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Co-owner and chef Efraín Nieves cooks camarones al ajillo, a Puerto Rican shrimp dish, at Tata’s Restaurant on  May 5. After two decades serving Caribbean food, the restaurant will be closing in a few weeks. Lau Guzmán, Record-Journal

Beloved Wallingford restaurant closing storefront after 20 years

Beloved Wallingford restaurant closing storefront after 20 years

WALLINGFORD — The owners of Tata’s, a beloved town restaurant that serves traditional Puerto Rican and Latin food, announced they will close their storefront at 32 Center St. on May 19.

Co-owner and chef Efraín Nieves said they plan to pivot to catering and serving takeout food from their food truck location. As one of the few local places that serves Puerto Rican food in the area, the shift is a bittersweet moment for the restaurant staff as well as the downtown Wallingford community.

“I thought I was gonna stay here until I was old,” Nieves said.

Nieves left San Juan when he was 13, attended New York Food and Hotel Management School and opened Tata’s restaurant at 104 Quinnipiac St. in 2006 alongside co-owner Monica Villanueva. The restaurant moved to its current location seven years ago where a split dining room and bar area pay homage to downtown San Juan with colorful painted frescoes of tropical streets.

“We’re very sad that we’re shutting down because this is our baby. We built it from the bottom,” Villanueva said. “But then I’m happy that now that we’re shutting this down, we’re on to a new chapter. And we’re gonna still do what we love to do, but just not here.”

Nieves said the decision to close the storefront was a long-delayed result of the COVID-19 pandemic because of the difficulty of finding good staff for the restaurant and rising costs. 

“Everything went (through) the roof,” Nieves said. “Paper goods. Meats. Everything is almost doubled. So it's hard to get a high price and inventory. Plus good employees, plus rent, plus this, plus that.”

Food costs are 8.5% higher than they were in March 2022, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This cost increase is also passed along to restaurants as restaurant prices are 8.8% higher than March 2022. 

Even though the decision was difficult, Nieves and Villanueva said they were grateful to their two daughters for their support over the years. Nieves also said that he considers Wallingford to be “a home away from home” and expressed gratitude to the community.

“It's been a very nice experience over the 20-something years. The community is amazing,” Nieves said. “I remember one time somebody broke my storefront window and people came over and gave donations just for me to repair it. I had never experienced something like that.“

Tata’s has given back in several ways over the years, including donating food to hospital workers and nursing homes during the early days of the pandemic. The restaurant also hosted a free yearly outdoor Thanksgiving buffet, several fundraisers for victims of Hurricane María, Toys for Tots, among others. As a final way to give back to the community, Tata’s announced a customer appreciation party on May 19 to thank customers for their support over the past 20 years.

Tata’s has been part of lots of Wallingford events over the years, remembered Liz Davis, executive director of Wallingford Center Inc. She was introduced to Caribbean cuisine through Tata’s and spoke fondly of the menu, including Cuban sandwiches, mofongo, sancocho and arroz con gandules. 

“My husband and I went in there the minute it opened up, so it's going to be sad,” she said. “We're gonna miss them.”

Davis said the future of the storefront depended on what the landlord decided. She added it’s likely that another restaurant might want to take over the location, especially since a local Wallingford restaurant is in the process of opening a second location on Main Street at the former location of Knuckleheads tavern at 80 Center St.

Even though restaurant locations can be turned around pretty quickly, moving on isn’t as easy for the family. After being involved with the Wallingford community for over 20 years, the owners said they still plan to serve their traditional Puerto Rican and Latin food from their food truck and website, https://tatasrestaurantct.com/. 

“The love is the same,” Nieves said. “I put love into my food whether it is in a truck or it is in a large scale kitchen.” 

lguzman@record-journal.com,Twitter: @lguzm_n 

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re, To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.

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