When Atlantic Avenue bistro Bacchus began a temporary shutdown in November due to COVID and left their staff out of work, the resourceful employees hatched an idea — they opened their own pop-up restaurant in the shuttered eatery.
“It all started because of the pandemic,” said Bacchus’ executive chef, Sixto Fuentes.
Bruno Laclide, who opened Bacchus over a decade ago, first attempted to remain open through the duration of the pandemic, but quickly found that capacity-limits on city eateries made that hope impossible — so he closed up, hoping to return when the virus subsided.
“A restaurant like Bacchus is too big to be able to sustain 25 percent,” Laclide said.
But, with many of Bacchus’s kitchen and floor staff unable to receive unemployment benefits, Fuentes and his fellow enterprising food maestros decided they’d give it a shot — concocting the plan to open a Mexican restaurant out of the hibernating Bacchus, which Laclide is letting his staff use rent-free, provided they pay the gas and electric bills.
On top of the sorely-needed income, the new food crew have also welcomed the cherished chance to serve up dishes that looked more like what they cooked at home.
For Fuentes, it also offered a second chance at owning a business — as, before coming to Bacchus, he’d run a restaurant in Bay Ridge for two years, before it folded. Landing on the name “El Zason,” which translated to “The Seasoning” in English, Fuentes’s wife Anastacia and his sous chef Jesús Fernandez crafted a menu inspired by their respective Oaxacan and Pueblan roots.
“Jesús is from Oaxaca, my wife is from Puebla, and they really connected together,” Fuentes said.
The result is a menu that emphasizes simplicity without sacrificing flavor — as seen in their guacamole, which is made only with fresh avocados, garlic, onions, cilantro, and jalapeños.
“That’s the real Mexican guacamole for us,” Fuentes said.
When the team launched El Zason shortly before Christmas, they went three days without a single order. Soon, however, word started to spread through Boerum Hill from impressed patrons and social media posts — and orders began rolling in.
The restaurant now does a swift takeout business, and just opened the wine bar of Bacchus for indoor dining.
Now Fuentes says they are looking optimistically to the future with hopes of turning El Zason into a permanent restaurant somewhere in the neighborhood.
“El Zason has a future,” Fuentes said. “For us to stay a neighbor is very important… we’re going to try to find a little spot somewhere in the neighborhood, no more than one mile from here.”
The birth of El Zason has been an unexpected bright spot during the pandemic for the restaurant workers, a time that has been marked mainly with ruin for New York’s restaurants.
But whatever the future holds for their pandemic-induced project, Fuentes simply lauded the unexpected bright spot for him and his fellow restaurant workers.
“In the darkness, we found the light,” Fuentes said.
El Zason [411 Atlantic Ave. near Bond Street in Boerum Hill, (718) 683-2217, elzasonnyc.com] Weekdays 11 am – 10 pm; Weekends 12 pm – 9 pm.
This story first appeared on our sister publication brooklynpaper.com.