As some tell it, the story of La Llorona, rooted in Mexican folklore, is one of heartbreak, betrayal and a woman wailing in the night to warn her children of impending evil.
The story of Niantic’s newest restaurant, La Llorona, on the other hand, is much cheerier: one of family, opportunity and a desire to bring the flavors of Michoácan, their native state in Mexico, to this corner of Connecticut.
La Llorona opened in early April in a space familiar to locals surrounded by plenty of parking just off Main Street. Bustling from the outset — no doubt due to pent-up demand, as it’s believed to be East Lyme’s first full-service Mexican restaurant — La Llorona presents itself as a destination with broad appeal.
The nominal owner is Gabriela (Gabi) Herbert; she’s joined by her husband Chris and her younger brother Oscar Yanez, who share chefing duties. Gabi’s older brother Ricardo is also part of the team, and Gabi, Ricardo’s wife Noemi and Oscar’s wife Kristel created the cocktails. “The whole family is in the restaurant business. We know how to run a restaurant from the front of the house to the back of the house,” Chris says.
All also had a hand in creating the menu, which reflects their varied restaurant experience in southeastern Connecticut and the cuisine and culture of Michoácan, on Mexico’s southwest coast between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.
La Llorona bills itself as a “progressive” Mexican restaurant — “It just means we’re always moving forward and being creative and having fun with what we’re doing,” Chris explains. The expansive menu is both recognizable and imaginative throughout, with staples such as quesadillas, enchiladas, fajitas and tostadas given Michoácan twists with liberal use of native herbs, spices and vegetables. “Everything we serve,” Oscar says with enthusiasm, “has Mexican flavor in it.”
Paella Mexicana, their take on the classic Spanish dish, includes a specialty chorizo (which appears throughout the menu) and is described by the chefs as a cross between paella, jambalaya and bouillabaisse.
Pipián de Puerco is a seared pork chop covered in tasty mole verde, given a slight texture by finely ground pumpkin seeds and a mix of herbs.
Another standout, this from the appetizer menu, is huarache, a chewy flatbread made from dried corn pressed in the shape of the iconic Mexican sandal. Topped with refried beans, epazote pesto, Oaxaca cheese, shredded lettuce, crema fresca, and salsa verde or roja, it’s a wonderful mix of flavors, even without one of the six additional toppings.
As the customers become more accustomed to La Llorona’s fare and flavorings, Chris says, “We’re going to be even more progressive in the foods we offer.”
The progressiveness extends to the cocktails menu, which features signature margaritas with tequila or mezcal. Served in a 20-ounce goblet, the many varieties of margaritas are rimmed with sal de chiltepin, a gentle mix of sea salt and dried pepper. The mixer is made fresh daily, with a touch of chamoy, a sweet-and-spicy sauce that gives the libation a little more body and a subtle zing. Once disdained — “Back in the day, it was only for the poor people,” Oscar notes — now-fashionable mezcals are available throughout the cocktail menu and its variable flavor, from smoky to peppery, can be sampled in flights (as can the tequilas).
Mexican beers are supplemented by a rotation of local craft beers on tap, Mexican wines will join those from Argentina, Chile and Spain once they become available, and Pierde Almas corn whiskey, sourced from an ancestral Oaxacan grain, completes offerings for the adventurous.
The bright, colorful decor of La Llorona (literally, “The Weeping Woman”) is as much a part of the attraction as the food, drink and the singing by staff of the traditional “Las Mañanitas” on someone’s birthday. Along with 12 tables, there are six booths, each named after a Mexican state chosen by one of the family members and accompanied by a painting or photo representative of the state, such as the Mayan pyramids of Yucatan.
Open daily except Monday, La Llorona serves dinner each day, plus lunch on Sunday, and has an expansive patio that wraps around its entrance. “As soon as you come in the door, you know what you’re walking into,” Oscar says. “We want you to feel comfortable, to be thinking, ‘I really like being here.’ ”
13 Hope St., Niantic
Hours: Open for dinner Tue.–Sun., lunch Sun.