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If you want great Mexican in Manhattan, head straight for Hell’s Kitchen. A rash of microscopic eateries have recently appeared—often carved out of delis and bodegas—that offer southern Mexican cooking in very modest surroundings. Del Valle Restaurant & Deli is named after Tulcingo Del Valle, a rural village a few kilometers north of the Oaxacan border, in southern Puebla. This impoverished and drought-stricken area depends on payments called “remittances” from immigrants living in the U.S. for much of its cash flow.
For a place with only four tables and little in the way of decor, Del Valle mounts an impressive 203-item menu, comprising American and Mexican breakfasts; tacos, tostadas, and other antojitos with an impressive range of fillings; Tex-Mex specialties like fajitas and burritos; and sandwiches made from Boar’s Head cold cuts, though a careful examination of the glass case under the counter reveals that the logs of American cheese and olive-pimiento loaf remain untouched. Meanwhile, the kitchen in back is a beehive of activity. Tender and oily cow tongue reigns supreme among the fillings that can be deposited in tacos ($2), or the Pueblan favorite, massive rimmed and shoe-shaped huaraches ($5.50), the local version of sopes. But my advice is to order from the chalkboard, which lists daily home-style specialties. On a recent afternoon, the fiery chicken stew called tinga was already exhausted, but lucky for me, there was chicken with mole pipian remaining. This green gravy of pumpkin seeds and tomatillos doesn’t look particularly appetizing, but it’s extremely delicious, inundating the plate in verdant liquid. The mole itself is the message, not the bird, and you’ll need every warm tortilla provided to scoop it up.
Over a period of several weeks, eating at Del Valle became an obsession as I returned again and again because the food was so good. One day a friend and I spotted a sign in the window flaunting “Mole al estilo Tulcingo,” mole in the style of the deli’s hometown ($5.95). While most moles are thick purees, Del Valle’s is a stout soup, laced with incendiary dried chiles. In its red depths lurks an unexpected bounty of vegetables, including chayote, summer squash, cob corn, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and various green herbs, among them anisey hoja santa. There are big chunks of beef too, burnished deep brown from long braising.
The signature sauce of Puebla, mole poblano, is always available, and ranks several notches above the usual product—less sweet, more dependent on chiles and chocolate than almonds. Have it ladled over chicken, or even better, enchiladas bulging with Oaxacan string cheese ($7.50). Del Valle is worth a weekend visit, if only to be assured of finding barbacoa, a big bony heap of steamed goat bursting with rich and skanky flavor that will have you and your friends playing a game of Identify the Goat Part. Main courses are massive, with sides of cheese-dusted refried beans and lively yellow rice. Though sides are unnecessary, make a point of trying the nopalitos—skinned paddles of fresh prickly pear cactus dissected into fingers, though still attached at the wrist, featuring a mucilaginous texture that recalls okra gumbo.
Rising unsteadily from a large meal one evening, we looked at the campesinos around us and noted they were mainly eating cheeseburgers and burritos. Making us feel like we had our own personal Pueblan chef.