"But there are no eggs in mine," the chef-owner of La Morada tells us after we place an order for albondigas ($8), the Mexican meatballs sometimes stuffed with hard boiled egg. It was presented as if a disclaimer, a suggestion that these were merely ordinary meatballs. They are anything but.
The plate arrives, steam rising from the pool of ruddy broth. You bite gently into the coarsely ground meat flecked with herbs and taste something vinegary and sour. You bite again; there is no egg. Instead there's a green olive, its briny flavor penetrating the meat.*
(*These albondigas aren't always available, but the olive-infused broth they come with often is: sometimes served ladled over steak, other times with pork. We will take it any way it is served.)
You might wonder, as I did, whether her disclaimer was really just an act of theater. That her waving it off and saying, "there are no secrets hidden inside!" was a way of heightening our revelation? Because as you sop up the sauce with your tortilla, you will discover that this dish of meatballs is really a dish about olives. But, then, La Morada is full of secrets.
A peaceful and unassuming place, seemingly more open and airy than possible, La Morada is the kind of restaurant that makes you feel as if you never walked out your front door. It is, as we wrote back in the fall, what we believe to be the city's only truly Oaxacan restaurant. I've been eating here often lately, swayed by specials (all $8) like sopa de fido, chicken in a salsa verde made with yerbasanta, and costillas en adobo roja.
But what drew me to La Morada in the first place was the promise of moles ($10, with chicken or pork) seldom done well in our city. Mole Poblano may be more common in New York these days than a real deal bagel, but a proper plate of mole amarillo? Good luck. Sure, you can find a mole verde or negro here or there in New York's taqueria's. But as Robert Sietsema pointed out in his piece on cuisines missing from the city's culinary landscape, that's no guarantee that the mole comes with its integrity intact.
La Morada is here to buck that trend.
When the restaurant first opened three years ago, the chef told me, they optimistically offered a wider range of Oaxacan delicacies. The most intriguing of these dishes was mole blanco, a variation that is made with pine nuts. But few Oaxacans live in the neighborhood, and so demand for these dishes was low. Their mole blanco vanished like a whisper on the wind, and the other Oaxacan moles were relegated to secondary status. These days, their Oaxacan moles are cooked either once (verde and negro) or twice (Oaxaqueno) a week. But the dishes are usually prepared only after a saturation of requests from patrons—which means there's no set schedule.
After yet another unsuccessful attempt, the kitchen finally decided to reward my persistence. Not long after placing my order, I was told to come in the following day. I can say from experience that these are the kind of offers you don't turn down.
In contrast to many of its more complex cousins, mole verde emphasis fresh ingredients and clarity of flavor. Here it is made with cilantro, jalapeno, the green stem of the scallion ("cebolla rabo"), garlic, cumin, and pepita (a type of pumpkin seed).
For this first timer, it was a revelation: a bright, light, and prickly sauce that harkened to summer evenings. The garlic and scallion add a subtle pungency, the jalapeño a light and rolling heat, and the pepita a textured crunch. Sitting alone at my table, I pondered the possibility of lifting my plate up and drinking from it.
The negro was not quite as delicious, less a destination dish than a tasty consolation. Its flavor is more simplistic, a synthesis of chocolate and pasilla and negro chilies. Slightly bitter, tangy, and quite thick, it only hints at the restorative powers of chocolate. More emphasis is given to the dried chilies, which hum with subtle heat.
A plate of ribs in guasamole rekindled our spirits. Here, as at the nearby Mexicocina, it is prepared with guaje (a pod fruit) as in the Mixteca Baja of Oaxaca. The consistency was almost slippery, its flavor a flight through the earthiness of the guaje, the tartness of the broiled tomatillos, and the heat of the chilies. We left none on the plate.
All of the above are specials, but that doesn't mean you have to play the guessing game to eat well at La Morada.
Chilies rellenos ($10) are available daily, as both jalapeno and poblano peppers. These aren't chilies blitzed by the fryer into submission, but rather are treated with respect and allowed to speak in layers of flavor. Lightly battered, they are are stuffed with queso de tropico, a mildly sweet cheese with a smooth texture. But what made the dish special was the sauce of tomatoes, onion, and serrano peppers that they arrived in. Soupy and rich, it packed a punch of delightful sweetness and a subtle but racy heat.
The chilaquiles ($8-10), we have said, are quite good. But for antojitos, look no further than the sopes ($3). The masa boats announce their arrival with the sweet scent of corn, and toppings are piled on high. They are sopes that I would order over and over, to drink with beer on a summer afternoon when there is nothing else to do but sit around. Order a few, preferably with chorizo, whenever you need to be reminded how good masa can be.
Running a Oaxacan restaurant in New York, especially at such bargain bin prices, is an uphill proposition. So much of the cooking is based on hyper-local, sometimes wild ingredients; things like hoya de biliján, used to wrap tamales in parts of eastern Oaxaca, that are still mysteries in our city. But considering how long New Yorkers have been yearning for a legitimate Oaxacan restaurant, La Morada should be treasured for the boon to the Bronx that it is. Some support may, after all, encourage them to start pushing tclayudas and mole amarillo.
308 Willis Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10454 (map)