Built in 1882, the great Gothic bulk of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church towers over lower Graham Avenue, which runs south from Grand Street to Woodhull Hospital, about which I have heard it said, “If you have an accident anywhere near Woodhull, drag your bloody carcass as far away as possible.” The dining scene on this stretch of Graham—one of Brooklyn’s great discount-shopping streets—was once dominated by Puerto Rican lunch counters, but these institutions are gradually being replaced by Mexican taquerias. Nowadays, even the pizza parlors sell tacos.
Just north of the church sits Kiosco Piaxtla, named after a town in remote southwestern Puebla near the Oaxacan border. Like many Mexican cafés, it morphed from a grocery store and still presents itself as such, even though a rack of Bimbo cakes constitutes the last remaining groceries. And just like the wonderful Tulcingo Del Valle, another food market turned café in Hell’s Kitchen, the regular menu is a rather prosaic document, larded with corn-based snacks called antojitos (“little whims”), and such Tex-Mex affectations as burritos and fajitas. Instead, order from the chalkboard menu on the bar, which offers glimpses of the sauce-intensive pre-Columbian cooking of mountainous southern Puebla.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, my pals and I enjoyed an amazing plate of pipian verde de pollo ($7.50), a pale half-bird dumped like a rubbed-out corpse in a sauce so green, it might be mistaken for a swamp on the warmest day of summer. The mole (“mole-ay”) is fabricated from ground-up pumpkin seeds, which confer a nutty flavor and that eerie shade of green. On subsequent visits, we enjoyed barbacoa ($10), a bony mass of steamed goat, served with moist orange rice and refried pinto beans, and bifstek con nopales, a thin-sliced sirloin so large in surface area, it arrived folded on the plate. Unfortunately, the steak did a convincing imitation of a rubber tire, though the grilled cactus paddle was totally dope. Other Pueblan fare commonly featured on the chalkboard includes pork ribs in a tomatillo-laced green mole, pancita de res (beef tripe soup), and posole—the pork and hominy pottage, which turns into an entire meal with its two-tostada accompaniment.
The premier sauce of Puebla, of course, is mole poblano, a complex concoction of chiles, chocolate, spices, and nuts that achieves the consistency of landslide mud. Found on the regular menu, Kiosco Piaxtla’s superlative rendition is less raisiny than most, and more deeply flavored, with the merest hint of bitterness from toasted chiles. It may be poured over cheese enchiladas ($6.95) or over the aforementioned boiled chicken ($8.95). Pick the enchiladas, which come luxuriantly hosed with crema. Also on the regular menu are hosts of antojitos, including sopas, huaraches, chalupas, and picaditas ($2.50 each)—hand-patted masa rounds with fluted edges that make them the perfect reservoirs. Have them filled them with tinga, chicken tidbits in a creamy orange sauce of chipotle chiles.
A photo on the wall of Kiosco Piaxtla features a re-creation of the invention of mole poblano by 17th-century sisters of the Convent of Santa Rosa. In their black-and-white habits, the gals are seen cracking nuts, grinding spices, and stirring a waist-high cauldron filled with dark sauce. Note to Jeffrey Chodorow: Wouldn’t it be a great idea to staff a restaurant kitchen entirely with nuns?