Bronx Eats: Get to Know Memelas at Estrellita Produce, Mott Haven
Have you ever seen a memela before? The Oaxacan corn cakes are seldom—if ever—seen in New York. Even with the proliferation of Mexican restaurants throughout the five boroughs, where not too long ago a decent taco was a myth, we're still limited to a small set of antojitos. Which is a shame, because, as good people know, you can never (and we mean ever) have enough masa snacks.
Estrellita Produce, located just a few blocks from the 5/2 train stop at East 149th Street, serves the first memela ($4) that I've encountered in New York. The corn cake is like thicker tortilla, slapped on the comal and brushed with asiento (rendered pork lard.) As it cooks, its underside blistering, the cook pinches the sides, like with a picadita or sope, to form a crust.
At Estrellita, you'll find memelas made fresh to order. The cook reaches into her bucket of masa, carefully forms a ball, and then flattens it into a pancake with her wooden tortilla press. The owners hail from Puebla, the southern border of which touches the Mixtec Baja of Oaxaca, and so this memela may differ from the one you had down in Oaxaca. They appear to be smaller and thicker than usual, like larger sopes from the same state. You won't find refried beans with them, much less mole negro, and the option for chorizo and potatoes is not available here.
What you do get is a slathering of salsa (opt for the verde, which has a cheek-puckering tartness, and prickly heat), some shredded cabbage for crunch, crema and crumbly cheese, and meat. The toppings are added only after a second brush of asiento is applied.
Carnivorous options cover the usual suspects, like chorizo and tinga. But you should really get the carnitas—and only the carnitas. You'll find them hiding in one of a couple crock pots the cook keeps at her station, sealed in a plastic bag. They can't compete with the weekend only, city-best carnitas at El Atoradero, but they still blow every other Bronx contender that I've had out of the water. Occasional bites yield an underseasoned or slightly drier piece of meat, but for the most part these carnitas are tender, well-seasoned, and deliciously porcine. They're the product of a cook who takes her pork seriously, and plenty of fat put to good use.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.