I can't say that I've ever seen Zaragoza during the day. It must be a decent place for a quick cafe con leche, a shop to duck into for a can of chipotle peppers, where the sun shines into the well-swept corners. But I wouldn't know. Zaragoza, a Mexican bodega in the East Village, expresses itself best at night. The florescent lights of the bodega draw in all sorts of night owls: couples making their way back to the L train, club kids pouring out of the gay bar across the street, DJs with their gear. You can always find on an old drunk guy slumped over his tallboy in the corner and a cluster of folks dribbling salsa onto the sidewalk out front. When you're counting on the alcohol-absorption powers of tacos, it's the last stop before you turn in.
The bodega is packed to the gills with jars of sliced catus paddles, Mexican chocolates, and packages of tortillas. At ten years old, it remains a scruffy stalwart serving credible Mexican food in a neighborhood in dire need of it. These days, you no longer have to stumble to the back to order; a bilingual guy runs out to the street with a pen and a proper order pad to ask you what kind of tacos you want. Too much shredded lettuce and mealy tomatoes have crept onto the plates—and the tortas, served on cottony white rolls, are truly dismal—but there is just nowhere else to get carnitas, this passable, this late.
There is no actual kitchen inside this family-run shop. The food is cooked up out at a relative's restaurant in Southeast Brooklyn, ferried in and held warm and covered in metal pans in the center of the counter. Tacos ($3), tortas ($6), tostadas ($3.50), and tamales ($3) are offered. With no plancha to crisp them on, the diced meats, like chunks of veal tenera or pieces of dry chicken meat, fall very short. They take a spin in the microwave. So do the tortillas, which manage to stay soft and moist when you eat them right away.
The stewed meats, braised, shredded, and held in their own juices, do well in this setting. The roster changes daily, but can include a savory braised pork butt with Mexican oregano, spicy chicken tinga swimming in orange oil, and a wonderful goat stew. Also of note is the ground beef—wet crumbles of cumin-scented meat, which, when eaten out of a hard-shell topped with lots of iceberg, tastes just like Mom's.
The airbrushed mural painted on the back wall is a paean to the warriors of the Mayan era; a glowing jukebox is a more contemporary salute. The fridge stocked with a nice selection of beer has been emptied of late while they renew their liquor license. But you're at Zaragoza to end the night, not keep it going, right?