Fueled by mezcal and house-made tortillas until two o’clock most nights, Aldama might be the closest thing Brooklyn has to the hip, late-night bars of Mexico City. In the back rooms of this partially subterranean cocktail bar, customers have been sipping on copitas of imported mezcal, and tearing apart regional Mexican dishes that rarely rear their heads here — at least not at midnight on a weekday in Williamsburg.
Aldama is the breakout project from Christopher Reyes, a first-time restaurateur and veteran bartender who previously worked at Cosme, the Nomad, and most recently, Ponyboy in Greenpoint. For the restaurant and bar at 91 South Sixth Street, near Berry Street, Reyes has teamed up with chef and partner Gerardo Alcaraz, an alum of the three-Michelin-starred Martín Berasategui in San Sebastián, Spain.
The duo officially opened their doors in June and have earned a small-but-loyal following in the neighborhood for their late-night kitchen, which stays open until midnight, and later-night vibes. Show up after 10 p.m., and a live DJ might be competing for attention with the hum of a molino milling corn for the restaurant’s tortillas and tostadas. Show up two hours later, and don’t be surprised to see strangers holding hands and a pair of toques.
Just about everything in Aldama — the corn for its tortillas, its custom ceramic ware — comes from Mexico. Its owner Reyes, however, grew up in Jamaica, Queens, the son of Guatemalan and Puerto Rican immigrants. Inspiration for the Mexican menu comes instead from Alcaraz, whose menu of bar snacks and all-night bites nods to regional dishes from Tijuana, Mexico City, and his hometown of León, Guanajuato.
Alcaraz isn’t going for one-to-one replicas of the dishes whose names appear on Aldama’s menu. Some items — the tacos dorados ($16), for example — might be made with marlin if he were preparing them in Guanajuato, but here they’re filled with smoked tuna and refried beans, the result of “having a little fun,” but also federal restrictions on consuming billfish in the United States, according to Reyes.
Other dishes intend to put lesser-seen, regional recipes in the spotlight. Sort of. “I’ve never seen a place that sells pescado zarandeado in New York City,” Reyes says, referring to a filleted whole fish dish common in Mexico City. And true to his word, diners won’t be able to find it here, either. Alcaraz has reinvented the popular dish as “pulpo zarandeado” ($32), a small octopus served whole with salsa and dollops of avocado-serrano aioli.
Despite his history serving drinks at top-tier restaurants, Reyes wants Aldama to be an approachable, everyday hangout. “I don’t want to have a hundred different tequilas and mezcals on our wall,” he says. Instead, the bar is focusing on 10 bottles of each, available for sipping from copitas with slices of oranges. A happy hour — 5 to 7 p.m. daily — advertises frozen margaritas and beer and mezcal shot combos for $10 or less.
One of the restaurant’s must-order dishes, the carne cecina ($19), is modeled after a casual bar food in Mexico City of the same name. The dish consists of thin-cut steak that’s deftly sliced, dehydrated, and deep-fried to the consistency of a chicharron. All of the tables at Aldama are set with dinnerware, but when seated at the bar, Reyes licks his fingers and tears at the meat with his hands, and encourages others to do the same.
The full cocktails menu runs nine items long, with drinks priced at $14 each. Reyes recommends the citrus fizz, a salt-rimmed riff on the Paloma made from citrus fruit syrup, lime, tequila, and Topo Chico. Also of note: the michelada, a mix of chipotle and hot sauce that’s fortified by Corona Familiar, a superior version of the pale, bathwater lager found at grocery stores across the country.
Several pieces of the puzzle are still coming together. Next week, Aldama plans to unveil an expanded dinner menu that includes what will be its two most expensive dishes: a 26-ounce rib eye steak ($90) and a roast chicken in pipian blanco ($32), a variation on mole thickened with pumpkin seeds. A backyard space, under construction and outfitted with ceramics and furniture imported from Mexico, will eventually double the restaurant’s capacity to 74 people.
As is the case at other pandemic-born restaurants (see also: Winona’s, Winner, and Dame) there are talks of allowing guest chefs to take over the kitchen from time to time. Details are still coming together, but Reyes says the dinner series will likely focus on chefs working in Mexico. The first dinner in early July featured a tasting menu from Francisco Ruano, the chef behind the acclaimed Alcalde restaurant in Guadalajara. It sold out completely.
The partially subterranean space was previously home to neighborhood cocktail bar Loosie Rougie, which permanently closed earlier in the pandemic. Reyes came across the building while delivering takeout cocktails as a general manager at Pony Boy. To keep the Greenpoint bar afloat last year, Alcaraz and co-owner James Dorje were making cocktails to-go, and Reyes was delivering orders by biking to households across Brooklyn. Last July, Alcaraz and Reyes put the profits from those sales toward a lease on the South Sixth Street restaurant.
Aldama is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.