Bronx, New York
Address and phone:
800 E 149th St (718-292-7949)
Another year gone; yet another struggle to conjure the memories of meals past. In 2014, I ate my way through Portland, OR (shout out to the dirty fries at Lardo!), landed an improbable table at Barcelona's Tickets, and witnessed the theatrics of Grant Achatz's Alinea. Each experience, in its own right, fundamentally affected how I consider restaurants. There are always chefs and places that drive change, and those are integral for doing what we propose to do at First We Feast: Understand how culture and food interact in a holistic way.
Restaurants are no different. Last December, when thinking about memorable meals, I considered place and time. I thought about marking occasion. And now, tasked with the same assignment again, those ideas have resurfaced. The most remarkable evenings don't require the "best" food, the "hottest" chef, or the "sleekest" decor. Instead, these nights stand out through a confluence of company and flavor—food serving not as main event, but as conduit for conversation, discovery, and recollection. Alinea and Tickets, no doubt, do this on otherworldly levels. Closer to my home, Carnitas El Atoradero in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, does too.
I ate there, with my brother and his now fiancé, on a frigid, wet October Saturday. We had pig's feet drenched in chili verde; carnitas tacos; and brilliant chili rellenos. Denisse Lina Chavez's home-style cooking transports mind, body, and soul. No, one isn't magically whisked from the South Bronx to Puebla. Instead, diners are reminded that New York City offers so much more than Heatmaps and belt-notching.
The Bronx, one could say, emerged in 2014. Bourdain went. And if that's not an indicator now, what is? Still, Carnitas El Atoradero would be what it is wherever it was situated. There is a mission: Cook and celebrate the food from home. There is no pomp and circumstance. Dishes do all the talking, but they are not divorced from the restaurant's matriarch. Chavez commands her humble dining room with delightful ease. She spotted us immediately as pilgrims to her alter, swiftly offering explanation of Saturday specials and samples of the most authentic dishes (those that may confuse folks whose grasp of Mexican cuisine begins and ends wrapped in a tortilla). She is at once chef, host, and historian.
Food writers will tell you the mole is a must have. Don't listen. Not because the mole is bad (in fact, the slow-cooked, rich sauce is excellent), but because everything else is equally delicious. If you go, eat what you like.
When my brother and I left, I shared with him a superlative (I am famous for these): "That was the best place I've been to in New York in a decade." We didn't discover El Atoradero. The small storefront has been covered by near enough everyone (including, this year, the New York Times). Nor did we traipse up there under the auspice of journalism. We went to do something we now so rarely do, just have lunch together.—Nick Schonberger