I first tasted the cooking of Xochimilco's Rafael and Susana Mata at Baron Ambrosia's 2nd Annual Small Dinner, when they cooked a traditional preparation of coyote for the evening. Their passion for the business and love of cooking, which has been well documented, was evident during my first visit. And while it's not my favorite Mexican restaurant in the borough, you can eat very well there.
I've always enjoyed the atmosphere, a place of convivial warmth where the owner isn't afraid to spend his afternoon running deliveries. It's as much of a family affair as advertised, and you'll be hard pressed to pay a visit and not see Rafael Jr. or one of his parents managing the floor and floating in and out of the kitchen. As he has explained to me in the past, the printed menu offers (typically) fare derived from more standardized recipes; the specials board is where his mother calls the punches.
There have been occasions when I've found fault with the food, such as a lackluster pippian de pollo—a Day of the Dead feast mole defined by the pumpkin seeds that are used to thicken it—or the huatlicoche quesadilla ($4), both specials, which lacked dynamism. But, overall the food is plenty satisfying and, really, how many places in New York will the owner happily serve you a cabrito taco with eyeball?
Speaking of tacos, it's their carnitas ($2.50), offered in the shredded, pulled style that stands out most. Some of my friends have ranked it among the best in the city. I won't attempt to validate their claims, but I will echo their enthusiasm for this meat: the occasional char livens up bites, and citrus notes burst through with delicious clarity.
But it's in dishes like the mole de olla ($12, special) that the kitchen really shines. Turned red by the presence of fragrant guajillo and ancho chilies, the dish is analogous to a stew infused with the sweet, reassuring flavor of corn. The beef was, more or less, the standard stewed fare and, nothing to fight over. It took a backseat to the excellent broth, which should be slurped without trepidation.
Other specials are worthy additions to your meal, too. Namely, the tinga de pollo quesadilla ($6). Spicy, shredded chicken cooked with roasted tomatoes comes paired simply with chewy, slightly creamy Oaxacan cheese. This, too, is one of the better renditions of the dish I've had around town.
The homemade drinks aren't always so, as was the case with the unfortunately mix-made horchata. You'll have better luck with the straight from the kitchen atoles, and in particular the atole de amaranto ($2, special): the rings of amaranth gathered at the bottom a heap of sunken treasure.
Xochimilco Family Restaurant
653 Melrose Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10454 (map) 718-402-5400