Consider the carnitas taco. The fresh tortilla underneath is the color of a new pair of blue jeans — and not the stonewashed kind, either. But the focus is a pile of pork tidbits known as carnitas. They’re emphatically not the dense fibrous cubes you usually get, but a soft, plump, moist, beige-colored heap that tumbles off the tortilla and onto the plate, tasting engagingly porky. In the Mexican fashion, the taco is finished with cilantro and sweet white onions, chopped so fine they almost fling off a mist. Three homemade salsas stand at the ready. This carnitas taco ($4) is easily one of the best tacos in New York City.
I first encountered those wonderful pork fragments late in 2013 with a phalanx of food writers who regularly shuttled up to the South Bronx to taste Denisse Lina Chavez’s cooking in a tiny bodega called El Atoradero. Later, there would be a small café next door, but at this time, a makeshift cauldron was set up in the middle of the bodega every Saturday. A bevy of neighborhood women — Salvadoran, Dominican, and Mexican — assisted Chavez by cubing the pork, perpetually stirring the pot, and performing such other tasks as hand-forming the picaditas — ridged masa discs tailor-made to hold the soupy carnitas.
When the landlord raised the rent on the short-lived café last year, after a bereft interval Chavez took her operation trans-borough. Open for about six months, El Atoradero Brooklyn is located on sloping Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, on the downhill end of one of the city’s greatest concentrations of new restaurants. At about 6 p.m. the street throngs with strollers, as parents perch at outdoor tables to enjoy an early supper or a few cookies and a cup of coffee with their older children, just sprung from daycare.
The new El Atoradero is narrow, with a bright front room and bar, an incredibly small kitchen in which two or three cooks gyrate simultaneously, and a comfier rear room overlooked by a raised backyard now open for the season. The walls are painted with pineapples in a sort of brilliant DIY wallpaper, and the best table, raised high as if to accommodate basketball players, looks directly into the kitchen through a glass window.
What challenges Chavez must have faced as she thought about the promises and perils of the new location in a far more upscale part of town! Price rises, certainly, but would she go the route of chef Cosme Aguilar at Long Island City’s Casa Enrique, who created a bistro-ized menu featuring ceviches, composed salads, and showy regional dishes from his home state of Chiapas? Or would she stick with the same bodega menu from small-town Atlixco, in Puebla, that she had mounted in Mott Haven, keeping the full-meal prices in the teens, rather than offering entrees in the mid-20s, as Aguilar did?
She went the cheaper route, and thus the dining genre of El Atoradero nowadays might best be described as Enhanced Taqueria. Grab a couple of tacos and a beer and you won’t break the bank. Order an entrée, and you get a fully loaded plate at a bargain price. Many of the main courses are the same as those presented in the Bronx. There are meatballs stuffed with quail eggs, served in a zingy tomato sauce; a mole poblano more nutty than sweet, poured over cheese enchiladas or a quarter chicken; pork ribs and purslane in a green salsa more tart than hot; and — a weekend favorite back home in Puebla — great gobbets of the funky lamb steamed in banana leaves, called barbacoa. All entrees come with black beans and Mexican rice, with a basket of those enthralling blue tortillas upon request.
Alas, there are no picaditas to hold the carnitas the way there were in the Bronx — though we hear they may be made for you if you ask. But in addition to tacos, there are other antojitos that might hold them equally well, including quesadillas, burritos, tortas, and cemitas. You may scratch your head and wonder why a cafe mimicking the menu of a home kitchen in Puebla would offer such Americanized Mexican food as burritos, but this is part of the democratized feel of the place. This is crowd-pleasing Mexican food aimed at everyone. And also a utile place where you’re just as welcome to drop in for a sandwich or plate of nachos as for a full meal.
The list of taco fillings is long, comprising 12 choices. In addition to carnitas and barbacoa, best are lengua (stewed veal tongue), placeros de huevo (boiled egg), chicken tinga (shredded chicken in a spicy chipotle sauce), and verdolagas con hongos y nopales (purslane, mushrooms, and cactus). Of the short list of apps, the most interesting is an adapted version of nachos ($15 with meat, $12 vegetarian), featuring perfect blue tortilla chips in a humongous heap, and your choice of toppings from the taco list, which can lead to some pretty wild creations. Ever tried pig-ear nachos? The nachos come with a heap of guac on top, obviating the need to order it separately.
As the months have drifted by, a roster of daily specials has appeared, which are highly worth considering if you’re going the full-meal route. Friday’s mixiotes de pollo ($17) are stunning: bone-in chicken pieces rubbed with chile paste. In the traditional version, they’re wrapped in parchment and steamed in beer. But Chavez’s are slightly non-traditional. "How are those made?" I asked the waiter one evening. "The chef uses a sous vide process," he replied. As I liberated them from their plastic bag, I marveled how — newfangled cooking method notwithstanding — they were the best mixiotes I’d ever tasted.
Robert Sietsema is a critic for Eater New York. Read his archives here.
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
Cost: Dinner for two, including two full-plate main courses and two beers, with tax but not tip, $50
Sample dishes: Carnitas taco, flautas de queso (fried cheese-filled flutes), albondigas enchipotladas (meatballs), mixiotes de pollo (chile-rubbed chicken), red pozole (spicy hominy soup)
What to drink: Go with the cheapest beer, Tecate ($5), or a bottle of Jarritos ($4)
Bonus tip: Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. El Atoradero offers an excellent brunch that includes chilaquiles and huevos divorciados (fried eggs with two salsas), in addition to a red pozole; all are well worth trying