Cheap Eats / Montes Deli & Grocery
Where to get an Impossible pastelillo
To the uninitiated, pastelillos are magic.
Photos by Eric Frick
413 Swan St, Buffalo
854-3228, Facebook page
Over on Swan Street near Hickory, you’ll find Montes Deli & Grocery. Step through the doors and be greeted by three tiers of delicious Puerto Rican comfort food being prepared by three generations. The youngest, Rayza “Rizz” Serrano, takes care of daily operations.
Every week, the sixteen employees of Montes—Serrano’s best friend works the register—go through over 1,000 pounds each of chicken and beef, and even more pounds of pork. Montes operates on a different schedule, as all primary lunch spots do. “Prep begins at 3 a.m.,” Serrano says. Montes opens at 9:30 a.m. and the kitchen is technically open until 9:30 p.m., but it is best to get to Montes early. On my first trip, I made the rookie mistake of arriving at 5:30 p.m. When I told Serrano, she said, “Oh, no. That’s too late! Everything’s been picked over.” And she was right. I bought what was left of the roast chicken (two pieces) and one each of all the pastelillos remaining.
Esther Montes and daughter, Rayza Serrrano
I learned of Montes only recently. A co-worker was out running errands and came back with a small, white paper bag, the size you’d get a croissant from Butter Block; it was dotted with translucent speckles of fat.
Inside: carne frita. This keto-friendly delight consists of fried pieces of pork shoulder. Most likely you know pork shoulder from pulled pork at barbecue joints but here, the shoulder is broken down into chunks, seasoned, and fried. This is a textural dish. The outside is nice and crispy and inside the meat is tender and, yes, that is a fat cap on some of the pieces. This is okay and you should be thrilled that you get to experience both the crispy exterior, juicy meat, and luscious fat, all in one bite. Of course, not every piece has all of these textures and, while I enjoy the pieces that are all meat, those are quite crispy.
Carne frita and rice and beans are specialties at Montes.
While I was in line checking out the photos of Roberto Clemente and grandkids, excited to see that they carry Choward’s Scented Gum, a woman was swapping out the fried hard pieces for her aged parent who would have a hard time with something so crispy, something you could only do at a neighborhood establishment.
Speaking of the neighborhood, Serrano has seen some changes. “Larkinville is moving down, 500 Seneca opened up, so there’s been lots of new faces,” she says. Overall, it’s been good for business, but there were some challenges at first. Serrano has culinary training outside of her family’s business, at Emerson, then Buffalo State College, and finally the Culinary Institute of America (CIA); she’s using that knowledge to build bridges with new customers.
“Farm to table, vegan, I know all of these things well and like them—but it isn’t what we do here,” she says, while pointing out that quality materials exist outside of the small farm-to-table distribution networks. While towers of roasted meats will never appeal to vegans, she does offer an Impossible pastelillo.
To the uninitiated, pastelillos are magic. Ground annatto seeds give the dough shell its characteristic orange color. Fillings are added, the shell’s closed, and the turnover is fried. The best pastelillos are speckled with little blisters, a bit like a cannoli shell, with not too much of a rim and neither under- nor overstuffed. I had approximately a dozen of these (all to benefit you, dear reader) with myriad stuffings and at different times. The beef and cheese and the Impossible are my clear winners. No matter what the filling, they passed the real test which is staying crispy even after an hour. This is due mainly to Montes use of little paper takeout bags that don’t steam during transport.
Note that Montes is cash only and eating in means sitting on a bench and watching everyone in line be jealous of the bounty you are enjoying; try lounging on the bench, eating perfectly seasoned beans and rice like royalty. Either way, if you work downtown, and/or in the southeast of Buffalo, and you haven’t been to Montes, please get there before 4 p.m. Serrano and company wouldn’t want you to leave disappointed.