Born into a family passionate about all things culinary, Arlen Gargagliano was raised believing that “food is love.” Many travels overseas to Spanish-speaking countries expanded her palate and inspired her twenty-year career as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher. In recent years, Gargagliano had transitioned into teaching cooking and food writing. The published cookbook author had always loved cooking for family and friends, so her decision to open Mambo 64 last year seemed the natural next step.
The restaurant’s name may reference its address in number (it is located at 64 Main Street in Tuckahoe), but its meaning extends further. Gargagliano called her first Latin cocktails and tapas cookbook Mambo Mixers. Her affinity for the word “mambo” is simply explained: she thinks it implies fun!
Fun is certainly one of many words I would use to describe my experience at the cozy Latin fusion eatery. Gargagliano wants guests entering Mambo 64 to feel like they are walking into her home. This definitely came across; I watched her warmly greet every customer, many of whom she seemed to have a real relationship with. Diners around me echoed Gargagliano’s contagious upbeat nature.
At its core, Mambo 64 is family-oriented. Gargagliano’s two artistic brothers, Peter and Shawn, helped design the restaurant’s walls, lighting, and artwork. You can find her daughter Sofia helping out in numerous capacities. When I visited, she was behind the bar, mixing me a delicious strawberry jalapeño mojito.
The diverse menu—most of which happens to be naturally gluten free—is inspired by several cities where Gargagliano has traveled. She lived in both Spain and Peru, and these experiences certainly lend an air of authenticity to her dishes. I sampled both tapas and “platos fuertes” reminiscent of my own travels abroad. Many recipes are extracted from Gargagliano’s cookbooks, pulled from communities in northeastern Spain, Mexico, Colombia, and more. Some even reflect places Gargagliano aspires to travel, like Cuba.
I quickly noticed that while she may draw from many cultures, Gargagliano likes to put her own twist on dishes. “Arlen’s Guacamole” is far from the typical avocado, onion, tomato blend. Instead, you can find sweet red grapes, crunchy toasted pecans, and a slight smoky flavor. Gargagliano explained the importance of balance in flavors, texture, and color; her execution on that principle is perfect in this popular starter.
Cheese puffs were a Brazilian delicacy unbeknownst to me until this evening, and I am certainly happy I was made aware. Gargagliano agreed they are not exactly commonplace on tapas menus but explained their prevalence in South America. Her daughter Sofia used to wait by the oven when she was young and Gargagliano prepared them at home. While traditionally eaten plain, Mambo 64 serves these bite-size, melt-in-your-mouth cheesy breads with a tasty strawberry and cucumber salsa.
Other hot-selling tapas include gambas al ajíllo: classic Spanish-style, sherry-sautéed shrimp, and the beef empanadas: Argentine-style and served with sundried tomato chimichurri dipping sauce. I tasted Colombian corn cakes prepared two ways: one with marinated chicken and another with Caribbean-style mango chutney. The entrees I sampled included shrimp served on a bed of delicious sofrito and cilantro rice and quinoa with the juiciest, most flavorful portabello mushrooms. Most popular large plates include the chimichurri-marinated hanger steak and the pernil, or roast pork with gallo pinto.
To match the bona fide cuisine, there is live flamenco music on Tuesday evenings. A local Spanish guitarist performs, while his girlfriend dances in elaborate costume beside him, often with a few outfit changes. Special events do not stop there: Mambo 64 often hosts beer and food pairing dinners as well, most recently with Broken Bow Brewery, which is based right in Tuckahoe.
On August 16th, you’ll find Gargagliano at the American Diabetes Association’s “Feria de Salud.” Held in St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx, this event will include live music and dance, free health screenings, cooking demonstrations by Gargagliano, and more. Gargagliano will demonstrate how to prepare Spanish dishes that are diabetic-friendly without sacrificing taste.
While Gargagliano appears an expert, she claims she is still learning daily about the huge world of flavors out there. To pick her brain, take a Monday night cooking class at Mambo 64—last month’s featured Caribbean tapas—where you can sit down and enjoy a homemade, social meal with Gargagliano and peers afterwards. In your own kitchen this summer, play with your food as Gargagliano advises, and who knows what you will create yourself!