Zarela Martinez is a small lady with the vibrancy of a hummingbird. Twirling about on staggeringly high heels, she has taken television viewers on tours of her native Mexico. Now she unveils the delights of Veracruz, one of the original points of entry, in her new restaurant, Danzón. In so doing, she offers a tempting peek at another side of Mexican food, an African one.
The African presence is very much a part of the history of Mexico. According to Patrick J. Carroll in Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: “Spaniards brought African slaves with them along every step of the way in their colonization of Latin America. African slaves aided in the taking of the Caribbean, and when disease depopulated the islands and mainland coastal areas, Africans took their place as the backbone of the basin’s colonial labor force. . . . They worked in the obrajes, or small sweatshop factories, that sprang up. They hawked wares in the streets, cut and sold firewood, tended gardens and livestock, and of course kept house and waited on their masters.” Yet until recently, the debt the culture of Mexico owes the Motherland often went unmentioned. And although Carroll neglects to mention it specifically, cooking accounts for a large part of that debt.
A sliver of a spot on a side street in Curry Hill, Danzón is marked by a giant high heel in the window. Sun-splashed hues in the lively downstairs bar bring the tropics north, invoking a mariachi-Mexican mood belied by fare that doesn’t include a single burrito or enchilada. On my first visit, as my guest and I sat sipping margaritas, a small plate arrived with a ramekin of peanut sauce surrounded by fried plantains that tasted more like the Caribbean. The darkly roasted slurry of peanuts and chiles had just enough heat and crunch to get me past my usual distaste for nut sauces. It turns out that plantain chips (“mariquitas”) and peanuts are both favorites of the Afro-Mexican community. All is not African at Danzón, however, so guacamole ($9) was a must, if only for comparison. It was up there with the best—smoothly habit-forming with just enough heat. On a second visit, the coctel de aguacate ($9), prepared ceviche-like from the same ingredients, lacked the dip’s unctuous harmonies. But the queso fundido ($9), melted Manchego cheese, densely chewy longaniza sausage, and the flavorful smoke of Veracruz’s chipotle-like morita chiles, made for a tasty trio. The pollo en mora ($11), a tastebud-dazzling combination of shredded chicken with a sauce of blackberry wine, onions, toasted almonds, and green olives, spoke of the Moorish influences on the food of Spain.
Mains offered the same kaleidoscopic view. An order of pescado a la veracruzana ($21) was obligatory. A close cousin of the fish dishes that turn up from New Orleans to Guadeloupe, it is a Mexican classic. Here, a succulent whole snapper was laved in a sauce in which the zap of jalapeño chiles and garlic was tempered with the sweetness of tomatoes, the piquancy of olives and capers, and the muted sweetness of onions. Another time, a friend sampled carne asada ($21)—perfectly pink slices of hangar steak. Musky morita chiles defined the accompanying sauce and complemented the steak’s small edges of perfectly grilled char.
But the clear star was carne de chango ($18). It proved similar to Haiti’s griots de porc, pieces of flash-fried smoked pork loin that has been marinated in citrus juice and garlic. Sublime with the crisp-tender contrast that only well-cooked pork can offer, it was a grand entrant into the New World barbecue sweepstakes and a last tantalizing peek at the African hand in the cooking of Veracruz.