The culinary revival of New York City will occur not in one fell swoop, but as a series of small triumphs. One was the recent reopening of the East Village’s Downtown Bakery, on First Avenue just north of 4th Street.
Its founding date is lost in the murk, but during the mid-20th century, Downtown Bakery started out as an Italian bakery of the type then common in the East Village and Lower East Side, hence the name. It made its own breads, buns, and multi-hued cookies. In the early 90s, it was taken over by a family of Mexican immigrants from Puebla, who soon began making a brief menu of tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and tortas, the latter on the Italian rolls that the bakery was still making.
In fact, into this century, the place still sold a small selection of Italian baked goods like rolls and doughnuts, according to Ivan Marin, whose mother Olivia Marin co-owns the restaurant with her brother Manuel Marmolejo.
“We still have people who come in here looking for a loaf of bread, and wonder if we should change the name,” Ivan Marin told me on the phone. I assured him that its most avid patrons appreciated the name, and the link it provided to East Village history.
Gradually, the cafe function completely supplanted the baking, and the menu exploded in size, always with a canny eye to both preserving Pueblan dishes and adding other types of Mexican fare craved by the neighborhood. Downtown Bakery was one of the first places in town to offer the stylish breakfast tacos of Austin and San Antonio, and breakfast burritos, too, along with fairly elaborate main courses. The neighborhood came to depend on Downtown Bakery for an inexpensive and delicious meal at any hour.
Then five weeks ago, it abruptly closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But the mainstay returned recently. The seating in the restaurant, which had amounted to no more than three or four tables, is now an empty space, and right inside the front door, the staff has installed a vestibule, with a small ordering window outlined in blue tape inset in a clear polyvinyl barrier.
I ordered three classic dishes: adovo de puerco, potato and chorizo tacos, and chilaquiles with eggs. Then I took the food to my nearby community garden for consumption.
The pork in big pulled chunks swam in a spicy red guajillo chile sauce that’s one of the glories of the menu at Downtown Bakery. It delivered an earthy flavor and mild burn, with an engagingly rough texture from the dried chiles. More often, I have it on the chicken enchiladas. The chilaquiles consisted of crisp tortilla chips drenched in red salsa, with a couple of eggs roughly scrambled on top, crisp on the edges. Bonus slices of avocado and grated cotija cheese further decorated this perfect brunch dish, though one must look elsewhere for alcohol.
The two tacos each came wrapped in two corn tortillas, and inside lurked cubed potatoes and sausage cut in matchsticks. One bite of this taco revealed another vestige of the long ago Italian bakery: Rather than Mexican chorizo, Downtown Bakery has always used Italian fennel sausage, making these tacos an amazing representation of local culinary history. Avocado slices were also concealed inside each taco. Downtown Bakery has always had its fingers on the pulse on this avocado-loving neighborhood.
The tab for three dishes came to $42, about $8 more than I expected based on past meals at the restaurant. Marin told me the restaurant was struggling to keep pre-virus prices, but “the beef and eggs, especially, are much more expensive and hard to find than they used to be,” he said. The prices going forward are apparently still up in the air, and when I paid on Sunday, the guy at the polyvinyl window had to call over the cooks to determine what the bill would be.
Yet it’s nice to know that one of the great dining institutions of the East Village has returned. Even five weeks was too long to go without it.