Latin American restaurants enjoy boom

Co-owner and head chef of La Morada Natalia Mendez.

Co-owner and head chef of La Morada Natalia Mendez.

Mexican and Honduran immigrants bring varied cuisine to Mott Haven

For more than six years now, the Saavedra family has served provincial Mexican food in Mott Haven. And a lot of people know about it. At lunchtime on a workday, the family restaurant, La Morada – The Dwelling – is crowded and noisy.

It’s all about the mole.

The restaurant’s mole (pronounced MOL-eh) is highly complex – a thick chili sauce, requiring 20 or more ingredients, that takes as long as four hours to prepare.

In all, La Morada serves six different types of moles, specialties of the Saavedras’ southern home region of Oaxaca.

There’s a mild mole poblano, made of chocolate and dry peppers, a green mole verde, a lustrous mole negro, a pipián mole with pumpkin seeds, and the signature Mole Oaxaqueño, prepared with seven types of dry peppers. The most popular of all is mole blanco, a white creamy blend of pine nuts and cashews.

“The Mexican food here is very different,” says George Barraza, 55, a Mott Haven resident who works at a Sarabeth’s restaurant in Manhattan. Today, he’s a customer at La Morada. “The white mole is like an ecstasy of flavor,” Barraza says. “You’ll find yourself licking the plate like a kid licking candy.”

La Morada and its mole are rather chic right now: admiring newspaper reviews in Manhattan have attracted patrons from around the city. But the place is not unique. Walk south and north of the restaurant along Willis Avenue – all around Mott Haven, really, and further north into Melrose – and you will find a growing concentration of Mexican restaurants.

In part this reflects larger trends. According to U.S. Census figures, the Mexican population in Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris nearly doubled in the decade before 2010 to 9,423 – just over 11 percent of the neighborhood’s 82,225 residents. The Mexican population was growing at nearly nine times the rate of other Hispanics in the area, and of the population as a whole. Everything you see in the area suggests that this growth has continued.

This means more customers for La Morada – and more competition. Most people we interviewed in a survey of neighborhood Mexican restaurants insisted that each place has its unique dishes and that there are plenty of customers for all. Still, hints of polite rivalries surface everywhere.

At three-year-old Seis Vecinos, on 149th Street, for example, 22-year-old waiter Gustavo Canales, a native of Honduras, points out that you can order Honduran baleadas, Salvadoran pupusas and other Central American fare at his place in addition to Mexican tacos and tortas.

“Our restaurant really is the best in the Bronx,” he proclaims.

A 10-minute walk from La Morada takes you to the clanking pots and ’80s Mexican pop songs serenading guests at Mexicozina, on 149th Street, which is about to celebrate its third anniversary.

“We’re always busy, thank God,” says Amilza Orellana, 47, the co-owner, as she takes a phone order, gives change to a server and dispatches a delivery of guacamole.

“It makes sense to open up a Mexican restaurant around here,” says Orellana. “Mexicans are everywhere in this area and, you know, they like to go to places where they can eat their food.”

Mexicozina’s specialty is poblano dishes, based on the large, generally mild chili peppers. The dishes speak of home to Mexicans, but also are aimed at a broader clientele. The bilingual menu offers staples like tacos and enchiladas as well as some vegetarian dishes.

“Mexicans know us,” says Orellana. “Now our challenge is to entice the white and black people to try our food, to teach them that what we cook is delicious.”

“The food is delicious,” confirms Simon Dove, a first-time customer. He was lured to a table by his co-worker, Abiva Davidson, who serves as executive artistic director of Dancing in the Streets, a company that encourages the arts-and-culture scene in the South Bronx.

“This restaurant is important in the neighborhood,” says Davidson, “because it preserves the culture of the people in the neighborhood it serves.”

Handcrafted wooden fixtures decorate the restaurant’s shelves, and the indoor and outdoor sections evoke a comfortable Mexican familiarity.

“We want people to feel like they’re walking into a typical mother’s kitchen anywhere in Mexico,” says Orellana. “Mexican customers appreciate this, and los americanos just love it.”

It’s hard to beat home cooking. And for a Mexican restaurant to stand out in the neighborhood, one strategy is to stay close to home. The Xochimilco Family Restaurant, on Melrose Avenue, evokes a Mexico City borough of that name, a “garden of flowers” in the Nahuatl language. The area has served as an important food source throughout Mexican and Aztec history.

Xochimilco the restaurant has been part of the Melrose food scene for nine years. Its mole poblano, commonly made with tomatoes, chocolate, cinnamon, poblano peppers, raisins and plantains, served over chicken and rice, is a best seller. So is Jamaica, an herbal tea made with hibiscus and known in Mexico for its medicinal properties.

The family philosophy is to focus on the food more than the presentation, says Giovanni Mata, 26, who works at LaGuardia airport and also helps run the restaurant with his mother and father as well as three other members of his family.

Xochimilco attracts a variety of people, Mata says, including many patrons from the Mexican community. The family gives customers a place to come and feel welcomed. Certain residents are allowed to start tabs so that they can pay when they are able.

Giovanni’s mother, Susana Mata, is Xochimilco’s main cook. Striving for quality and authenticity, she refuses to alter the family cooking style to fit a more Americanized version of Mexican food.

As Giovanni describes the family’s approach: ”I make it to my taste, and if you like it, that’s up to you.”

That works for Jose Hernandez, 24, a bar-back who lives a couple of blocks away and eats often at the restaurant. The U.S.-born son of immigrants from Puebla says Xochimilco “is very authentic. It tastes just like Mom’s food.”

Over on the eastern edge of St. Mary’s Park, Puebla native Antonio Vilchis, 40, has run Mexicocina on Jackson Avenue for the last seven years. (Vilchis also owns Mexicozina, on 149th Street).

Mexicocina tries for a “hacienda-like feel” and serves hearty home-cooked food, says Vilchis. It features traditional Pueblan dishes like pollo adobo rojo and sesame mole – both heirloom recipes of the family. He says he is proudest of Desayuno Mexicocina – a hearty breakfast of carne asada, two fried eggs and chilaquiles (fried corn tortillas).

Yet Vilchis insists that hearty also be healthier. His cooks fry beans without lard and serve vegetarian rice. “I want everybody to eat here,” he says. “I want to cater to everybody.” He also works to keep prices down. “I want it to be affordable for people who eat here every day.”

It’s not all about the food. Back at La Morada, as Antonio Saavedra’s wife, Natalia, whips up her moles, he looks at the menu, overwhelmed with nostalgia.

He recalls how he and his wife, who used to work as a seamstress, left behind family and friends to cross the border into the United States for a better life.

“It all began with a dream; the dream to live in America, the dream to open my own restaurant,” he says.

Times were tough. The Saavedras had to struggle to provide shelter and education for their three children, Marco, Carolina and Yajaira. Owning a business seemed far-fetched, especially since banks were unwilling to provide loans without a guarantor and collateral.

“Every night before sleeping, I would dream that I was going to start my own restaurant business some day and never give up hope,” Antonio Saavedra says. That dream came true in the South Bronx – and not just for the Saavedras.

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By Muri Assunção, Harini Chakrapani, Gustavo Martinez, Tadia Toussaint, Veronika Bondarenko, Setrige Crawford, Emily Holzknecht, Adam Shrier, Kathryn Casteel, Zachary Ripple, Christine Brink, Daniela Castro, Jaja Grays and Christina Thornell