Cholulita Sells Smut Under the J Tracks

Corn smut, that is. A Bed-Stuy bodega's authentic Pueblan food.

Many of our best Mexican restaurants morphed out of bodegas. There on the shelves sat ripe avocados, cactus paddles, deep-red chilies, sacks of masa, rubbery Oaxacan cheeses, fragrant papalo leaves, piles of pinto beans, and freshly made white-corn tortillas—why not turn them into a full-blown Mexican menu?

And that's what the bodegas did, in locations as far-flung as Hell's Kitchen, Sunset Park, West Farms, Stapleton, and Corona. One of the newest to vault the fence from grocery to café is Cholulita on Brooklyn's Broadway, right on the border of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick. The name refers to Cholula, a town on the outskirts of the city of Puebla that was a center of Toltec civilization prior to the arrival of Cortés, and has a great pyramid to prove it.

On my first visit to Cholulita last summer, a mere four glass-topped tables sat at the rear of the store, undetectable from the street. By my most recent visit, an adjoining property had been annexed and an additional 10 tables added in a room strung with piñatas. Actual groceries are now confined to a single set of shelves in the back, and the café has evolved into one of the best inexpensive Mexicans in the borough.

A little craving for you: Quesadilla with green sauce
Liz Barclay
A little craving for you: Quesadilla with green sauce

One of the beauties of these bodega-cafés is the unreconstructed nature of the cooking, much of which comes from the arid and mountainous state of Puebla, and the adjoining state of Guerrero. Sure the tacos are good, but, really, tacos are just a fast-food convenience compared to the antojitos ("little cravings") produced from freshly made masa. A case in point is the quesadilla—emphatically not the bar snack of flour tortillas leaking melted Velveeta. The version at Cholulita features masa dough hand-patted into a thick round, griddle-cooked and folded like a big taco over a variety of ingredients. While the restaurant's roster of taco fillings is relentlessly meaty, quesadillas ($4), reflecting their proletarian origins, are often stuffed with vegetarian ingredients, including mushrooms, white cheese, refried beans, squash blossoms, and the corn smut called huitlacoche, which has the appearance and texture of squid squirming in its own ink.

The same creamy masa is used to make sandal-shaped huaraches and the much-smaller round sopes, which come three to a plate topped with so much cheese, beans, crema, and greenery, they're impossible to eat without spilling on your pants. Other vegetarian tuck-ins include the supremely wonderful chilaquiles con huevos ($7), a vast heap of thick, house-fried tortilla chips hosed with green sauce. A pair of fried eggs lurk beneath their blanket of toppings like Siamese twins, just waiting to squirt their yolks onto your shirt.

The round Pueblan sandwiches called cemitas ($5) stand side by side with torpedo-shaped Mexican tortas, which cost one dollar less. I'd advise getting the cemitas despite the greater expense because of the odd combo of ingredients that bulge out of the overstuffed round roll: fresh avocado, refried beans, mayo, onions, lettuce, tomato, string cheese, chipotle peppers, and papalo leaves, which add a delightfully acrid taste something like creosote. As far as fillings go, carne enchilada proved to be my fave—fibrous pork stewed in a fiery red mole, giving your cemita a double hotness.

All the food prep is done behind the counter, which you see on your left as you enter the store. Given the size of the menu, it's something of an urban miracle. Sometimes there's no cook to be seen, and the clerk has to call her down from a nearby apartment to fill your order—which she does with admirable alacrity. If you're into dining voluminously rather than snacking, go directly to the Platillos, which include such Mexican commonplaces as steak with fresh cactus paddles; Milan-style breaded beef cutlets; shrimp wallowing in mild red sauce (a dish that traces its ancestry back to Spain); and an entire fried porgy served with salad, tortillas, rice, and beans—a wonderful deal at $10.

But search around the edges of the menu and you'll find dishes that more aptly characterize the unique cuisine of Puebla, where ancient Indian languages are spoken and many of the recipes are thousands of years old. These include mole de olla (not a mole as we know it, but a beef soup crammed with vegetables), chiles rellenos (fat green chilies crammed with Oaxacan cheese), and picaditas, a poor person's lunch of fried masa minimally topped with green or red salsa and grated dry cheese. It has the flavor of desert and mountains, and will transport you to a Toltec pyramid thousands of miles away—at least until the J train grumbles by overhead.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

 
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