On a cold Saturday afternoon at Tony’s Billiard Cafe in the Bronx, a family of three sat at the black granite lunch counter drinking multicolored Country Club sodas. Two preteen boys racked pool balls. A small child ran between the three bar-sized pool tables to the TV in the back to watch cartoons in Spanish. Beside her, four men played dominoes. At separate high-top tables along the walls, two men sat quietly, enjoying the main attraction, chef Anita Belen Romero’s daily specials.
The food is delicious at Tony’s (the name has stuck despite the fact that Romero and customers don’t know who Tony was. And yes, it used to be named Nano). Her stewed beef, goat, and chicken are tender and aromatic, bathed in tangy sofrito. Fried pork belly chunks taste great over white rice soaked in red bean liquor. People who eat here once become customers for life. A bundled-up man hustled down the entryway stairs for his takeout order. He moved to New Jersey years ago, but he still makes a long trip once a week, because, as he says, ”Anita’s sazon is always the same. You can count on it.” Anita overheard him. She smiled, walked back to the kitchen, and assuredly spooned stewed meat and beans into containers.
All day people trot down the basement stairs into the tiny space, for Romero’s food. The convivial atmosphere keeps them lingering well after lunch. For neighborhood residents, it is a communal living room. “In the Dominican Republic, you don’t need a place like this, people interact outside,” she says, “Life is different here. People live in these buildings for 30 years and don’t know their neighbors or even say hello to them in the hallway.”
Romero moved from Santo Domingo to the Bronx 16 years ago, when she was 47. She is a baker and pastry chef by trade. She had an award-winning pastry shop in Santo Domingo, but she found operating a business frustrating.
“[At the bakery] we’d bring a gas tank to have it filled up and later realize they didn’t give us the amount we paid for,” she says. “The oven would go out suddenly, and I’d have to finish work using a wood pallet [as fuel].”
As soon as she moved to an apartment in the Bronx upstairs from Tony’s, she took over the lunch counter and her food was drawing long lines, this time in the States. The food she cooks at Tony’s, however, isn’t based on her classes at Universidad APEC and Infotep in Santo Domingo; here, she uses the techniques she began honing as a kid, after her grandmother became too ill to care for her. “People come warm up, talk to each other, play pool, dominoes, or watch TV.,” she says. “They let go of the monotony of the same old routine: work to home, home to work.” She adds; “Anyone who comes here eats, with or without money.”
Understanding how hard it is to make a new life in a new country, she has mentored several teenage regulars. Her message is simple: “In life, there are lots of obstacles, but you have to stay positive.” Romero has seen her share. Right now, she is fighting her second bout with cancer. Still, she keeps coming to work despite protests from family and friends. She says, “I’m still here. I’m not afraid, Yo pa’lante.”
At 6 p.m., Romero closed the kitchen and headed home, while her friend and colleague Marisol, a middle-aged woman wearing her long blond hair under a baseball cap, took over for the next shift. The night crowd knows her. If needed, she’d be a good person to pass the torch to eventually.
The place filled up, and pool games rolled on until 4 a.m. There was all the energy of a lively bar, with none of the alcohol: Anita hadn’t renewed the liquor license since the space changed ownership during COVID.
“These guys play all night, every night. If I don’t see one of them, I wonder what happened,” says Marisol. Around the granite counter, there was an aspiring musician who had been coming since arriving from the DR at 11 years old. He said, “Marisol is like my mother.” The man next to him, visiting from his new home in Melbourne Australia added, “And my sister.” They had grown up together. The apparent king of the pool tables, a man in work boots and army fatigue pants approached the counter. He’s a construction worker, but was a writer and journalist in the Dominican Republic. He delivered jovial one-armed hugs and fist bumps with his huge chalky hand between anecdotes about Borges and Garcia Marquez. Marisol smiled and nodded.
That night, despite the lack of beer and liquor, the place hadn’t lost an ounce of spirit. The night crowd, like the day crowd, was happy to be sipping their red, amber, and blue Country Clubs, in good company.
Mike Diago is a high school social worker and writer. His work often appears in Eater, The Bittman Project, and Fatherly. You can find him at Latin lunch counters throughout greater NY, or in his backyard on Mount Beacon, cooking over wood fire for his wife and two sons.