STONINGTON — After six months of renovations, Milagro Cafe remains a restaurant with heart.
The space, at 142 Water St., has reopened with expanded seating on the second floor, an open kitchen and decorative touches throughout, like the striking hand-painted blue and white tiles, stained wooden tables and authentic Mexican artwork.
What hasn’t changed is the restaurant’s authentic Mexican cooking, owner Martin Zavala said Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t care what kitchen it is, if it’s French, Italian, American or Chinese, if you cook from your heart, it will taste good,” he said.
The menu has stayed the same because loyal customers who come in want their favorites, he said.
“Some people come and they don’t even look at the menu any more, they just order what they want,” he said.
The daily specials are where Zavala said he focuses his creativity.
“You can come to the restaurant every week and even if the specials have the same name, they’re always a little bit different, and that keeps people coming back because it’s always different,” he said.
With the increased seating capacity of 15 new tables upstairs, he said he’s figuring out the new traffic flow and has hired a few more waiters.
“It’s very exciting, it’s basically like opening a new restaurant,” he said.
Zavala said he got his start in the restaurant industry at age 19 as a dishwasher in a New York City restaurant and worked his way up to chef.
“I don’t like to have people tell me what to do so I learned,” he laughed. “I came to be a head chef in New York and then came to Connecticut.”
For 16 years he owned Zavala in New London and sold it when he bought the cafe 10 years ago.
He said he’s looking to hire and train a few more kitchen workers, which could be an opportunity for someone who wants to learn how to cook real Mexican food.
“Somebody taught me, so I like to teach people to cook,” he said. “People don’t believe me but I don’t have recipes. I just cook what I see.”
Zavala said he’d planned to do some renovations at some point but a burst pipe caused extensive water damage over the winter, making it necessary to replace and repair portions of the 1900 building.
The repairs became an opportunity to open up the second floor and create an open kitchen, he said.
“I always wanted to do the second floor and I had the permit so we decided to go for it,” he said. “I always wanted to have the open kitchen because I like to see people and I don’t always have time to go to the tables to see if everything is OK, so now I can see and say hello to people.”
Above the bar were numerous margarita glasses in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, which Zavala said he picked out himself.
“I don’t like things to match, so I just buy something when I see it,” he laughed. “Whatever catches my eye is what I buy.”
Zavala also pointed to a framed wooden heart covered with silver religous folk charms mounted above the bar.
“You see that heart up there?” he said. “Very few people know the meaning of Milagro, it means miracle.”
Milagros are also religious folk charms used as votive offerings for healing in Mexico and Latin America, Zavala said.
“When someone in your family gets sick, you take the charms and you go to church and pray,” he said.
Zavala said he and his wife, Genine, named the restaurant Milagro because when they bought the cafe, they also learned she needed a heart transplant. Sadly, she passed away two years ago, he said.
“That’s why the logo of the restaurant is a heart,” he said.
Milagro Cafe is open Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Call 860- 535-8178 for more information.