Eight months ago, Downtown Bakery disappeared from the East Village dining firmament. When it was closed by the DOH for not having the proper permit, it had been open for 30 years at 69 First Avenue near 4th Street, serving items of Pueblan and Mexican-American cuisine at bargain prices to an adoring customer base. The storefront was originally an Italian bakery, but the breads and butter cookies were gradually replaced with tacos and tortas.
For three decades, Downtown Bakery has helped define an East Village style of Mexican cooking, with elements from California and Texas added to southern Mexican, mainly Pueblan, recipes. That includes burritos and fish tacos from California, and fajitas and breakfast tacos from Texas. But it also added elements unique to New York, creating a Mexiyork menu.
The new incarnation reopened Friday night with a line out the door, a striking new orange-and-gray color scheme, and a new name: Downtown Burritos Cocina Mexicana, reflecting the kitchen’s most popular dish, according to Mario Marin, who along with brother Ivan are the second-generation owners. The seating has been increased to four tables, and there’s a comfortable eating shelf along one wall. The kitchen, deep in the interior of the space, looks about the same, punctuated by a clatter of pots and pans.
The menu remains nearly the same, too, with a few additions like a vegan tamale ($6) made with a fresh poblano pepper chopped up inside and wrapped, Oaxacan style, in a banana leaf. Previously, corn husks had been used for the tamales, but as the brother at the counter explained, banana leaves are much easier to handle.
I went with a friend, and started by gobbling my favorite dish from the earlier days. Sided with yellow rice and black beans, the adobo de pollo ($12) is a bright red stew made with dried guajillo chiles. It is forthrightly spicy, and I probably don’t need to tell you to not splash any on your clothes — the color won’t come out.
Somewhat astonishingly, Italian sausage was substituted for Mexican chorizo from the outset, and remains. This was a brilliant move, perhaps done because the founders hoped to align their food with local tastes, or because the truck that delivered the sausage for lard bread to the bakery kept coming after the transition to Mexican food.
This sausage is found in chorizo burritos and chorizo breakfast tacos ($10 for two) — the latter also differing from San Antonio- or Austin-style by using corn rather than flour tortillas. “My customers want gluten-free,” one of the brothers explained, admitting small flour tortillas were locally unavailable when the restaurant started making breakfast tacos a decade ago.
I tried another of my favorite dishes — chiles relleno ($12), a pair of battered and fried fresh poblanos stuffed with a pleasantly rubbery cheese. Of course, depending on what salsa has been poured over them (green, red, mole, or chipotle), they can become quite spicy. They were every bit as good as I remember them. The burrito with mole has now become a burrito mojado, with the fruity tasting house-made mole poured over the hulking burrito rather than being incorporated in the interior.
So what else is new? While Tex Mex nachos have always been important menu items, suddenly the kitchen is turning out chilaquiles. These, in contrast to nachos, which dump a number of ingredients wet and dry over tortilla chips, chilaquiles takes those same chips and stir fries them in salsa, making some moist and leaving others crunchy, then adds eggs, chicken, or steak. The egg version makes a satisfying breakfast. And one of the advantages of Downtown Burritos is that it opens at 7 a.m. most days, making it possible to have breakfast as early as you want.