NORTH HAVEN — La Frontera Mexican Bar and Grill, a small franchise of Mexican taquerías, opened its third location at 630 Washington Ave. in North Haven a few weeks ago. The restaurant is owned by a Mexican family and mostly serves traditional Mexican tacos, plus some additions.
Co-owner Mariela Navarro said La Frontera started in 2018 when her family bought a taquería already named La Frontera in White Plains, New York. The family stuck with the name, took a risk and opened a second location in East Haven during 2020. Although it’s a two-hour drive between the two locations, Navarro said they decided to cross state borders to take advantage of an opportunity to bring authentic Mexican food to East Haven — a town that doesn’t have many other Mexican restaurants.
“La frontera” means “the border” in Spanish, but Navarro said that love of Mexican food is international.
“What is ‘la frontera?’” she asked rhetorically “There’s no borders. Everybody likes tacos. It doesn’t matter where you live or where you’re from.”
There is no lettuce, sour cream or tomatoes on the tacos at La Frontera, Navarro said. Instead, they serve traditional Mexican tacos made with nixtamal tortillas. She explained that nixtamal tortillas taste better because they don’t have the preservatives of standard corn tortillas bought from a grocery store, even if they have a shorter shelf life.
Nixtamal tortillas are made using an ancient Mesoamerican technique that involves soaking, washing and hulling the grain to make the masa, or dough. As a result, they have a stronger, earthier taste that Navarro described as the “taste of Mexico.”
Customer Rafael de León appreciated the food and tried La Frontera for the first time on Thursday. As a Dominican from Boston with a Mexican palette, he said he was in the area fairly often because his company is opening a Connecticut branch.
“I must have been Mexican in another life because whenever I'm traveling, I'm always looking for a Mexican place to try it out,” he said. “I had never seen this spot, so I stopped. It has great food.”
Like many local restaurants, La Frontera has two dining areas. The right side is a dim, bar-like "cantina" decorated with pointy metal stars made out of Mexican hojalata. The left is brightly lit and decorated in the style of a family-friendly dining room, including papel picado streamers that say "la frontera.” Navarro said all the decorations are brought directly from Mexico, including the ceramic geckos on the walls and a giant hojalata heart that greets customers at the entrance.
“We want people to experience a little bit of Mexico,” she said.
To enhance the experience, the restaurant offers karaoke on Wednesdays, salsa night on Fridays, a live singer on Saturdays, and mariachi on Sundays. Navarro added the restaurant had a large turnout at Friday’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.
“We were overwhelmed,” she said. “I thought we were going to be busy, but we had a line out the door.”
The holiday was originally celebrated in Puebla, Mexico, as a Mexican victory in a battle fought against French invaders in 1862. Navarro left Puebla when she was 16 and has been living in the US for 25 years now. She said that there was a small celebration in her town growing up, but is not as commercialized as it is in the U.S.
“It’s a historic thing, but it's not as important in Mexico as it is here,” she said. “The way I see it, it’s an excuse to get drunk”
La Frontera has been open for a few weeks and has already joined the Quinnipiac Chamber of Commerce. Executive Director Ray Andrewsen emphasized the restaurant’s location, close to Quinnipiac University, the Amazon distribution center, the Defco industrial park and exit 13 on I-91.
“This does add perfectly to restaurant diversity in North Haven,” he said. “The restaurant is surrounded by a lot of people who come out for lunch, or maybe they'd like to go have a cerveza.”
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.