"This is some of the best Mexican food I've ever had," former Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema told me. It was late December and we were sipping spoonfuls of consommé de chivo and munching on carnitas at Mott Haven's new Carnitas El Atoradero.
Until recently, the only way to enjoy owner Denisse Lina Chavez's cooking was to eat your picadata while leaning against the narrow store's shelves. Now she has opened up a full restaurant in the former pint-sized Mexicocina space next door. At first glance, the restaurant reads like an basic taqueria, with a menu that mostly lists antojitos and seating for about ten. But take a second look and you'll see that Carnitas El Atoradero is where you go to order the food you never get at your local taqueria. This is the home-style cooking, way beyond the taco, that New York needs.
Consider the Mole Poblano (all mains are $9 with rice and beans), the pride of Puebla, which takes Lina four days and dozens of ingredients to make, which is why you can only find it on Sundays. Lina's chocolate-light version is a thick, gleaming sauce that's ladled over chicken garnished with golden sesame seeds. It has the oily sheen of a masterfully cooked curry. The flavor is more earthy than smoky, with a quiet but balanced heat and a sweetness that is kept in check.
But however good, Lina's mole poblano is not the reason to come to Carnitas El Atoradero. Your raison d'etre on Sunday could be the Albondigas, which are served in a soupy chipotle sauce and stuffed with quail egg that stays miraculously tender. Beautifully browned, flecked with herbs, and dripping with chipotle, these are meatballs of the porkiest order, a far cry from the sad, grey, underseasoned and overcooked meat that show up around town.
Then again, you might be here for Saturday's Costillas en Salsa Verde, pork ribs in a seed-strewn sauce that's miles ahead of the green muck many other Mexican restaurants serve. It's made simply, with charred garlic, serrano and arbol chilies, yerbasanta, and tomatillos cooked in abundance like they're going out of style. The ribs are succulent, but it's the bright, invigorating sauce with its creeping heat, puckering tartness, and smoky and earthy notes that take center stage. It's good enough to drink out of a cup, as I caught my friend doing.
In her heart, Lina, who grew up in rural Puebla, is a home cook's cook, something you see when tasting her Patitas de Puerco en Vinagre, baby pig's feet cooked in vinegar. The broth, one of the best I've ever had, is a tantalizing medley of pork, vinegar, sweet onions, and fresh epazote. Packed with gelatin, it's deeply rich and playfully acidic. Now you know why your grandmother tossed trotters in her pot of red sauce.
You will want to try the Saturday special of Guasmole Verde, the inimitable sauce of guaje seeds and tomatillo that is a crossover hit found in Puebla and Oaxaca. Loaded with cilantro and heavy on the chicken stock, it's bright, fruity, and savory. If you're craving something more piquant, consider the Pollo en Adobo Rojo, which tastes like the scorched desert, the earthiness of the guajillo peppers carrying the sauce like a backbeat, even if it could use a little more acid. Those who favor soup should get their hands on the Caldo de Camaron, made funky and briny with dried shrimp, roasted shrimp shells, and mussels.
While all these dishes are only available on the weekend, you'll find other specials, like pipian verde, every day of the week. You should safely expect to find certain dishes on particular days.
Inquire about what's available at the front counter, and ask Lina if there's anything she's working on. She's still tinkering with some of the dishes she wants to debut, including a torta de camarones ("I need to find the right dried shrimp") and a torta de papas made with egg and potato. Get lucky and you'll step through the looking glass into a whole world of Pueblan home cooking not found in New York.
"I want to do something new," Lina told me. "Every restaurant does the same thing. There is plenty, plenty, plenty of food in Mexico."
That sentiment inspired her vegetarian flautas (3 for $6), which Max described as "the only good flautas I've ever had." Instead of stuffing them with cheese, chicken, or beef—"everything is the same, there's this with meat, that with meat"—she elects to use potatoes. After frying, the tortillas are sprinkled with salty cheese and drizzled with crema. Tightly rolled, they are perfectly greaseless, with a shatter-crisp snap. The cheese adds a jolt of saltiness to the potato's light and pillowy texture. These flautas, perhaps most of all, capture the uniqueness of what El Atoradero is bringing to New York's restaurant scene.
If you are so inclined, there are also the typical antojitos, which run the gamut from Huaraches ($5) made properly with beans stuffed inside to the less common Picaditas ($2.75-$4.75), large masa boats, and Chalupas (3 for $6), fried tortillas with salsa and meat. There are also pupusas($2.25), made by a Guatemalan cook, in a nod to the burgeoning local Central American community nearby.
The tortillas are made fresh to order and cooked on the comal long enough to char and develop that wonderful toasted corn flavor. And those best-in-town carnitas we just can't shut up about? They're available everyday now, kept in a smaller version of the cauldron still at work next door. Football fans take note: her package deal for three pounds of carnitas with thirty tortillas has Superbowl written all over it.
Whatever you do, don't forget to get your share of beans. Cooked with nothing more than fried onions and dried chilies, the dried beans ("Never canned!") are slowly simmered in their own soaking liquid. What distinguishes them is time. They are not tossed in the blender prematurely to mimic the texture that proper, patient cooking creates. The inky broth is given time to thicken naturally, which makes for a side dish, aided only by a sprinkle of salty cheese, that's nothing less than engaging.
There was some talk last year of New York's ascension as a taco town, which we largely dismissed as bluster. Lina and Carnitas El Atoradero are after something different: not the street food that has unfairly come to define Mexican cuisine in New York, but the rich framework of cooking that lives on in Mexican homes. Though unlike the city's (few) other inventive Mexican restaurants, such as Case Enrique, Gran Electrica, and Cocina Economica, Carnitas El Atoradero is a hole in the wall dive, and priced to match. If you needed any more incentive to try this food, there you have it.
It's hard to quantify the "best" restaurants of any cuisine, but in New York's Mexican food landscape, Carnitas El Atoradero is up there. It moves well beyond the stale, cookie-cutter formula of the taqueria, serving a more unique and varied representation of Puebla's culinary traditions than any other restaurant we've come across in New York.