CAMDEN - For many people, owning one’s own restaurant is the American Dream. Night after night of working in someone else’s kitchen, chefs can’t help dream of what it would be like to run their own kitchen, come up with their own menu, and introduce regional flavors to a new community.
Tom Sigler’s time has finally come. He is the chef-owner, along with his wife, Lisa Laurita-Spanglet, of the new Latin-inspired restaurant Comida on 31 Elm Street in Camden next to Zoot Coffee. They’ve been open just a month now and word on the street is that he’s on to something here.
This tiny 24-seat restaurant is cozy but not cramped with banquettes along the walls, hand-crafted tables, a copper bar and simple, throw pillows and wall decorations. The compact kitchen feels like it belongs on a boat; two people can work beside one another comfortably. As the prep cook toasts fresh coriander in the pan, the restaurant fills up with the savory and citrus smells that compliment the warm persimmon and cream walls.
This little spot on Main Street unfortunately has had a high turnover for businesses, something Sigler and his wife plan to change. To start, they tore out some of the walls and reconfigured the space to allow more seating, building many of the tables and banquettes themselves. In the spring, they plan to make full use of the outdoor patio. They also made a conscientious decision to keep each meal on the menu under $20.
“We want to be a place that you can go back to over and over to get a small bite or on a Friday night if you want to have two or three courses,” said Sigler.
Sigler started his career in South Carolina, working in kitchens to put himself through college.
“At some point I realized I preferred cooking to philosophy,” he said.
After graduating from Culinary Institute of America, his kitchen connections brought him up to Maine, where he served as a sous chef for Natalie’s Restaurant and Atlantica. His travels in Central America and a stint as a chef consultant to three restaurants in Mexico have given him many flavors to experiment with in designing Comida's menu.
Trained in French cuisine, Sigler brings a French flair to Latin flavors from Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba, Central and South America.
“I’ve always leaned toward Latin flavors,” he said. “I’ve worked in many kitchens alongside many Latinos, including many Guatamalans, and El Salvadorians and observed what they would make for family meals.
Comida is the Spanish word for “food” and Sigler intended to make the restaurant name uncomplicated.
“We’ve created a very rustic, but refined menu out of those tastes. Plate by plate we’re winning people over.”
He points to the plain, one-page menu that offers two sets of offerings, Platos Pequeños (Small Plates) and Platos Grandes (Big Plates).
“For example, this mole we serve over the sautéed chicken breast comes from my friend’s grandmother’s recipe. She’s from Pueblo, Mexico, right outside of Oaxaca. I twisted it a little bit, but wanted to make it respectful.”
Taking risks to try something off one might not normally order this menu pays off. For example, I expected a small plate of Ensalada con Coles de Bruseleas (Brussel sprouts, cilantro, daikon, manchengo, with a guajillo vinaigrette, $7) would be like three little hard brussel sprouts in a sauce. Instead, it presented as more of a flavorful slaw with bits of manchengo. The guajillo sauce absolutely popped with a sweet, light heat. Similarly, the Arepas Con Camerones Barbacoa ($12) offered two sweet, chewy corn cakes with Maine shrimp drizzled in the same guajillo sauce, only it was tinged with sort of a cross between New Orleans southern barbeque and a mole sauce. It’s easy to understand why this is already one of their most popular dishes.
They have a full liquor license, but are only currently offering a small selection of specialty cocktails, including margaritas and mojitos. They offer an eclectic wine and beer list, such as a zippy Vina Puebla Macabeo ($7.50) which compliments their small plate of Ensalada Batabel ($8), essentially a beet salad with freshly made queso fresco (out of locally procured raw cow’s milk), black radish and a cumin-orange vinaigrette.
“We wanted to offer beers and wines that are funky and fun for people who are interested in trying something they’ve never had before,” he said.
Sigler buys many of his ingredients locally, buying his meats and fish from Maine Street Meats, Jess’s Market, and milk and produce from Dandelion Spring Farm and Hubbard Brook Farm.