While many people were sustaining themselves on a diet of fast-food delivery during the coronavirus crisis, others were peppering their palates with ethnic cuisines from across Long Island.
And for those who never lost their taste for fine Peruvian food, Mark Astorga, the owner and head chef of Las Vinas in Mineola, is certainly thankful.
“Many owners didn’t open until a month into the crisis,” recalls Astorga, who says that his restaurant was open all along for takeout. “In the very beginning, we weren’t very busy. I started to think maybe I should have stayed home as well.”
Astorga adds that while his takeout business has gone up and down, it has helped to keep the restaurant afloat during the past several difficult months.
While he talks about the need to “fight through” these challenging times, he also says that some restaurant owners may take this time to leave the business entirely.
“I know a few owners who may not come back at all because they’ve taken too big a hit,” he says.
Long Island reopening rules as of press time allows for limited inside dining along with strict adherence to regulations such as continued social distancing and enhanced cleaning.
“We had already changed the entire setup of our restaurant to handle takeout and delivery and now we have to change again to a new system of having diners indoors,” Astorga says. “It’s daunting.”
He adds that a lot of people may still not feel comfortable coming back inside the restaurant. Astorga also says he’s had to cut some of his prices on food as well as to-go liquor to make it easier for people.
“We’re trying to accommodate,” he says, “we went to keep a steady flow of business.”
But, on the bright side, Astorga says that county and state agencies such as the Nassau County Department of Health and the building department have helped make things easier for restaurants to comply with new health and safety regulations, including expediting permits for outdoor dining tables.
Las Vinas has been using a shared driveway, just off Jericho Turnpike as an outdoor dining area for the time being but his staff can only set it up after 5 p.m. each day.
While Astorga did not attend culinary school, he says his knowledge of Peruvian cuisine springs mostly from watching and helping his parents cook at a restaurant they opened in California. In 1976 the family, originally from Lima, Peru, moved to New York and opened one of the first Peruvian restaurants in the city in Jackson Heights.
“I started out in my teenage years peeling potatoes and helping out in the kitchen, but I always had a passion for cooking,” recalls Astorga, 45, who grew up in California.
After working with his parents for many years, Astorga had the opportunity to open his own place, and in 1998 opened a Peruvian spot in Kew Gardens called Inca’s.
“After Inca’s, I found another location in Manhasset on Plandome Road around 2010 and I stayed for about four years, developing a solid following in Manhasset as Las Vinas,” he says.
From there, he relocated to Mineola near the end of 2015, where he continued with the Las Vinas concept of mainstream Peruvian cuisine.
Astorga still does most of the cooking at Las Vinas, although he has experienced chefs as well as a few family members who also help.
Some of Las Vinas’ most popular dishes include lomo saltado (skirt steak with onions and tomatoes over rice), ceviche mixto (mixed seafood in lime juice), jalea (mixed fried seafood with lime-marinated salad) and arroz pollo verde (chicken and vegetables in cilantro-seasoned rice).
In addition, his hot sauce is a big favorite, made with 15 different ingredients, based on Jalapeño peppers.
Astorga adds that even though outdoor dining is an option as well as limited indoor service, he believes that pickup will still be a preferred option — especially for people who are nervous.
“We recently switched to using our own drivers for delivery as opposed to the third-party platforms such as Grubhub and Uber Eats,” he says, noting that such services charge too many fees and those fees cut into profits.
In addition, he says that some people aren’t spending what they used to pre-pandemic.
But, looking to the future, Astorga admits there is “much uncertainty,” with everything going on.
“I want to stay positive,” he says. “We’re all going to have to fight through these tough times to survive.”
Las Vinas is located at 178 Jericho Tpke. in Mineola. It can be reached at 516-747-0194 or lasvinasny.com
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