Souza took part in a 2006 excursion to Oaxaca, Mexico, where Cuckoo's Nest staff mingled with local chefs.

Known for its tacos and such entrees as Cajun Prime Rib and Pasta Jambalaya, the Cuckoo's Nest has continued to strive for authenticity in its lunch and dinner menus. Satisfying ever-more-adventurous palates takes some doing.

"We're selling things now that we couldn't have given away in the beginning," McNeil said. "People were always afraid of things like fish tacos, cilantro and jalapeno. Now we serve jalapeno-infused tequila at the bar."

The restaurant has recently introduced Mexico City-style "street tacos" that McNeil said have been popularized by food trucks proliferating in urban areas across the country, including New Haven. They're tortillas filled with pulled pork, steak or grilled chicken and a sauce.

One of the restaurant's many regulars, a Manchester resident who kept a boat in Old Saybrook, discovered the place 15 years ago and has never stopped coming. John Flaherty, another Irishman with a taste for Mexican food, now lives in Clinton.

"Jim (Fitzpatrick, the original owner) did a good job and the new owners are, too," he said. "The Sunday brunch is a good way to try everything. I recommend that."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

BUSINESS SNAPSHOT

Name: Cuckoo's Nest

Co-owners: Heather Emanuelson, Edmilson "Eddie" Souza

Address: 1712 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday (brunch until 2 p.m.). Live jazz from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. "Cinco-de-Lirious" celebrations the 5th of every month, featuring live mariachi bands and food and drink specials.

Phone: (860) 399-9060

Website: www.cuckoosnest.biz

Through the years, the clientele's tastes in Mexican food have evolved and dishes such as this fish taco have become favorite.
Through the years, the clientele's tastes in Mexican food have evolved and dishes such as this fish taco have become favorite.

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