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Mensday Wednesday: Mexicocina

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I do not think it would cause a great fuss to claim that, of the five boroughs in New York City, the Bronx has long been the least fashionable dining-wise. It goes without saying that Manhattan reigns supreme; Brooklyn is Manhattan’s bearded, horn-rimmed, and grittier cousin who sometimes even upstages its more renowned relation; Queens is home to more languages spoken than any other community on earth and therefore has the cuisine to match; and even Staten Island has some pizzerias, bakeries, and old-school fine dining establishments of note. However, the Bronx has long languished in dining purgatory (though Arthur Avenue remains a notable exception–I’m looking at you Dominicks).

Yet there is one star in the constellation of cultural zeitgeist that the Bronx is king: it is the undisputed birth-place of hip hop. Whether rapping, deejaying, break dancing, or writing graffiti each and every one had their genesis in the Boogie Down Bronx. The immortal member of the Bronx hip hop scene, KRS-One, said it best with a musical response to an insult directed to his crew by a group of Queens’ MC’s:

“Manhattan keeps on makin it, Brooklyn keeps on takin it,

Bronx keeps on creatin it, Queens keeps on fakin it!”

Released on the eve of my two-month birthday, KRS-One’s ‘The Bridge is Over’, laid down the inter-borough hip-hop heirarchy in a four-line couplet that said more in twenty words than many literary combatants have said in five thousand word essays. The outcome of this ‘dis’ track: MC Shan and the Juice Crew out of Queensbridge faded into obscurity while KRS-One remains one of the titans of the genre.

Now this all doesn’t have much to do with Bronx cuisine, specifically the eating spots found in the much maligned South Bronx. But I felt obliged to set the stage and give the northern-most borough it’s proper due before I delved into my report on one of the more remarkable restaurants I’ve been to in my life. Long poised as a break out candidate for the type of rapid gentrification that has seen the property values of neighborhoods like Soho, the Lower East Side, and Williamsburg soar over the last few decades, the South Bronx, despite it’s proximity to myriad subway lines and low costs, that predicted explosive period of change hasn’t quite happened. *On a personal note I’d like to point out that gentrification has its detractors and its proponents, let’s just say that both sides have their merits though one undisputed constant in this world is change.

Besides artists’ studios, I’d posit that coffee shops are probably the first harbinger of a neighborhood’s evolution. What you wouldn’t expect as a herald of such change is the existence of two small Mexican restaurants of such quality as to make Rick Bayless swoon. The places I am referring to are the two locations of Mexicocina owned by one of the most humble and gracious proprietors you will come across, Antonio from Puebla in central Mexico (who is such an accomplished polyglot it would make my high school Spanish teacher blush). We went to Jackson Avenue branch and Antonio the owner, loving that a large crew made this trek to his South Bronx outpost blessed us with a couple rounds of tequila before we got down and dirty. His stated aim is to produce “genuine, home-style cooking, like your grandmother would make.” And boy does he succeed.

And to think that the whole reason we went up there in the first place was for the promise of albondigas–big heaping, spiced meatballs that we’d heard were the specialty of the house. They were sold out for the evening and we were hugely disappointed, but that disappointment was rapidly forgotten as our dishes began to arrive.

Two delicious pork dishes: chuletas en salsa verde – thin-cut, bone-in pork chops braised in a tomatillo salsa that struck the perfect balance between sweetness and acidity. And costillas en salsa de chipotle – fatty pork ribs swathed in a smoky tomato sauce. It was just spicy and smoky enough to set the glands salivating, but without being overpowering.

Probably the best thing I tasted that evening was a mocajete de poblano. Sliced poblano peppers, onions, and corn cooked in a cream sauce rich with the essence of poblano were set in the center of the mocajete (which looks like a large, coarse, stone mortar). Lining the edges of the vessel were alternatively grilled pieces of poblano, grilled chicken, grilled spring onions, and rectangular slabs of grilled cheese–charcoaled dark on the outside and soft and melting once bit into. This was all to be eaten with fresh corn tortillas. It was a preparation I had never seen before and one that I will not soon forget.

Of the many tortas (overstuffed mexican sandwiches) and tacos we ordered the standouts in my opinion were the ridiculously tasty torta de pollo milenasa: the sandwich would have been great if the chicken was nothing remarkable, but this was some of the best schnitzel, milenasa, chicken fried steak, or whatever you want to call it–inside or outside of a sandwich–I’ve ever had; moist, highly flavorful, and delectably crispy.  Of the tacos my favorite was the bistec (I know I’m boring)–made special by a small amount of the aforementioned poblano cream mingled with the savory pieces of steak.

My description of the food is in danger of turning into a list, but to wrap it up (and gloss over the excellent tres leche cake for dessert and the black beans suffused with deeply satisfying and subtly chocolaty hint of mole) one touch that has to be highlighted and that was out of this world awesome–it wouldn’t be out of place at a de rigueur downtown Manhattan spot–was the addition of a grilled serrano chili and a grilled spring onion as adornment to each plate. They were perfect accompaniments: when you wanted a little more spice you nibbled on the chili pepper, when you wanted a little sweet you nibbled on the spring onion.  Just perfect.

Did I mention that the whole meal was $30 a person? Not only did we have enough rounds of beer and tequila for me not to remember the final number, but we also had large quantity of high quality leftovers. I started this post by being somewhat dismissive of the Bronx dining scene, while I stand by my statement that it is not up there with the other boroughs (yet) there is a really cool public access television show that begs to differ, The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia (this link is for his YouTube channel), I strongly urge you to check it out–it is some of the coolest non-primetime TV around.

503 Jackson Avenue, Bronx, NY (347) 498-1339

Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of  Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.”

Follow Mensday Wednesdays on Twitter @mensdae.

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