The owner of the El Atoradero and Hermes bodegas on East 149th Street, Lina is an advocate for the role of terroir in cooking; for how the desert winds and the burnt soil of Mexico impart particular flavors that cannot be captured elsewhere. She has no qualms disparaging the Peruvian-grown jalapenos found en masse in America, decreeing them to be flavorless and insufficiently piquant, and insists on the absolute necessity of using Mexican-grown oregano over the more sour European variety. As she cooked corn boats in her crowded store, we talked about the rise of urban gardening in the South Bronx, in neighborhoods that have long been saturated with poor produce and fast food, and about her own wishes to grow the produce for her weekend cooking at El Atoradero.
A successful local businesswoman (she owns other nearby properties, including the storefront of the recently heralded Mexococina) Lina shrewdly opens her arms to the longer established Central American population. But this comes naturally to her: they are her pasaeno, and she believes in doing all that she can to help lift her people up. "People come to me and ask me for help. So I say, 'okay.' My son, he says, 'Mom, why are you always giving people money?' Because sometimes they ask me for money and I help them and then I don't hear from them again. They disappear. But I forgive. Like the people next door, they're just poor people. You can't hold it against them."
The shelves of her store are stocked with the bodega products you might imagine, and then some: preserved and frozen jocotes, tamarind pods, pumpkin seeds of various sorts, horchata mixes, pickled loroco, and stone mortar and pestles. She carries a number of Mexican medicinals—corn hair, several barks, and herbs—alongside spices and dried shrimp and anchovies. Look for those branded with the El Atoradero name, including a high quality (and recently restocked) Mexican oregano she imports herself.
Lina heads south to Mexico every three months to replenish supplies of certain key products. Regulations on her import license prevent her from bringing in everything she'd like: the need for a paper trail is a difficult proposition when you're buying your dried chilies at the street market. But what chilies she does have will put to shame the ancient stock you find on other store shelves. Her chipotles are as soft and velvety as dried dates, and aromatic anchos smell like the baking sun.
But what is undoubtedly the most unique product at El Atoradero are the dried avocado leaves ($3.50), which Lina says are used in soups and, in conjunction with banana leaves, barbacoa. Picked from trees on her sister's farm in Puebla, they have a minty aroma, and are probably the only opportunity you'll have to say "farm-to-bodega" in the South Bronx. (I doubt, for that matter, you can find such a fresh specimen elsewhere in New York.)
There are reasons to eat, too. On the weekends (from opening until the early afternon), the store transforms into a gathering of shuffling, excited eaters as Lina and her two cooks break out the griddle. Whole slabs of skin-on pork belly are chopped in the open, cut into cubes and made into carnitas. There are huaraches, sopes, picaditas, quesadillas, and surprisingly good pupusas; grilled nopales, too, if you can get a word in edgewise. You can have chicken, cecina, or chorizo from a local butcher, but it's the acclaimed carnitas—and the carnitas—alone you should be after.
Prepared in the whole hog style (like at Queens' Tortas Neza), and cooked in a deep cauldron with bay leaves, thyme, lime juice, and tequila, they're some of the best in the city. And the chunks of fat? They're soft with a surprisingly pleasant texture, ripe to convert even the most squeamish.
Several varieties of salsa are available, including the standard verde, roja, tomatillo, and an unblended, feistier variety they call molcajete (after the stone mortrar and pestle it is made in). Each is excellent, but I found the black to be the most exciting: its fierce heat a proper companion to the carnitas rich flavor. Picaditas ($3) and huaraches ($2)—cooked with the bean paste between the dough—are my recommended vessels for your meal. Ask for a picadita with the works and a smear of that unblended salsa with beans, shredded lettuce, carnitas, and cheese. If you're wary of heat, the tomatillo is an excellent second option.
For now the only way to experience Lina's cooking, aside from hiring her to cater your event, is on the weekends at El Atoradero. But come the spring of 2013, she'll be opening a full-service restaurant at a nearby location. Until then, we'll all have to make do with eating the killer carnitas while standing up.
800 East 149th Street, The Bronx, NY 10455 (map) 718-292-7949