A stark white awning pokes out on 5th Avenue not far from Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. Emblazoned Puebla de Los Angeles ("Town of Los Angeles"), the deli’s name suggests the neighborhood has been invaded by West Coast grocers. But while you might expect birria, fish tacos, and rice-free burritos at such a Californian place, when you peek in it turns out to be the usual combo bodega and taqueria from southern Mexico — and a very good one at that. Further investigation reveals that Puebla De Los Angeles was the original name of Puebla, the capital and largest city in the state of Puebla. (By comparison, the original name of Los Angeles, California was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula. The early Spaniards had a way with place names.)
Inside on your right, find a counter with a cash register flanked by hanging candy calculated to tempt children; on your left is a hut with an arch of red terra cotta tiles. An aproned woman stands inside flipping tortillas on the comal. She turns for a second to smile and wave, then returns to her work. Persevere through aisles crowded with canned goods, dried chiles, stacks of tortillas, cactus paddles, and pastel-colored sweet rolls — all overhung with swaying pinatas — to find a lime-green dining room. Four small tables covered with sunflower shelf paper snuggle together, as a Virgin of Guadalupe beams down from up near the ceiling, consecrating your meal.
Puebla de Los Angeles is particularly interesting among the taquerias of greater Sunset Park because it represents an evolution of the form. Sure, the usual quesadillas, enchiladas, huevos rancheros, and dinner platters are provided, in addition to such crowd pleasing Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex staples as nachos and burritos. But the menu also includes unexpected options considered healthy in today’s popular food mythos, including wraps made with whole-wheat tortillas and meal-size salads that are carb-free. And some sophisticated foodie flourishes (such as feta, mozzarella, and mesclun) suggest the proprietors have been studying cooking shows on TV.
What would a Pueblan do if invited to reinvent the burrito? Put a cheese-stuffed poblano pepper hot from the oven in the middle of the usual beans, rice, pico de gallo, and creamy guac. This burrito de la casa ($8) is delicious, and far outdistances nearly any meat-bearing burrito you care to name in its ability to fill you up and make you blurt out, "I can’t eat any more!" And isn’t that the purpose of a burrito? Other fusion wonders abound, including a salad assembled from sliced apples, dried cranberries, walnuts, and feta cheese. Call it a wacky Waldorf.
Perhaps sadly, the multiplicity of hand-patted masa entities like sopes, huaraches, and tlacoyos has been severely curtailed, but the selection of tacos placeros ("market tacos") has been expanded. These feature starchy ingredients deposited in a rustic corn tortilla much larger than usual. My favorite is huevo hervido ($5). This perfect brunch tosses a whole boiled egg into a morass of white cheese, salsa verde, yellow rice, and potatoes. And these aren’t just any potatoes — one day the cook was using tiny, red-skinned designer spuds such as you might find in a farmers market.
The list of platters is reduced, too, showing that the owners have learned the true snacky meaning of a New York deli. The best and most expensive of these is the ranch platter, which may cause you to look out over the cemetery’s green hills and wonder what it was like when this was farm country. This plato ranchero ($12) offers an idealized version of the Pueblan diet that harkens to a prosperous past, when a tuck-in after a day of farm chores might include lots of the dried beef called cecina, a bulging chorizo, grilled cactus strips, a plank of white cheese, sauteed onions, and charred jalapenos — plus rice, beans, corn tortillas, and salad. Phew!
In true deli fashion, the sandwiches hog the spotlight, and you can either pick a torta or a cemita, the second invented in Puebla. Priced around $6.50 and served on round seeded rolls that traditionally contained cactus pulp, cemitas are gut-bombs of the highest order. Each is doubly dressed with mayo and refried beans, stuffed with ripe avocado and rubbery cheese, and spiced up with dried chipotle chiles that taste like fiery sundried tomatoes. Plus papalo: astringent green leaves that have the fragrance of burning rubber — in a good way.
The one that just might stick in your mind is the cemita Cubana. When I tweeted a picture, one replier noted that the ending in "Cubana" is an "a" and not an "o," a fact that caused Brigham Barnes to speculate in Lucky Peach that the sandwich was not inspired by the classic Cuban sandwich, which features pernil, boiled ham, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles, but by a street name in Mexico City. Indeed, this cemita Cubana layers on a massive Milanesa beef cutlet, boiled ham, and a hot dog cunningly sliced to resemble bologna, in addition to enough melting queso Oaxaqueño to float down the river with if you had a tiny boat and paddle. Taking a bite, you might come to the conclusion that the Cubana isn’t a reverential tribute to the Cubano, but an exercise at blatant one-upmanship: "You think your sandwich is great? Take a bite of mine!"
Cost: Dinner for two including three or four shared dishes and two Mexican sodas, $25
Sample dishes: Tacos Arabes, cemita Cubana, caesar salad with grilled chicken, tacos placeros
What to drink: The refrigerator case at your elbow as you sit in the dining room is spectacularly stocked with sucrose-bearing Mexican soft drinks, including Squirt grapefruit soda.
Bonus tip: As far as newfangled ingredients go, sometimes the place forgets to stock ‘em. So don’t set you heart on a feta salad. And remember to leave a dollar or two in the tip jar for the cook.