Last week, local restaurateur Fabiola Maldonado opened her latest endeavor: Paloma’s BK, which, despite sharing most of its name with a Mexican restaurant she also owns, on the nearby Ridgewood-Bushwick border, has a decidedly different character.
For those unfamiliar with the original Paloma’s, which Maldonado opened in 2016, its menu focuses on a mix of dishes that Maldonado learned on repeat visits to Puebla and Oaxaca, combined with gluttonous, familiar Americanized classics like burritos and nachos.
Paloma’s BK skirts the latter and concentrates on more traditional fare.
On a recent, snowy afternoon at the new location on Knickerbocker Avenue, Maldonado, short but formidable in her chef’s whites, walked out of the kitchen with several dishes balanced in her hands, including quesadillas de flor de calabaza (a squash blossom), ceviche mixto, a jicama agua chile (ceviche, but spicier) and chicken thighs coated in dark mole. We picked at this spread while she told me her story.
“I moved here when I was 18, right to Bushwick,” Maldonado began. “I come from Guayaquil, the warm coastal area [of Ecuador]. I used to come here for vacation to visit family; my uncles and aunts were all already here.”
“When I was in Ecuador I went to law school; I was supposed to become a lawyer. Then, my mother sent me here on a three-month vacation. At the end of my trip, I called and told her, ‘I’m not coming back.’”
Maldonado’s mother followed suit two years later, bringing her brother, Carlos. He now runs the original Paloma’s, while his sister concentrates on the new location.
Upon arrival in Bushwick, Maldonado began waiting tables at a long-since-defunct Dominican restaurant in Ridgewood. Two years later, she was working at a Mexican restaurant in Red Hook, where she became acquainted with the country’s food.
But ironically, it was her induction into the world of corporate food franchises that set her on the path to Paloma’s.
“I worked for a guy who owned four Papa Johns and eight Subways,” Maldonado said. “I oversaw all the stores for him. I learned a lot about contracts, permits, licenses, marketing, controlling a budget. I was there for seven years; it was good training.”
Meanwhile, Maldonado’s true tutelage in Mexican food began via a series of pilgrimages to Puebla and Oaxaca. The food of those southern Mexican states still forms the cornerstone of her overall approach to Mexican cookery, evidenced, for instance, by Paloma’s mole poblano.
Maldonado worked the franchise gig right up until her boss was busted for labor violations and lost his small franchise empire. But her sudden lack of employment provided the impetus to start her first venture.
“I wanted a spot in Bushwick,” said Maldonado. “But I settled for one right over the border in Ridgewood. It was an area that was changing a lot: new people. And my godmother owned the location. She was tired and decided to sell me the place. That was 2016.”
To-go food fast became a reliable source of revenue at Paloma’s, which set them up nicely when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic nixed indoor dining.
“We actually got busier,” said Maldonado. “We were ready for it.”
Others have been far less lucky, including the former owners of the Guadalupe Inn, another Mexican eatery that previously occupied the space on 1 Knickerbocker Avenue that Maldonado chose for her new venture. Compared to the original Paloma’s, it’s a fairly huge piece of real estate: the bar seats at least 20, and its spacious dining room comes complete with a stage. (Maldonado has plans for live entertainment.)
“Everybody was telling me I was crazy when I decided to open another location,” said Maldonado, shrugging. “Maybe in two years I’ll open a third!”
During a recent soft open at Paloma’s BK, the octopus tostada was a best-seller. Some faces may fall at the slightly higher prices but others will brighten at items like pescado sobre crema de flor de calabaza, gorditas de chorizo, and the pork belly tacos. Most will likely rejoice, however, at the addition of a full bar well-stocked with mescal and tequila. While currently only open for late lunches and dinners, a weekend brunch service is also in the works, set to debut in March.
Top photo credit: Matt Fink.
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