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Latin Fare With a Twist Comes to Longtime Latino Strip

By Meredith Hoffman | October 26, 2012 8:48am

EAST WILLIAMSBURG — It may have been a Latino hub for decades, but Grand Street was the ideal locale for a new nacho, taco and margarita joint to open, Henry Fernandez sensed this summer.

"I came here because the neighborhood is changing and I wanted to bring good healthy alternatives to traditional Mexican food," Fernandez said of his California-style La Gringa Taqueria. "We've noticed all the new people in the area."

But just as La Gringa and other new Latin restaurants have been swooping into Grand Street — including the DUMBO-based Pedro's Bar and Restaurant slated to open Monday many Latinos have been forced to leave, noted longtime residents.

"There have always been Latino stores here," Ramonita Guerrera, 76, said in Spanish as she shopped in the decades-old Dominican Bakery next to La Gringa this week. "Now restaurants and bars have been opening, which is good for the street...but most of my friends have already moved out. They've gone back to Puerto Rico or to other cities because it's too expensive here."

Guerrera also noted that a number of traditional delis and taquerias had struggled and closed in recent years on the strip — but since June a handful of Latin eateries boasting more upscale or sustainable offerings have landed on the section between Bushwick Avenue and Lorimer Street.

"We're trying to open Monday," said Pedro's employee Israel Salazar as he prepared the Williamsburg location, modeled off the DUMBO spot.

In recent months the Peruvian and tapas business Catador (the most upscale option) and the more casual A.K.A. Bar have also set up shop, joining neighborhood mainstays Los Primos and Grand Morelos, noted the Grand Street BID's director Artineh Havan.

"I think it's really interesting, this is a historically Latin neighborhood but now all these changes are happening with the new people that are coming in," Havan said of Grand Street's new take on Latin fare. "As far as Grand Street's concerned it's great, and they're keeping mindful of the neighborhood's history."

On a recent lunch hour, the differences between clients at the newer joint La Gringa and the old-timer Los Primos (both packed) was stark: Spanish speaking groups dined on stews and rice at Los Primos' big tables, while couples and notebook-scribbling singles munched on sustainable meat tacos and vegetarian dishes over indie-pop songs at La Gringa.

Clients agreed that both extremes had their perks.

"If you're hankering for some sustenance," one Yelp customer said of Los Primos, "definitely pop in here for some late night eats in a setting that will transport you to somewhere 100 percent non-New York."

And Elisa Roble, 91, who has lived a few blocks from Grand Street the past 54 years, viewed the shift in a positive light.

"This area has changed so much," she said in Spanish as she chatted with an acquaintance on Bushwick Avenue. "It used to feel unsafe...I still have plenty friends here."