Every day, usually around 4 p.m., Corey Ellis’ Roosevelt restaurant sells out of something. Today it’s his Better Than Sex cake, tomorrow it could be the General Tso’s fish cheese sticks, the Ciroc peach cobbler hot wings, lasagna cupcakes or French toast stuffed with banana pudding. Whenever he’s down to his last piece of root beer chicken or shrimp Alfredo egg roll, Ellis tries to break the news gently to diners, hoping to avoid an incident that could quickly escalate.
Still, when he sells his last Mista—which Ellis describes as “an empanada-slash-beef patty to the ten-thousandth power”—all bets are off. They’re so good, “they will make you slap somebody,” wrote a customer on Facebook recently, and a dispute over Ellis’ last 10 Mistas nearly led to a fight between two patrons last fall. When he brings Mistas to parties, guests raid the buffet table and hide them in their pockets. “These things can cause war or peace, a feast or a fight,” he said matter-of-factly, staring at his cash register and the line of diners leading to it.
One of these, Noret Bazemore, overheard our conversation while waiting to order some fried swai tacos. “Mistas sell out like nobody’s business,” she said. “I can’t get my life together because I haven’t had one in like a month.”
They’re so popular, Ellis claimed, customers eat them straight out of the fryer, still flaming hot. “It’s true,” laughed Bazemore. “I’ve burned myself several times. My mouth is scalded and I’m still chewing.”
Ellis calls the empanadas Mistas after his childhood nickname, Mista Man, and his restaurant Mista’s Takeout for the very same reason. It opened last April and you get the feeling that the particular section of Babylon Turnpike on which it sits will never be the same. The histrionics occasioned by Ellis’ Mistas now extend to his grits fries, which prompted one young woman to burst into tears upon learning they were gone.
That said, “the old ladies are the worst,” Ellis said. “If something’s about to sell out, they’ll use the ‘old’ thing.” Ellis’ high-pitched impersonation: “ ‘You gonna take that away from an old lady?’ ”
Rather like a culinary Steve Jobs, Ellis has a knack for creating things that people never knew they needed but now can’t live without, and his formula is simple: Take two comfort foods, combine them and see what happens. “Sometimes I have to calm myself down because the new ideas won’t stop,” said the 44-year-old, who lives on the border of Freeport and Roosevelt (literally—his driveway is in Freeport, his house in Roosevelt).
When customers see something new on the menu—mac ’n’ cheese waffles, say, which, like the lasagna cupcakes, are intended to expand the universe of unmessy things people can eat while driving—reactions vary. Some are excited, some are confused, some ask Ellis what he has been smoking. For the record, he neither smokes nor drinks.
Mista’s is a restaurant specializing in “Soul Food and Seafood Fine Cuisine,” according to a sign out front, or, as Ellis puts it, a place where “comfort food is brought to the level of something elegant” and “for taking things that people love and putting them together.” Of his many creations, though, Ellis’ greatest may be Mista’s itself.
It’s a small restaurant with a big heart, a locus of laughter, kindness and caring that the surrounding community can’t get enough of.
Before Mista’s Takeout, Ellis had a food truck for a few years, and before that he was a music producer and, by his own admission, a “microwave king.” Everything changed 20 or so years ago, however, when his daughters were born and Ellis decided they needed home-cooked meals. “I said, ‘I’m gonna make some delicious things that they will love.’ ” What he ended up devising were meals he calls “APUD: Absolutely, Positively, Undeniably Delicious, Delightful, and Delectable.”
That saying is painted in big red letters on a wall in Mista’s small dining area, as are some of Ellis’ other bon mots, including “Do Your Thang,” “Oh Yes Indeed,” and “That’s That Look.” The latter refers to the religious conversions that occur when customers take their first bite of wings coated in a Hennessey-based sauce Ellis calls Sticky Henny, moments that have sometimes been captured and uploaded to Mista’s Instagram page. Patrons’ eyes roll back in their heads, or they gaze heavenward, or they shake their heads in disbelief, after which Ellis is always heard saying the same thing—“that’s that look”— followed by a booming laugh.
“Laughter and food go together. And great food and great laughs mean great times.”Corey Ellis
Indeed, at Mista’s Takeout, they’re always laughing about something, the midget football players who flooded in after practice, the skeptical church ladies who ended up rhapsodizing over Ellis’ peanut butter and jelly wings, the husbands who sneaked in for a snack while their wives were cooking at home. “Guys come here and say, ‘I’m here to get what I want.’”
Bazemore: “And I say, ‘Hi, Tyrone. I know you’re Maria’s husband, and I’m telling her!’” The roar from Mista’s could be heard down the street.
“There were a couple of soul food places in this community, but they came and went,” said Ellis after a moment. “So there was no soul food, just bodegas, deli food, McDonald’s. The neighborhood has come out in droves from the time we opened.”
Just how much of this popularity is due to Mista’s Mistas or the charismatic Falstaff behind them is an open question. Even Ellis himself isn’t always sure. “Laughter and food go together. And great food and great laughs mean great times.”
MISTA’S TAKEOUT: 263 Babylon Tpke., Roosevelt; 516-544-2288, mistastakeout.com