Eastport is the quintessential Down East, coastal community. On the breakwater, fishermen are reeling in mackerel, the lobstermen are headed out early to haul in their catches, and restaurants are serving up lobsters and other sea fare. The gulls are swirling over the bay and the smell of the sea is heady, enticing tourists to stop in the colorful downtown shops.
But at one eatery — the tiny Bank Square on Water Street — push open the screen door and Maine disappears and owner Marilu Larrea Scott will transport the diner to Mexico City.
What? Isn’t this a pizza and sandwich joint?
“Yes,” Scott says. “But I have learned that you have to cook with your heart.”
Pizzas may be 85 percent of her business, but the locals know that the true treasure at Bank Square is Scott’s Mexican cooking.
Stepping over to the stove, where employee Cameron Morrison is stirring three-color rice, Scott advises, “Put some love into it, child.”
Scott knows whereof she speaks.
A native of Mexico City, with three generations of bullfighters in her family, Scott grew up in her mother’s kitchen, learning the secrets and simplicity of everyday Mexican cooking. Mama never measured a thing, Scott says.
“Cooking was always done by feeling, by smelling, by tasting.”
At her restaurant overlooking the sea, this tiny chef runs a tight ship and is a whirlwind in the kitchen.
By 7 a.m. she is chopping onions, cilantro and huge green olives. She is teaching a friend, Ann Cornelison, how to make tamales. She is creating her own achiote oil (annatto in English) with its bright orange color and musky aroma. She is simmering black beans and pasilla peppers.
The popularity of Scott’s Mexican fare goes beyond just offering something new in an area dominated by seafood — these are fine-tasting products.
“This is the food of the gods,” she says. “If you use more than six ingredients, you are being pretentious. What I do is take the minimum ingredients for the maximum flavor.”
And she just can’t get enough.
“I go home and put on the cooking shows,” she says. “‘Oh, I could try this, I could try that,’ I say.”
“My mama taught me that if you have hands, put them to work,” she says.
Scott came to the United States in 1962 and settled in Atlanta before coming to Bangor and then Eastport six years ago, after she met her husband, Robert, on the Internet.
She originally opened Bank Square to sell pizza and sandwiches.
“I’ve tried everything,” she admits.
But it wasn’t until she began cooking with her heart — with traditional ingredients — using the love and skills she learned in her mother’s kitchen to create authentic Mexican cuisine, that Eastporters began taking notice.
“It’s all been word of mouth,” customer Ann Cornelison says. “Once people taste Marilu’s food they tell others. She is just cooking with her heart.”
“Culinary cultural offerings that reflect other places in the world are great for every community. It provides a window on the world. We are very fortunate in our little island city of Eastport here on the edge of the planet to have true Mexican culinary artistry happening every day,” says City Councilor John Miller. “Marilu offers the true flavors of Mexico — not border food or Tex-Mex — but real, authentic Mexican cuisine. I know friends that travel from Canada, Baton Rouge and all of Maine to enjoy the authentic south-of-the-border flavors offered in Eastport.”
The popularity of her traditional cooking has shocked even Scott.
“It has taken on a life of its own,” Scott says. “The response has truly taken me by surprise. This is the food I grew up eating and now it’s taking me into the black instead of being in the red for years.”
This isn’t fast food, either. Making the tamales, for example, is a three-day process. Scott cooks pork butts for 18 hours over two days, roasting them first and then cubing and shredding the meat. It is then marinated in green salsa. Each cornhusk is filled by hand and then steamed to perfection.
Her menu includes antojitos, or snacks, such as burritos, nachos with authentic toppings, quesadillas, taco salad, tlayudas, tostadas and the tamales when available.
As she rushes around her kitchen, Mexican music flows in the background, the lyrics wailing about a beautiful and beloved Mexico. She gets goosebumps hearing the song.
On the walls are photographs of her grandfather the bullfighter, her children, her parents, her husband. Pinatas hang from the ceiling and traditional Mexican masks provide flashes of color.
“I surround myself with my heritage, my family,” Scott says. “Cooking this way is really not for the public. It is 100 percent for me.
“Being Mexican is not just where I am from. It is who I am.” And as much as she loves the U.S., Scott says she is very fortunate to have one foot in each country.
Scott says that if the strong interest in her Mexican fare continues once the tourists leave Eastport, she is looking to expand the restaurant and is seeking a beer and wine license. She is already cooking special orders — she created seviche for 10 last week for a special event. She also will start offering meals where customers can bring in their own dishes and she will prepare the food for them to bring home and cook themselves.
“I’ve seen restaurants come and go here,” Scott says with a radiant smile. “And I am cautiously optimistic.”