Xochimilco (“Place Where Flowers Grow”) is an outlying region in the conurbation of Mexico City, a place famous for its Venetian canals and gaily painted tourist boats. It’s also the moniker of a great Sunset Park taqueria. The café fills a handsome corner storefront, with picture windows that survey the commercial hurly-burly of Fifth Avenue, thronged with sidewalk vendors and a pan-Latin mix of shoppers. Xochimilco’s interior is sparsely decorated with 10 gallon hats and lariats, and a sign propped in the window boasts of Mexico City eats—though the menu tells a different story.
I was drawn in by the red pozole ($6), a rare-ish variant of the pale white pozole found throughout Corona, East Harlem, and other locales where immigrant Mexican families congregate on weekends. This rib-sticking soup happily bobs with pork and hominy (swollen white slaked corn); a red oil slick that might constitute a threat to Alaskan wildlife spreads across its surface. On a separate plate, you can find things to be tossed into the soup at your discretion: chopped sweet onions, red radishes carved like matchsticks, fragrant cilantro sprigs, green scallion tops, and wedges of lime. As part of the $6 brunch package, the bowl of pozole is accompanied by a bean-slathered tostada, smothered in so much lettuce, crema, and crumbled cheese that you might mistake it for a salad.
In addition to the red pozole, the pambazo ($6)—a legendary sandwich said to have originated in the seaside city of Veracruz—constitutes a further drool-able peculiarity. A year ago, in pursuit of this miraculous gutbomb on the same stretch of Fifth Avenue, I spotted a sign advertising it in the window of a Mexican panaderia. When I went in to inquire, the clerk shrugged her shoulders and told me they didn’t have it. But now, sitting in a pool of wan Spring sunlight, a friend and I giddily unwrapped the sodden protective tissue from the sandwich’s glistening exterior. Pambazo begins with a roll (also called a pambazo), much like a club roll in a deli. The bread is first toasted, then drenched with red chile sauce. Next, the sandwich is smeared with mayo and piled high with onions, lettuce, cheese, and cubes of boiled potatoes, making a spicy potato-salad sandwich. Hoist one of these, and your fingers will glow radioactive-red for a week.
Of course, Xochimilco turns out the usual tacos, tortas, tostadas, tamales, quesadillas, and other antojitos, including a memorable chorizo gordita ($3)—a full moon of creamy white masa heaped with some of the best Mexican sausage in Sunset Park. The menu also throws Tex-Mex into the mix (nachos, fajitas, and burritos), along with many plainish, dinner-size entrées featuring chicken, fish, and steak, served with a salad as well as sides of moist yellow rice and muddy refried beans. For the lover of simple food, the steak special ($11), simply cooked, is a thin, plate-flopping sirloin surmounted by a pair of de-spined, scored, and grilled cactus paddles, which ooze an agreeable lubrication over the steak.
While the taqueria claims to be cooking Mexico City food, the reactor core of the menu is fare associated with the sere southern regions of Puebla and Guerrero, where many of New York’s Mexican immigrants come from. Southern moles are front and center: chocolatey mole poblano, tart mole verde, and nutty mole pipian—the latter represented by the supremely delicious dish pipian verde de pollo ($10), wherein a boiled and taut-skinned half-bird drowns in puce-colored pumpkinseed sauce (use the tortillas provided to make tacos with the poultry and sop the excess sauce).
Other indicators of the menu’s southern-Mexican orientation abound. In addition to very good tortas—sandwiches of near-hero length mounted on bolillo rolls—discover cemitas ($6.50), round sandwiches native to Puebla. Made with a seeded roll that often contains cactus pulp, the fillings include carne enchilada (spicy pork chunks) and cecina (salt-cured beef), both flavored with fiery chipotle chilies and palapa, an herb that tastes like a cross between thyme and creosote.
But the best culinary sign of the hardscrabble part of Puebla just north of the Oaxacan border is something called “mole al estilo Xochimilico” ($6 for a medium-size bowl, $10 for a virtual bucket). The soup is similar to the one found at Hell’s Kitchen’s Tulcingo del Valle: a seriously spicy broth filled with a wealth of vegetables, including corn on the cob, chayote, and potato. Beef short rib constitutes the meat component, tender as a lover’s caress. I could eat it every day.