It’s only 7 p.m. and perhaps it’s because the days are getting shorter but 108 Street in East Harlem is dark and quiet; however, Ollin, a Mexican restaurant, illuminates the block. Its bright blue outdoor dining shed is decorated with hundreds of marigold flowers, twinkling lights and pumpkin lanterns. Inside, the bright orange walls decorated with picture frames are reminiscent of an abuela’s home. The restaurant may be small, with seating for about 15 people at five tables, but its food is big in traditional Mexican flavors that customers love.
Juan Perez came to the United States from Mexico in 1989 after family members who were already here sold him on the idea of a better life. At the time he was working as a welder, but the job didn’t pay enough to make ends meet.
“My wife’s sisters told us that here, [you could make a lot of money], we’d be sweeping dollar bills with a broom,” Perez says. “At first, I didn’t want to come, but I came because of poverty and the lack of good-paying jobs in my town.”
Upon arriving, he settled in the Bronx and began working in construction. He eventually moved to Harlem, and in 1997 he found a small storefront for rent on 110 Street and opened a deli/grocery store. Eventually Perez began selling tacos and tortas. While his food proved popular, after 10 years he had to close the business due to the high rent. When Perez found another more affordable location for rent, he decided to open a restaurant.
Ollin, which means ‘the constant movement of the Earth’ in the Nahuatl language, opened in 2008, and this time, Perez wanted to be known for more than just tacos. He began selling cemitas (a Pueblan-style sandwich, usually filled with meat, Oaxaca cheese, avocado and chipotle in adobo sauce on an egg-free sesame bun), stuffed chili peppers and mole poblano (chicken topped with a thick red sauce made with dried chilis and chocolate). These are staples that remain on the menu today. Perez, who learned to cook from his mother, prides himself in the homemade feel of his dishes. In fact, the mole poblano is made by his mother in Puebla, Mexico, who then ships it to Ollin. It’s a mole you won’t find anywhere else.
For years, Ollin operated like a traditional mom-and-pop neighborhood restaurant. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that Ollin became a New York City foodie joint and community space.
When the lockdown began, Perez had to shutter Ollin. Then he got Covid-19, which hit him hard. He recovered and the family made it through with savings and leftover food from the restaurant. It wasn’t until May 4, 2020, that Ollin was able to reopen, but business was slow and the operating costs were expensive. Then, in October 2020, a viral video breathed life into the restaurant.
“A woman made a Tik Tok video about my sister-in-law and niece, who had a street cart that sold corn and churros. They sell in front of us, so the video featured us too. People began looking for my sister-in-law and niece’s cart and buying their churros and corn, but we didn’t get much business,” says Jonathan Perez, Perez’s son and the co-owner of Ollin. “When I saw the video’s impact on my family, I asked the influencer if she could make some videos for us, and we hired her for a couple of months.”
By the end of 2020, Ollin’s popularity on Tik Tok had grown exponentially — it amassed more than 83,000 followers, many of whom began to visit the restaurant.
“I know the pandemic was difficult, but the truth is that it helped us a lot. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have all these customers or open up a new place,” Jonathan says. “We are one of the few businesses that had the privilege of being able to excel during the pandemic.
In August 2021, the family opened up a second location on 2108 2nd Ave., which provided more space to interact with the community — one of the qualities that sets Ollin apart. Jonathan wanted to create a space where people of color could gather, eat good food and have fun. He began with a pumpkin carving event for the neighborhood kids. Then he began to host paint-and-sip nights for adults and Loteria (Mexican bingo) nights.
“I have enjoyed hosting these events, especially those for queer people,” Jonathan says. “In June, we had a Loteria night for queer people of color. The flyer specified that this was a space specifically for them so that they feel comfortable,” he says. “Nowadays, many places want to create safe spaces, but it’s something [Ollin] already does. We are not just another mom-and-pop restaurant.”
People in the neighborhood have taken note. Mayra Salinas, 30, celebrated her 30th birthday with a Selena themed paint-and-sip party at Ollin.
“For me, it is pretty hard to find good Mexican food being from Texas and [Ollin] just really hits the spot. It reminds me of home,” she says. “It’s an experience. The food is great, the drinks are awesome, but it’s the gente, the people, here that are so nice and welcoming.”
Jessica Melendez, 27, recently tried Ollin for the first time and echoes that sentiment.
“It’s authentic. I asked the waitress if they made their guacamole right now, and she said they make it per serve. I’ve been to restaurants that make their guac in the morning and you can tell that it is old,” Melendez says. “I feel at home, and it feels like a homemade meal. I feel welcomed. It feels like I am part of a family that cares about making my food.”
The restaurant has also helped Jonathan and his father feel at home. Perez is reminded of his Pueblean roots, while Jonathan has learned to appreciate his Mexican culture — one that is loud and colorful.
“All the years working for corporations, it was all about not having an identity, not having color, personality or culture. Two or three colors attract customers — minimalism is best. When I began working [at Ollin], I wanted the restaurant to be the same — uniform,” he says. “It took me a long time to know that people liked the color. They liked us using different dishes because it made people feel like they were in their grandmother’s house or if they were foreigners, it reminded them of their trip to Mexico.