Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, is it still good?, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the nineteenth installment along with the previous edition.
I set as my goal for an afternoon expedition the Third Avenue and 149th Street stop on the 2 and 5 trains, a working-class shopping district in the South Bronx long known as the Hub. Streets radiate from it in all directions like spokes on a wheel. In the last few years, the area has become like a North African souk, with tables and tents set up on nearly every square inch of sidewalk selling cleaning products, perfumes, fruits and vegetables, and miscellaneous goods that sometimes seem chosen at random (obsolete game cartridges and used shoes, for example).
I was craving Mexican food, and right above the subway stop was a new branch of a Cuban-style Florida juice chain called Bambu. But dwarfing the juice sign was another one that advertised empanadas and Mexican dishes. I went in to discover not only a juice bar with plenty of tropical fruits, but a glass warming case featuring empanadas with a choice of cheese, chicken, or beef; and a handful of cuchifritos — but no Mexican food. I grabbed a beef alcapurria ($2.50) anyway, a torpedo-shaped fritter filled with beef and cracked wheat, potentially descended from Lebanese kibbeh.
But while the Hub seems like a souk, one block south is a shaded square with curving benches that looks like a Mexican zocalo, around it several casual eateries, including two new ones. Deli Guatemaya (512 Willis Avenue, near East 148th Street) is a new bodega selling Guatemalan groceries and other products, and also advertising quetzalteca, the national liquor of the country, an aguardiente (slightly weaker than rum and sometimes flavored) made from fermented and distilled sugar cane. The clerk told me that someday soon the place would also be selling the meal-size soups Guatemala is famous for, but not before a kitchen is installed.
Two doors down lies El Catrin (508 Willis Avenue), which means “the dandy,” a new Mexican taqueria and grocery whose owners are from Guerrero. I’d call it a bodega except the emphasis is more on its southern Mexican menu, and two cooks work at once alongside a clerk who sells the food from behind a counter. In addition to the usual tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and flautas, there were snacks and desserts, including chicharrones preparados (a giant rectangular wheat cracker that imitates pig skin and is topped with things like cheese, chiles, and chorizo), and pepinas locos (cucumber cups filled with peanuts, candies, and other stuff).
Knowing they would be hand-patted from masa, I went for the picaditas ($4.75), a ridged version of the sope that is popular in Guerrero, and got fillings of lengua and campechano — in this case a mixture of chorizo and carne asada. These were supremely tasty, especially when dribbled with the bright orange chipotle hot sauce provided, and the masa was super creamy. As I proceeded down Willis Avenue, I spotted Madison Café (468 Willis Avenue, at East 146th Street), a combination of taqueria and diner (spelled “dinner”) that I vowed to return to — it looked good as I peeped through the window at the steam table.
But I’d resolved to use the space left in my stomach to revisit La Morada (308 Willis Avenue, near 141st Street), Mott Haven’s most famous restaurant, specializing in Oaxacan fare, including several traditional moles that take time and great skill to prepare. Eater had reported that the purple-colored café had been closed last Friday due to flooding from our most recent hurricane, but I was delighted to find it had reopened and was operating in a normal fashion.
Naturally, I went for a mole – in this case, a bright green mole verde ($17) thickened with pumpkin seeds, but not quite as thick or dark as a mole pipian. I could feel the heat of fresh jalapenos on my tongue as I wrapped drumstick pieces in the homemade tortillas. Black beans and yellow rice came on the side, and it was altogether one of the best Mexican meals I’ve had all year. It made me resolve to go back with a group and retry the other five moles.
As I trudged toward the 6 train at 138th Street, I was delighted to note that the closed taqueria once known as Santa Clarita, which occupied a former Puerto Rican bar and nightclub, had now been reborn as La Jefa (237 Willis Avenue, near 139th Street). The same kitchen was visible through a window on the sidewalk from which food could be ordered, and consumed at a pair of tables under the eaves, with the Virgin of Guadalupe looking on. I didn’t have the stomach capacity to try anything, but it sure made my mouth water.