HARLINGEN — At Laurel Park Bistro, a German breakfast is offered — house-made bread baked daily with herbed butter accompanied by strawberry jam, homemade honey, gorgonzola and brie cheese, all crafted by Chef Diego Benitez himself.
“We just make good food. That is all we are really trying to do here,” he said.
The bistro opened in July of 2018 and according to Benitez, 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 was working in 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,” Benitez said
Benitez said he decided to move back to Harlingen and open his first restaurant in his hometown because of the support from his mother and his desire to bring something different to Harlingen.
Inside Laurel Park Bistro, bright blue paint covers the walls and a beauty salon sign hangs to pay 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 décor inside has 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 is sort of true, Benitez said. The beginning of Laurel Park was hard.
At the time, they opened Monday to Friday. But Benitez said people were not attending.
After that he tried out dinner tasting.
“I was throwing away food, which was heartbreaking,” he 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.
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.
Benitez said it was hard figuring out what people wanted. But brunch appeared to hit the spot.
Currently, it opens Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
According to Benitez, having a staff that stays has been difficult as well.
“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.
Laurel Park Bistro’s present and menu
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 as 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, and 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.
Events and projects
Besides offering brunch, Benitez is open to doing hands-on activities that include his cooking.
He has prepared Crepes at market place and has partnered with Jackson St. Antiques for catered events.
He offers pie cooking classes and said he hopes to add a knife sharpening class, as well as teaching how to properly use one.
Bianca Moreno, 26, is his front house manager. According to her, Benitez runs the back and she runs the front.
Moreno is in charge of reservations and upcoming events.
“She does a lot of what doesn’t get seen,” Benitez said.
Moreno offers a cup of coffee or samples of their café de olla to people waiting to be seated.
“We know before people would not wait but now we try to give the best service while they do,” she said.
Coming up in March, Benitez will be participating in a Shrimp Fest where he will come up with a dish. He said he hopes to continue working along the community.
Specialty bread attracts regulars
Besides participating in local events and offering cooking classes, Laurel Park Bistro sells their homemade sourdough bread to the public.
It comes with instructions on how it can be frozen to be re-heated later.
Whenever a customer buys a loaf, instructions say to bake a whole or partial piece for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
For room temperature storing, a linen cloth or brown paper bag are recommended. Plastic is not recommended because it can create humidity.
If not consumed within three to five days, double wrapping in plastic and freezing is recommended.
Becky Magdalena, from Harlingen, has been buying the artisan bread since she first visited Laurel Park.
She lives within walking distance from the bistro and calls it “Harlingen’s hidden gem.”
“I brought my husband for Sunday brunch and brought some friends and fell in love with the bread. You can get it out piece by piece. The presentation is beautiful, you have to be careful not to eat too much,” she said.
Knowing there are people who are allergic to gluten or might avoid bread, Benitez said their artisan bread goes through a fermentation cycle.
According to him it is very easy to digest, mainly because of how it is made.
“If more of us tried to make bread the right way it would be easier to digest,” he said.
Magdalena is not only a fan of the bread but of the menu as well.
“They just have a wonderful selection. If you like French, it is a breath of fresh air for Harlingen. Avocado toast is wonderful and I love both quiches,” she said.
“I like the service. They are very friendly and I like the food. It is a place where you can have a nice conversation,” Magdalena said.
“I just want this to succeed, do well and people to know it is a great little place to come,” she said.
IF YOU GO
Laurel Park Bistro
901 S 77 Sunshine Strip, Harlingen
Open Thursday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.