Mexican food in New York City is a touchy subject. As a topic that doesn't elicit much love, particularly with Southwest/West Coast-ers, the continuing debate over where the best Mexican food can be found in the city (if such a thing even exists) is never-ending. The next time you hear someone preaching the glories of their region's Mexican food, don't try to force them back to where they came from - just send them to the Bronx's Carnitas El Atoradero.
The brainchild of Denisse Lina Chavez, Carnitas El Atoradero grew from El Atoradero, a bodega-type spot next door that dishes out hand-held treats such as huaraches and picaditas, which became so popular that it spurred the opening of the sit-down eatery. A fairly nondescript storefront common to most on this stretch of 149th Street, the inside boasts much more than what you would initially assume, however, the dishes churned out pack flavors and dishes one would not normally find in a typical Manhattan taqueria.
Knowing Spanish wouldn't hurt, as my extremely broken high-school level Spanish wasn’t working the first waiter, who immediately brought Lina over for translation. Regardless of your fluency, Lina makes you feel welcome with dish recommendations if you're unfamiliar to Mexican cuisine outside of the taco-burrito-enchilada box.
Weekends are prime – the specials are rolled out, including dishes such as chicken mole Poblano. Accompanied with a hefty portion of rice and beans, the chicken is drenched in mole that is thick, slightly smoky, studded with sesame seeds, and just a touch of chocolate sweetness that adds an extra dimension to the dish's flavors.
Carnitas is a must-order - Lina's speciality is made in a giant vat filled with thyme, tequila, lime juice, and a variety of other ingredients. Picaditas are the ideal carnitas vehicle, an oblong shape of rolled-out masa piled with tender, flavorful pork and cheese, drizzled with your choice of salsa. To wash it all down, we initially asked for horchata, then changed our minds to tart-and-sweet tamarindo after Lina tipped us that it was freshly made.
The neighborhood of Mott Haven may seem like a trek considering the vast array of Mexican food joints in the city, but let's face it - most Mexican spots do the same exact thing. Carnitas El Atoradero is not trying to bring you the best taco you've ever had - what Lina is trying to do is give you the experience of truly authentic Pueblan dishes, something her native people would make at home.
I'm dying to go back and try all the other dishes on the menu, particularly the albondigas (pork meatballs stuffed with quail egg in chipotle sauce). If you ever needed an excuse to head up to the Bronx, this is mine - but don't worry, I'll let it be yours, too.