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Customers are flocking to the just-opened Mexican restaurant La Llorona in Niantic

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East Lyme — Just before 5 p.m. on Thursday, the newest restaurant in Niantic was already hopping. Families, couples and friends gathered at tables, booths and high-tops, taking up about two-thirds of the spots. The sounds of friendly chatter and laughter bubbled in the air. The savory smells of Mexican food floated by, as the wait staff brought out dishes and drinks.

And within an hour? Customers had to wait to get in because the place was full.

This was the scene on the second day since La Llorona Progressive Mexican Cuisine officially opened. The space tucked into a building on Hope Street in Niantic has housed numerous restaurants over time, including Burke’s Tavern and, most recently, Lionheart Tavern.

La Llorona is one of the first Mexican restaurants to open in East Lyme; East Coast Taco, which focuses on Tex-Mex, has been around since 2007.

La Llorona is a family venture by relatives who have worked in restaurants in the area but had never opened their own place.

Gabriela Herbert, who grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, and whose jobs have included working in prep for five years at Steak Loft in Mystic, is the official main owner, but the forces behind La Llorona include her two brothers and their spouses.

One of those brothers, Oscar Yanez, said, “We are a family. We are really united. And we are here to offer to the community something different from the other restaurants.”

Yanez said they realize opening a restaurant, especially while others are closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, is a risk but decided to take that chance.

“If you never risk in this life, sometimes you don’t get anything,” he says.

Gabriela Herbert added, “We have faith, and we have hope.”

A family business

Everyone in the family has a background in the restaurant industry.

“It’s always been a dream for the family to do something good, to do something we love to do,” Christopher Herbert, Gabriela’s husband, said. “I feel we all love this industry, and we all love each other very much. My wife had the opportunity to take and open a business. She’s mainly the owner. Everybody here is family, so we run it as a family business. We’re all supporting each other ... bringing something fun to the community and doing what we really enjoy, and that is making people happy — (with) quality of food, quality of drinks, quality of service.”

Herbert, who grew up in Norwich, has a resume that includes being a chef at numerous restaurants in southeastern Connecticut over the years, including the Black Sheep. He and Oscar Yanez, who worked at Amigos in Westerly, are the head chefs at La Llorona.

Oscar’s wife, Kristel, has been in the industry for a long time and knows how to run the front of the house. Ricardo Yanez has worked in the kitchen and has a lot of experience in the front, as well. His wife, Noemi, “is a great bartender, excellent chef — her recipes are phenomenal,” Christopher Herbert said. In addition to her past work, Gabriela Herbert has a hospitality degree from the University of Mexico.

As for why they decided to open La Llorona during the pandemic, the family expects that 2021 will be a great time for restaurants to reemerge after the past year of what Christopher Herbert describes as the wildfire that happened to the industry. The theory is that now, with vaccinations happening and good weather coming, folks will be eager to get back out to restaurants.

Based on the response so far, they are correct. The busy Thursday night followed on the heels of an opening night that likewise saw a line of customers form outside.

A big draw seems to be the fact that it’s a new place offering a type of cuisine not widely available in East Lyme.

April Marie Andreoli of Niantic was celebrating her birthday at La Llorona on Thursday and said she had wanted to spend the occasion at the new venue. She, her husband and friends “are all foodies, and we love Mexican, so we wanted to try it. It’s an unusual establishment in Niantic ... We love the name, and it screams authentic.”

She added, “We absolutely adore new restaurants and try to support local businesses.”

All about the food

The word “progressive” in the venue’s description, Christopher Herbert said, reflects the fact that “we’re starting off getting to know what the community wants and progressively growing into what they want it to be.”

The menu is what people are familiar with but done in a different way, he noted. The La Llorona chefs might take a traditional dish and put their own modern twist on it, whether that’s through, for instance, different flavor profiles or plate presentations.

Here is just a sampling of the entrees: Tostadas de Tinga ($16, pulled chicken, braised in a chipotle stewed tomato sauce with refried beans, shredded lettuce, queso, crema fresca, shaved radish, onions on crispy corn tortillas); Chiles Rellenos ($18, egg-battered roast poblano pepper stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, simmered in a stewed tomato sauce with corn tortilla, rice and beans); Paella Mexicana ($26, shrimp, chorizo, calamari, clams, mussels, chicken, saffron rice and plantain chips); and Carne Norteña ($24, char-grilled short rib, jalapeno toreado, grilled nopales, cambray onions, fried cheese, sweet plantains, chimichurri sauce with corn tortillas, rice and beans).

The interior of La Llorona pays tribute to Mexican heritage, with each booth named for a state of Mexico and decorated with a photo of one of the sites in that state.

Location, location, location

Discussing how they chose the Hope Street location, Christopher Herbert said, “I was a chef here in town for three years at the Black Sheep, and I always looked across the parking lot during coronavirus after we reopened. They had a patio out here in the parking lot all fenced off, and I’d look over here and the backdrop was this (the venue that has become La Llorona). Using the imagination of putting those two things together, I was, like, that is cool.”

He ran the idea by Oscar. The rest of the family was just as enthusiastic.

“When you’re looking for a place, you want to know the community you’re going into,” Herbert said.

Niantic seemed a town where the restaurant could work well. It’s not as expensive or competitive as, say, Mystic or Saybrook, Herbert said, but people in the area like to dine out.

What’s in a name?

Gabriela Herbert says that, despite a popular belief, the real story of La Llorona, the spirit of a weeping woman, isn’t scary.

As she posted on La Llorona’s Facebook page: “For many historians, the origins lie in the Goddess Tonantzinor, or Cihuacoatl, the female serpent, protector of the race and mother of the empire whose predictions of a tragic end for the Aztecs were eventually turned into cries for the race which was ultimately conquered by the Spanish."

“According to the tale, La Llorona wailed during the night, warning her children of the evil that could change the destiny of the people of the valley."

“Different versions of the story also mention the link between La Llorona and La Malinche, or Malintzin, considered for many to be the first Mexican mestizo in whose womb developed the mix of the Aztec and Spanish cultures, and one of the first women to convert to Christianity. La Llorona, according to one of the versions of this legend, is the soul of La Malinche, crying for her children, heartbroken for the betrayal committed in her village which ended with the victory of the Spanish over the Aztec empire, and in the eventual conquest of Mexico ..."

“The legend is an indisputable story whose pre-Hispanic origin and cultural pride signifies enrichment of the myth, legend, and traditions of Mexico.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

Waiter Ricardo Yanez delivers an order of fish tacos Thursday, April 8, 2021, to Michele Bonemarte at La Llorona in Niantic. The Mexican restaurant opened in early April.  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Waiter Ricardo Yanez delivers an order of fish tacos Thursday, April 8, 2021, to Michele Bonemarte at La Llorona in Niantic. The Mexican restaurant opened in early April. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

If you go

What: La Llorona Progressive Mexican Cuisine

Where: 13 Hope St., Niantic

Hours: During its first week, it will only be open for dinner starting at 3 p.m.; after that, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

Reservations: None taken at this point

Contact: (860) 850-4291, or visit the La Llorona Facebook page, bit.ly/lalloronafb

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