The great variety of dishes (like the always-refreshing tabouli, delicious kibis or mouth-watering kafta) alongside cultural traditions, daily hard work, and discipline for saving are some of the most prized characteristics of the Arabic immigration to Yucatán.
We talked with the owner of the restaurant-bar Patio 57 (formerly Alberto’s Continental), Don Alberto, a proud and charismatic descendant of Lebanon. He shared with us the history of the arrival of his great-grandfather, Santiago Jacobo, in 1894 from Syria (before Lebanon existed as we know it today).
Many Arabic people emigrated in order to escape from political and religious persecution by the Ottoman Empire. Santiago arrived to the port of Sisal after a four-month journey on a ship. “With only one coin and no ability to speak the language or even read, a young man just over 30 years old arrived to Yucatán without knowing where he was. That’s how my origin began in the land of Yucatán,” says Don Alberto.
As a result of the Ottoman invasion into the territory of the Middle East (where today we find Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon), the conditions for its inhabitants became critical. On top of that, the persecution against those who belonged to the Maronite religion caused the men of the family to search for escape routes. Many boarded cargo ships and worked there until they arrived at any random port. People called them Turks because they were granted Turkish passports by the Ottoman Empire.
“I don’t know how he was able to express himself, but because of his great personal strength and the help of a fellow Arabic countryman who was the owner of a store, he was able to establish himself with a job in Izamal. With rolls of fabric on his shoulders, he became a street vendor in the pueblos. That’s how he learned Maya and Spanish,” explains Don Alberto about his great-grandfather. Don Santiago eventually opened his own fabric store, and that’s how he saved the money to bring his daughter Rafaela and her husband Salvador Abdala. The couple docked in Sisal and the next day their first child was born on Yucatecan soil. This child was the mother of Alberto, who later married Miguel Salum.
Don Alberto Salum Abdala and his four brothers dedicated themselves to studying and the art of commerce, while also always enjoying exquisite Arabic food. Don Alberto studied dentistry until destiny came calling and he embarked into the field of restaurants. He became the administrator of the cafeteria of Hotel Caribe, located in Parque Hidalgo next to Teatro Fantasio, when he was still only 20 years old.
Mérida has always been distinguished as the epicenter of arts and culture of the Peninsula. For many years the Teatro Fantasio was home to numeroustheatrical plays and hosted visits of artists who stayed at the Hotel Caribe, both on the corner of Calle 60 and 59. Also, it used to be a gathering place for baseball players.
Don Alberto, along with his brothers, worked for over three years in the cafeteria, transforming it into a famous and successful business, thanks to his charisma and the recipes which featured his unique seasonings. This captured the attention of a couple from the U.S., who invited him to work in Palo Alto. There, for three more years, Alberto combined restaurant work with work as a dentist, saving enough money so that he could return to Mérida and open his own restaurant doing what he knows how to do best: Arabic food with a touch of Yucatán. That’s how Alberto’s Continental was born. Today, with the new name of Patio 57, you’ll find the restaurant on the corner of Calle 57 and 64 in the Centro of Mérida.
Talking with Don Alberto is so much fun. He has thousands of historical, culinary, and social anecdotes, and a charisma so unique that it helps you to understand the great success that his family has had in the restaurant sector for over 50 years. He always approaches the tables of his guests, so don’t hesitate to ask him about the food or life itself. His conversations will entice you no matter your language or age; he surely inherited from his great-grandfather the talent to converse: it’s something that’s in his genes.
At Patio 57, you’ll find luscious vegetation on the terraces, as well as artwork, unique details, and a lot of history. All kinds of people like artists, politicians, and ambassadors have graced his tables, always personally attended to by Don Alberto, who invites you inside with an open smile and incredible recipes invented by himself. The most famous is a combination plate, which allows you to try a little bit of everything, like shrimp-stuffed fish, and regional dishes as well. The tranquil and relaxing ambience is the finishing touch of an unforgettable lunch or dinner.
“Mérida is my home, and I can only thank this city and all of the people that have helped me over the course of so many years. I invite the new generations to enjoy everything that Patio 57 has to offer,” concludes Alberto.
By Violeta H. Cantarell
Esta entrada también está disponible en: ES