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$20 Dinner

‘Salty Lunch Lady’ Dria Atencio Now Serving Killer Sandwiches, Cakes in Ridgewood

"I cook grandma-style. You know what you're getting just by looking at it, which feels appealing in a childlike way."

11:30 AM EDT on July 7, 2023

Plates filled with sandwiches and cakes on a marble square table.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

I first fell in love with Dria Atencio's food a couple of summers ago, when she announced via her nom de Instagram Salty Lunch Lady that she was giving away free cake scraps and frosting to anyone willing to show up at her doorstep. One DM and a quick bike ride later, and I was the proud owner of a mound of some of the best cake on the planet.   

Atencio's cooking background is squarely in the savory department, honed at places like the sceney Sorella (RIP) on the Lower East Side. Baking is just something she picked up during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, selling pastries on the 'gram. 

"I feel like cooking is really intuitive for me, and desserts are really technical," she told Hell Gate. "And I'm not a technical person. I'm like the opposite. I'm kind of like a bumbling freak."  

Fortunately for us, for the past two years, Atencio has bumbled (freakily?) through the long and arduous process of opening a whole-ass restaurant, the brand new Salty Lunch Lady's Little Luncheonette in Ridgewood, a homey and welcoming neighborhood spot starring an ever-changing array of her superb baked goods and a half dozen of her equally rad sandwiches.  

Dill party, $15. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

"Sandwiches are like the fucking perfect food," Atencio once told me, and though at the time she was referring to the format in general ("They're portable, they're social, everyone understands what they are, but they can also transform into so many different things"), she might as well have been talking about the hulking beauties on her Little Luncheonette menu.    

The "Dill Party," for example, turns the tired turkey sandwich into a rowdy celebration, piling dill pickles, dill havarti, gloppy streaks of dill mayo, plus non-dill items like avocado, onto a stack of thin-sliced house-roasted bird. The strecci roll holding all of this is from Sullivan Street Bakery, and it's very good. It's maybe a bit too chewy for the task at hand, but so what, you make a little mess, you have to scoop some stuff up, it'll be fine, just enjoy life.  

Also delicious and messy is Atencio's spunky "Green Eggs" creation, a mound of creamy egg salad made with green goddess dressing and topped with watercress and, as a $4 upgrade that you should definitely say yes to, enough anchovies to seize your attention in every bite. 

Green eggs, $13, with anchovies, an additional $4. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The third sandwich we tried, called the "Chicky," was another winner—a "giant smashed chicken meatball" loaded with Bulgarian feta, nearly frizzled onions, and plenty of smoky paprika mayo. There's also a tuna sandwich with "all the herbs," a vegetarian "surprise" with roasted eggplant and whipped ricotta, and a mortadella jaw-stretcher with provolone and pickled pepper spread.        

Then there's dessert, which you'll be served by your friendly counterperson before you even get your sandwich, so hold back if you can. Or fuck it, eat it first, I'm not the pastry police. "I cook grandma-style," said Atencio. "You know what you're getting just by looking at it, which feels appealing in a childlike way. And it's all just very simple. Like thrown together. Like somebody actually made this for you."

Chocolate layer cake, $10. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

No surprise, her chocolate layer cake is awesome—dense and moist to the point of gooey-ness, with lots of deep cocoa flavor. (The icing involves peanut butter.) The tangy beach pie is like a key lime but with a bit of lemon, all nestled inside a saltine crust and topped with a big creamy blob of heaven. 

An olive oil lemon cake and some good-looking chocolate chip cookies rounded out the sweets selection when we went on opening weekend, but just get whatever you see—the stuff sells out fast, and it's all great.  

The space itself is beautiful, and Atencio poured her heart into the build-out. The building is from 1915, and when she began renovating, she discovered all the tin on the walls and ceiling as well as the original wainscoting, hidden beneath drywall and a drop ceiling. Otherwise, as she told me, "I got every single thing here secondhand." (The tables are from Sorella, and the chairs are from "an old lady in the middle of Pennsylvania.") "I feel like I put maybe too much of myself into it," she said. "There's also so many things that aren't up yet. There's going to be a lot of weird pictures."

Beach pie, $10. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

And despite the name, Atencio's restaurant is not really so little. There's seating for about 25 people inside, with room to spare for a fancy pantry goods area, a refrigerator case with an excellent selection of sodas and other beverages, and shelving for a bunch of top-tier chips. There are also a few additional tables and benches outside. 

Atencio has dinner dreams for her luncheonette as well. "I've always wanted to do community dinners," she said. "I want people to find a place where they can come and sit and laugh and spend time, and no one's ushering you out and you're sharing food together. I want to host pop-ups. I want to do collaborations. But most of all, I want to put all the tables together, have a fun tablescape and big trays of roasted chicken and salads and pastas and vegetables and like, a giant five-tier pavlova, and we can all really have fun." 

Hell yeah to all of those things. 

Salty Lunch Lady's Little Luncheonette is located at 565 Woodward Avenue, at the corner of Menahan Street, and is currently open Thursday through Monday from noon to 4 p.m., also Atencio has regularly been selling out of stuff (she announces it on Instagram), so go early if you can.    

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
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