Downtown Bakery on the left, Puebla Mexican Food on the right!
Nearly two decades ago, as the first big wave of southern Mexican immigration was making itself felt in NYC, two old and not particularly good Italian bakeries on First Avenue in the East Village were transformed into Mexican-Italian bakeries.
Somewhat ironically, Downtown Bakery is the more uptown of the two.
Though the places were only two blocks apart, they both pursued the same course — continuing to make Italian-American breads and cookies, while gradually adding a short menu of prepared Mexican food, principally to meet the dining needs of Mexicans who increasingly came to work in the area’s shops and restaurants.
Though many of the hot foods they served were southern Mexican standards, the owners of Puebla Mexican Food & Coffee Shop (47 First Avenue, 212-473-6643) and Downtown Bakery (69 First Avenue, 212-254-1757) were not oblivious to the charms of American-Mexican food, and soon burritos appeared, which was the hook to get East Villagers to try the places for anything other than a quick coffee and bag of cookies.
Well, time passed as it usually does, and the Italian stuff withered away, while the Mexican menu grew. The places were also spiffed-up somewhat, and a handful of actual tables appeared in each. The miracle is that both places are still open, and offer menus with a host of sophisticated southern Mexican cooking.
Puebla Mexican Food & Coffee Shop
Puebla Mexican Food’s version is authentically topped with crumbled queso seco.
I’ve continued eating at both places, not favoring one or the other, as the food got better and better, and dishes were added, a few at a time. The thing that amazed me most was when chicken enchiladas were made available with guajillo sauce, a fiery gravy made from dried guajillo chiles, with a color so red, it instantly stains anything it touches. So, I decided to compare the two in an epic Battle of the Dishes. Both are around $7.
Puebla Mexican Food’s comes with rice and beans. The three enchiladas are overstuffed with plain but flavorful shredded poultry. The three tortillas that wrap the enchiladas are deeply colored with the sauce, which is moderately spicy. The enchiladas are tasty, and have a mellow edge to them.
Downtown Bakery’s, on the other hand, come with no such distractions as rice and beans. Rather, the three enchiladas — which have the same bulging quantity of plain, unadulterated chicken inside — are sitting by themselves on the plate, like three cold hounds huddling together for comfort. Not only are the tortillas soaked with the sauce, they’re positively drowning in it. This is what a southern Mexican mole is all about: sauce, sauce, and more sauce.
The win goes to Downtown Bakery.
The extravagantly sauced version at Downtown Bakery deploys — in a Mexican-American flourish — Monterey Jack cheese.