Harlingen chef pours heart into bistro

HARLINGEN — Chef Diego Benitez offers freshly homemade breakfast at Laurel Park Bistro every day, including bread, herbed butter, strawberry jam, honey, gorgonzola and brie cheese.

Chef Diego Benitez demonstrates how he makes the Hollandaise sauce he will use on the dish of Eggs Benedict. (Maricela Rodriguez | Valley Morning Star)

“We just make good food. That is all we are really trying to do here,” Benitez said.

The bistro opened in July 2018 and the beginning was rough.

“We started off as a café-bakery. We were making scones and croissants in the morning but it was not kind of catching on,” he said.

The bistro on 77 Sunshine Strip currently accepts walk-ins, but at the time, reservations were needed.

After attending culinary school in New York and working in Europe, Benitez worked at two restaurants in Dallas.

“It was a great experience, but I wanted to make my own food and be in charge of my own place,” he said. “I just came back inspired from being in Europe. The fresh fruit and the meats.” So he decided to move back to Harlingen to open his first restaurant with his mother’s support and a desire to bring something different to his hometown.

Inside Laurel Park Bistro, bright blue paint covers the walls and a hung beauty salon sign pays homage to his mother.

The restaurant used to be his mother’s beauty salon, which she passed on to him.

“This was built in the 1940s by a veteran,” he said, specifically a soldier from World War II.

The name Laurel Park Bistro was chosen to commemorate the restaurant’s location at the entrance of a neighborhood known as the Laurel Park Addition, planned and built by one of Harlingen’s architects, John G. York.

The inside décor is a mixture of modern and classic. A painting of an anchor is displayed on a wall with the words, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.” It was designed by Benitez’s tattoo artist.

The phrase on the wall rings true to Benitez, he said. The beginning of Laurel Park was hard.

Though they opened Monday to Friday, people were not coming.

Then he tried dinner tasting.

“I was throwing away food, which was heartbreaking,” Benitez said. “So I said, I will not make any food unless I know people are coming, and the only way I would know is by doing reservations.”

Benitez said his backbone is fine dining. But one day he started a Mother’s Day brunch and the restaurant got packed. He tried another one and it got packed again.

“We said, you know what, I think Harlingen wants brunch. We were still trying to figure out, ‘what does Harlingen want’” he said.

But brunch appeared to hit the spot.

Now, the bistro is open Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

But staffing has been difficult.

Chef Diego Benitez demonstrates how he makes the Hollandaise sauce he will use on the dish of Eggs Benedict. (Maricela Rodriguez | Valley Morning Star)

“We are looking for people who are not just trying to find a paycheck. Who really want to learn how to cook and learn French techniques,” he said.

Even though it has definitely not been a smooth sea for Benitez, things appear to be more tame now.

He said he is looking into adding another day to the schedule and expand the hours.

Brunches are filling up, compared to before, when people were not willing to wait for a seat.

Benitez offers eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise sauce, a French toast made with homemade brioche bread, Kahlua butter and a quiche that takes him two days to prepare.

His menu is not the typical Mexican breakfast, but he adds Latin heritage with his café de olla he offers as a drink option.

Benitez said he strives to do everything perfect and to meet expectations.

“Make it nice or make it twice,” he said.