New Mex Deli on 5th Avenue in Sunset Park is a bare-bones establishment. It's the kind of place you have passed a dozen times, while your head is cocked to the opposite side of the street to admire the magnificent Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Even if you knew they served some of the greatest quesadillas in the neighborhood, you might still overlook it. If you do enter the tiny room, there's a bin brimming with jalepeños, a handful of empty shelves, and a small refrigerator of sodas. Most of their business is take-out but sitting at one of the four folding tables is best, as to minimize the seconds in which the food moves from the griddle to your mouth.
A sign above the counter lists a half a dozen items: tostadas, tortas, pambazos, sopes, quesadillas, gorditas, and sincronizadas ($4), a sort of ham and cheese sandwich that comes in a toasted flour tortilla instead of white bread. Tacos are beside the point here—the antojitos are exemplary.
Antojitos, the corn-meal based street snacks of Mexico, are pressed and molded by hand into different shapes. They act as simple carriers for salsa, cheese, and sometimes stewed or grilled meats. At New Mex Deli they are made to order from a plastic bowl of fresh masa sitting next to the griddle. The success of a good antoijito is as much about the corn masa as it is the comal, the flat cooking surface. What was once a pre-Columbian cooking implement to toast chiles and cook tortillas, the technique has evolved into the modern-day flattops and griddles you find in restaurants across the country. A well-seasoned comal is as important to the antojito maker as an 800°F wood-fired oven to a pizzaiolo.
The quesadillas ($4) are large discs flopped over fillings. The gorditas ($3.50) are stuffed English-muffin-sized patties similar to a Venuzuelan arepa. On the comal they both transform into crispy edges, chewy centers, and crackling crusts that give way to moist, steaming interiors that taste of fresh corn. The gorditas are stuffed with cheese or stewed pig's skin, weighted with a foil-wrapped brick, and are left to steam and toast on the griddle. Some of the cheese oozes out when melted, hitting the griddle and caramelizing into crunchy shards. Topped with crema, crumbly aged cotija, cilantro and diced white onion, the cool toppings are a delicious contrast to the steaming corn cake. The red sauce, a puree of bright red chiles or the green, a tart tomatillo salsa, really sets it off. The quesadilla, folded over a spicy saute of zucchini blossoms, squash pieces and onion, is equally satisfying. The strands of quesillo and crema melt into the mess, making for a snack as individual as the maker's thumbprint.
New Mex Deli
5914 5th Avenue Brooklyn NY 11220 (map) 718-492-7492