Mexico Invades Italy in the Bronx's Belmont
On a food tour of Belmont with some first-time visitors, I was frustrated to learn that the best Italian restaurant in the 'hood, Roberto's, wasn't open on Saturday afternoons. As we traipsed miserably around the corner from Crescent Avenue to the first block of Arthur Avenue, Dewey cried out, "Hey, let's eat Mexican!", pointing to La Estrellita III.
Now, if I were to make a list of neighborhoods least likely to harbor a great Mexican restaurant, the Bronx's Belmont would be near the top. Once the close-knit refuge of Southern Italian immigrants, Arthur Avenue and the surrounding streets now constitute a maze of cheesemongers, trattorias, seafood suppliers, Italian grocers, and butchers with furry bunnies and tongue-dangling goats hanging in the windows, many run by Albanians, but still patronized by the Apulians, Calabrians, and Sicilians who have abandoned the neighborhood and moved to the burbs.
Yet there in the midst of the market hurly-burly sits Estrellita Poblana III ("Little Star of Puebla"), which might be the city's most sophisticated purveyor of southern Mexican food. While the typical institution in this dining category is a makeshift taqueria, and though many upscale restaurants make a half-hearted stab at southern cooking, Estrellita enthusiastically offers the real thing via a menu of regional standards, informed waitresses with good English skills, and non-wobbly tables. More important, the food achieves a high level of deliciousness. Part of a three-restaurant Bronx chain, La Estrellita III has been open since 1999.
Picking up the well-laminated menu, we zeroed in on the Platillos Tradicionales. Despite the diminutive status conferred by "platillos," the entrées were big enough to feed an army. The first items listed—chicken mole poblano and chiles rellenos—represent two of the cuisine's greatest achievements. From Corona to Sunset Park, I've tasted dozens of mole poblanos, and few match the one served at La Estrellita, which immerses a generous half-chicken ($9.95) in luxuriant quantities of midnight-brown sauce, served with rice, tortillas, and refried black beans. As the story goes, the dish was hastily invented one day in the 17th century by nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa for an archbishop visiting from Spain, but the ingredients and complexity of the recipe suggest an earlier Aztec origin.
At Estrellita that afternoon, the thick mole flung off nut and cinnamon notes, as multiple chilies—both dried and fresh—went to work on my tongue. And further flavors continued to unfold as the bolus eased down my esophagus. In the middle, like the mother superior herself, sat the radiant taste of chocolate, with barely a trace of sweetness.
The vegetarian chiles rellenos ($8.95) were just as well prepared—glowingly fresh poblano chilies, like a pair of green mittens buried in yellow snow. Stuffed with queso fresco, the peppers came lubricated with a light tomato sauce. The freshness of the chilies was no fluke, and the preference of the cooks for fresh rather than canned ingredients was demonstrated again and again. Typical of this approach was queso fundido con rajas, a Mexican fondue brought to the table sizzling in cast-iron. It came draped with fresh chilies—green, red, and yellow—sautéed only slightly in the exuded cheese grease, leaving them crunchy and sweet. We eagerly scooped the queso fundido with white-corn tortillas, which came in a rustic basket that had the restaurant's name embroidered on the top. Classy, huh?
Sure, you can get all the usual antojitos, like tacos, tostadas, sopes, huaraches, and quesadillas, offered with an expanded roster of fillings that include cabeza (gooey headcheese) and lengua (tongue as supple as Mick Jagger's), in addition to the usual carnitas, bifstek, and pollo. Skip the shrimp taco, which is way too blah to merit the $3.50 price tag. In fact, skip anything made with shrimp, especially camarones a la diabla (deviled shrimp, $11.95). Lucifer himself was clearly at work here, because he doused the crustaceans with something that tasted like gringo barbecue sauce.
You can get splendid tortas, too, the Mexican answer to the Italian-American hero. But why not check out the beloved sandwiches of Puebla? Cemitas arrive on round seeded rolls that traditionally contain cactus pulp. Inside, you'll find layers of string cheese, avocado, onion, fragrant papalo leaves, refried beans, mayonnaise, and fiery smoked chilies. There's a broad choice of main ingredients, but I'd pick cecina, the dried salt-cured beef craved by mountain-dwelling southern Mexicans. Or, if you really wish you'd eaten at Roberto's, there's milaneza—a breaded beef cutlet inspired by the veal cutlets of Milan, Italy.
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