Arriving at Taqueria Tlaxcalli for an early Saturday dinner, we almost turned around and left. 6:00pm on a ho-hum strip in Parkchester, yet every table was taken, with families, with friends, with servicemen and women. Thankfully, a waitress noticed our hesitation and rushed to clear off a two-person high top, immediately adjacent to the open-air kitchen. It was the first sign of thoughtfulness in a meal that was full of them.
If you can't stand the heat—well, you know the rest. Here, though, the dining room and the kitchen are essentially one, so you have no choice but to sit back and watch. A tight, three-person team produced plate after plate of log-like burritos, chunky tortas, and guacamole made fresh and served in a molcajete. Proximity to the kitchen also means you can smile and nod at the person who just fed you, always a good feeling.
"Sweetie, that's spicy," our waitress said after each item we ordered. Thankfully, our milky, not-too-sweet horchata ($2.50) would prove an ideal antidote. First up, guacamole ($6), lacking the oiliness that sometimes comes from over-mixing. A mild bite followed a fiery one, which followed a medium to mild one, and back again—this stuff had depth. Each scoop produced a pleasant anxiety: would it be the one to send us to the water glass?
The bistec en chile guajillo ($8.95) had been pounded thin, like veal, then covered in a sauce made from guajillo peppers. Like Winona Ryder, the appeal of guajillos stems from being complex rather than from being hot. They have a tangy, slightly smoky taste with fruity and acidic notes—some people say they evoke green tea, but we didn't see it—that brought out the subtle mineral flavor in the meat.
Our server gently corrected our pronunciation of camarones al estilo tlaxcalli ($12.95): the first l is silent, the x is pronounced "sh," and the second and third ls are pronounced discretely, rather than combined into the Spanish "y" sound: "tash-cal-li." In Nahuatl, the Aztec language still spoken in Central Mexico, tlaxcalli refers to a cornmeal bread similar to tortilla. A bottomless basket arrived as accompaniment to our mains. We kept eating them, yet the amount never seemed to change. (Tlaxcalli, incidentally, probably lent its name to Tlaxcala, the Mexican state channeled here.)
Back to the camarones al estilo Tlaxcalli. Oh, man, was it spicy. The heat hit, spreading until the pricks turned into tingles. After a while, though, the sauce lost its intensity (or perhaps our mouths had gone numb), and a sticky mix of cilantro, garlic, and onions emerged, an excellently executed foil to the well-cooked shrimp. In idle moments since, our minds have returned to this food. And, as we casually calculate our distance to the 6 train, our taste buds start to water.
Listing the dessert choices, our server paused at coconut flan ($2.50). "Oh my God," she said. "It's my favorite." Then, in a gesture we thought belonged exclusively to Italian men in bad movies, she kissed her fingers and blew them open. Only a cruel, overly full soul could say no to that. Toasted coconut buttressed the fluffy flan, providing both a textural and structural counterpart, everything covered by a light caramel syrup.
As we paid, we watched the kitchen staff sharing a plate of fruit in a rare lull between crowds. Noticing us noticing them, the restaurant's owner immediately rushed over to share his slices of pitaya, or dragon fruit, the pinky-red skin offset by white, watermelon-esque flesh speckled with seeds. Our wedges were as sweet as the gesture.
On the front of the takeout menu, a quote translates, more or less, to "There are only two places where you can eat with pleasure: at Tlaxcalli and at your house." We can't agree. The food here is much, much better than the food at our house. Taqueria Tlaxcalli is best for: a date with a side of authenticity.
2103 Starling Avenue, The Bronx NY 10462 (map) 347-851-3085