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New Mexican eatery in Clinton promises to ‘feed your taco addiction’

New Mexican eatery in Clinton promises to ‘feed your taco addiction’


CLINTON — The Texas-transplant who operated the popular food truck Pica Chica through last winter says she always wanted to serve her unique fusion of Tex-Mex and Mexican food in a restaurant setting.

Recently, chef-owner Mari Lee launched her very own brick-and-mortar cantina at 68 W. Main St. “I’m your taco dealer and I will feed your addiction,” Lee said, laughing, as she minced a cumin-oregano-scented roast pork while getting ready for her soft opening Thursday.

“Tacos are love, and we gotta, gotta spread that love,” she added, with a big smile, as she chopped the aromatic meat, which will be served in a Pork Al Pastor taco on a corn tortilla and topped with grilled pineapple.

Her friend Jeff Mastroianni, of Chow Food & Beverage Co. in Clinton, offered her the use of his food truck, as well as his commercial kitchen and suppliers for food prep, according to Lee. “He knows my food,” she said.

“‘I think it’s a good opportunity for you to showcase your food — you’ve always wanted to do something, and my truck’s just sitting there idle,’” she recalled Mastroianni saying.

Her 13-year-old daughter came up with the name, Pica Chica, and Lee was on her way, with her husband and friends helping out at the truck. “I took the leap, and I was more successful than I ever thought.

“We would sell out almost every night. There were people waiting out there in the snow — I was amazed,” Lee said. “I like to think my tacos are different. I make everything fresh.”

The only item she does not offer fresh is seafood for the fish tacos. She uses wild cod tails that come flash-frozen from Alaska, dips them in Guinness batter and fries them. Lee chose frozen fish so she does not have to worry about spoilage and waste.

When she and her husband were serving in the Air Force, they traveled to many U.S. military bases around the globe, where she would feed hordes of people hungry for Tex-Mex food. “Whatever base we would land at, I would have a big barbecue. A lot of the places the G.I.s were stationed at didn’t have Tex-Mex food.”

Her husband John Lee served 13 years in the Air Force, while she served nine.

Early on during the pandemic, Lee turned to video at the behest of her daughter, who became cinematographer and production assistant. “She’s a whiz at it,” Lee said. The pair produced about a half-dozen videos they posted on YouTube, called “Marilicious Food.”

That stopped when Lee was called back to work. She held two jobs — one as an insurance agent through the Shoreline Financial Group in Clinton, and the other was working as a consultant to Cuckoo’s Nest Mexican Restaurant in Old Saybrook.

Cooking is a big part of Lee’s heritage. Both her parents were from Mexico and spoke little English. Her seven sisters and three brothers learned to cook as well.

Lee’s family lived in south Texas in the border town Weslaco, and raised and slaughtered their own animals. They also grew fruits and vegetables. “My mom and dad are both great cooks, so are a lot of my sisters. Everybody is pretty good in the kitchen, including the boys — there must be something that’s hereditary,” she said.

Guacamole fan, Shelia Dunning of Clinton, is effusive about Lee’s food. The restauranteur cooked for Dunning’s youth group at the First Church of Christ for years. “Oh my God, Mari’s food is phenomenal. It is fresh — you can just tell it’s made with love,” Dunning said. “Her guacamole is my favorite. I mean I could just eat a pint on its own.”

Dunning is thrilled about the opening, and is sharing Lee’s menu via Facebook to many of her friends and acquaintances, she said. “It’s amazing to see her go from a dream to a reality, especially in a pandemic.”

“Her flautas are to die for,” said another fan, Katie McCollom.

Inside the eatery, walls are painted a vivid turquoise accented by bright yellow trim and tabletops, with red chairs. String lights in the dining room and the zinc counter area add to the fiesta ambiance. The outside of the restaurant has a warm weather-cantina vibe: a mural of two Pop Art-style cacti decorates the side of the building, also painted in the deep aqua shade.

“I feel so blessed to have such a following. Maybe it’s the freshness or the love I put into it. I put all my heart into my cooking,” Lee said.

Hours are noon to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and breakfast/brunch is served from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. There is takeout offered, as well as counter service, absent waitstaff. Customers can BYOB.

For information, call 203-675-8885 or visit picachicatacos.com or Pica Chica Tacos on Facebook.



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