El Matador Restaurant
680 Rte. 112, East Patchogue
SERVICE: Effervescent when in the hands of either daughter Melanie or Emily Alvarado
AMBIENCE: An unintentionally retro patchwork of mauve and maroon, with a subtly sparkly tiled floor
ESSENTIALS: Open daily at noon, closes 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 p.m. on Sunday. Parking lot out front; credit cards accepted; full liquor license; handicapped accessible.
During his 30-plus years in kitchens, chef Juan Alvarado has absorbed a lot of technique — Caribbean, Mexican, Italian, Spanish, French. At El Matador Restaurant in East Patchogue, his first as a chef-owner, he combines them into a kind of gestalt cuisine whose dishes can have an invisible back story.
Take the humble empanada. For his version, Alvarado braises sirloin until tender, then boils potatoes in that stock and pulverizes both with saffron and sofrito. That mash, in turn, is folded into handmade masa dough and fried. The resulting crisp half-moons, strangely greaseless, taste like piquant shepherd’s pies and come with a zesty vinaigrette that could probably be bottled and sold.
Or ceviche. In Alvarado’s native El Salvador, fresh fish are dressed simply with lemon or lime. The chef's version is more unorthodox: Shrimp is simmered in Old Bay-spiked water, then folded with ketchup, Clamato, lemon juice and plenty of cilantro. It’s more shrimp cocktail than ceviche, but unusual and refreshing.
Alvarado didn’t necessarily intend cooking as a career after he began studying pastry and working in kitchens after his family immigrated to Texas when he was 16. Yet, he has logged three decades in restaurants and catering venues such as Mediterranean Manor in Patchogue, Windows on the Lake in Ronkonkoma and as an executive chef in the Hamptons. One particular stint — at Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Setauket — seems to have left a lasting fingerprint, as Italianate citrus and plum-tomato sauces are a steady metronome for El Matador's Latin fusion, where chicken alla Francese shares the menu with fried-egg-topped Salvadoran steak.
El Matador’s dining room feels slightly lost in time, a patchwork of mauve and maroon with sparse decorations and a subtly sparkly tiled floor. It is often presided over by Emily Alvarado, a warm presence who is also the chef’s daughter and has forged her own career in hospitality. (Another daughter, Melanie, also works here.)
Emily Alvarado might not necessarily tell diners of the family arrangement, but she might hint that the chef makes everything to order; this is apparent in the kitchen's gingerly plating and the almost buoyant freshness of many ingredients. Portions are also robust. An appetizer of arroz con pollo — hunks of chicken threaded into saffron-laced rice — is succulent and peppery, and hearty enough to be a main course. A pimenton relleno, or poblano pepper jammed with ground beef, rice and queso, then roasted to the point of implosion, is messier, both in form and flavor. It’s draped in the bright house plum-tomato sauce that makes frequent, perhaps too frequent, appearances — for instance, atop another starter of crisp ham croquettes oozing with béchamel, a solid drinking snack. (Cocktails here are on the sweet side; ask for tamped-down sugars if that’s not your thing, or go for the excellent white sangria.)
Mediterranean influences wend through El Matador’s main courses, too, such as in a tender poached grouper fillet daubed with a salsa verde that has a buttery texture. The brine of an enormous paella — piled high with shrimp, clams, mussels and salmon, plus hunks of chorizo and chicken — soaks into a bed of saffron rice for a version that feels suspended between continents and can easily feed two.
There’s plenty of beef on El Matador’s menu, and iconic churrasco is uncomplicated but satisfying: a New York strip steak seasoned with adobo, salt and pepper before searing, then draped with a finely cut pico de gallo, for lots of prickle between fat and acid. It’s better realized than the chuleta frita, fried pork escalopes in a slightly sour onion sauce that nevertheless can’t mask the meat’s toughness.
Entrees come with side salads as well as a choice of sides; don’t miss the superb caramelized plantains, though both black and pinto beans are natural complements, too.
Way back when, Alvarado began his cooking life working with pastry, and his house flan is worth a spin: Instead of sugar, the chef uses condensed milk for body and flavor — rendering a dense, creamy version that's just slightly offbeat, like much of what comes before it.