A Talented Guerreran Cook Climbs Down Off the Awning
Until it closed a year ago, De Guerreros Taqueria on Fifth Avenue was the best taco spot in Sunset Park. It was also the first place in town to serve food associated with Guerrero, a state west of Puebla dominated by four mountain ranges. Though it paradoxically stretches from the outskirts of Mexico City to the glitzy resort towns of Acapulco and Ixtapa, Guerrero remains largely rugged and rural, making it a favorite hideout of guerrillas and drug traffickers. It's Mexico's Wild West.
Thankfully, a new eatery associated with the state has appeared like a lone gunslinger near the corner of 39th Street and Fourth Avenue. Restaurante Taqueria Guerrero flaunts an awning in the colors of the Mexican flag, featuring a larger-than-life photo of the cook, who might be a modern-day Olmec god as she spoons toppings onto two massive quesadillas. While the cook is from Guerrero, her husband hails from Puebla, according to their son, who translated for us one sunny Sunday afternoon. The menu is rich in the sopes, quesadillas, and huaraches common to both states, but it pointedly ignores the mole poblano that flows like a chocolate river in most of the city's Pueblan taquerias. Instead, immigrants from Guerrero prefer a verdant green mole. It colors their weekend pozole, and creeps like liquid moss across their enchiladas.
At Restaurant Taqueria Guerrero, that mole is different every day, depending on the whim of the talented cook. One day, we had it with chilaquiles, a homely dish of tortilla fragments from the day before tossed with the mole, then dusted with dried cheese and spritzed with crema. A tasty weed called verdolaga (purslane in English, but also known as pigweed) enlivened that version. As with most of the dozen dishes we enjoyed that day, it demonstrated another of the cuisine's principles: Guerrerans like their food hotter than almost anyone else in Mexico. We mopped our brows as we wolfed down the chilaquiles ($8).
Another version of the mole a few days later swamped a special we'd read about in the window: "Puerco con mole verde" proved to be several large chunks of pork in an expansive lake of sauce. This time, the mole was darker green and thickened with tons of pipian—ground-up pumpkin seeds. The seeds made it taste deeply of the earth, and only slightly Halloweeny. Alongside the entrée came a large plate of polished white rice and a cup of very good black beans. Still, there was no mistaking the fact that, in quantity and flavor, the mole was the headliner.
The favorite meat of Guerrero is not pork but beef, and the menu features steak done several ways, glorying in the easy access to blood-dripping flesh that our country provides. You'd be missing beef's best incaranation, however, if you didn't grab cecina. Invented by the Spaniards and carried to Mexico in the pockets of conquistadores, cecina is a leathery salted beef that's sun-dried in the clear mountain air. Most places in Mexico, cecina is stewed into oblivion, making it taste like beef that's gone slightly funky. At Restaurante Taqueria Guerrero, the jerky is merely minced and sautéed, leaving it chewy and buttery. You can consume it in all the usual antojitos, including tacos ($2.50) and—favorite of the Red Hook ballfields—huaraches ($6) and quesadillas ($3.50). As featured on the restaurant's awning, the latter is particularly good, with the masa wrapper rendered thinner and more delicate than most.
The 180-mile-long Pacific coast of Guerrero promises seafood, and seafood you shall have. Shrimp receive particularly reverent treatment. Always available, caldo de camarones ($12) is a helmet-size bowl of bright red soup laced with dried chilies and eight or so carefully pared crustaceans, their tails sticking out of the broth like the legs of synchronized swimmers in a Busby Berkeley musical. The taste is spicy, but not overly so, and onions and celery give the rich soup a Creole tinge. Don't miss the whole fish preparations, either. One evening, on the way to the new bowling-alley-cum-bar called Gutter in Williamsburg, my fish-admiring crew and I found that the cook had no sea bass or porgy on hand, so she'd come up with a magnificent pink snapper. She stewed it whole in—you guessed it—green mole, and the sea-green sauce developed a powerful oceanic flavor.
"There's no better fish in Brooklyn," my designated helper, Scooter, observed, wiping his fingers daintily on a napkin and taking a spoonful of the powerful chipotle sauce provided on the table between each snowy bite.
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