When the New York Times released its taco issue two weeks ago, Ligaya Mishan’s Hungry City column, which praised a handful of our city’s finer offerings, was simultaneously heralded for highlighting the goods and scoffed at for neglecting dozens of deserving places among the Mexican cuisine cognoscenti on both coasts. Expectedly, her selection was excoriated by Californians, who got on their soapboxes of authenticity to decry her list for including a deli that offers Boar’s Head wraps.
Westerners have a hard time understanding the vibrancy of East Coast bodega culture. Reyes Deli & Grocery (532 Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-369-3211), a non-descript bodega in Gowanus that serves a competent Mexican menu alongside cold cuts, made Mishan’s list, and the owners here have established a prototypical New York City Mexican bodega that plays a vital role in the town’s culinary fabric. Like so many entrepreneurial immigrant businesses in the city, it’s a multifunctional hub: a place to acquire cigarettes and toilet paper, a grocery to pick up dried beans and a couple of limes, and a place to sit down and have a delicious and cheap meal, all without leaving your block.
And while you’ll hear the occasional egg n’ cheese on a roll order, most patrons come for tacos ($2.50), heading to the back alcove that harbors three stools. The cook works the flat top, which is plastered with tortillas and little heaps of meat, and passes orders over the partition as they’re ready. The bistec flecked with caramelized onions is quite good; the unadorned chopped chicken breast will be perfectly acceptable to some. Two salsas–a cooked tomatillo variety and a thick, garlicky red version–await, as do self-serve beers from the refrigerator.
If the tacos leave you unconvinced, though (and they might), know that it is the quesadilla ($6) the size of a stingray, corners heavy and flopping over the plate, that is the bodega’s forte. If you are used to the classic Poblano-style quesadillas–thick corn tortillas folded over stringy Oaxacan cheese–you will be startled that what arrives looks decidedly Mexican-American. The giant, lard-enriched flour tortilla is clotted with Monterrey jack that stretches into full two-foot strands without breaking. It’s paved with salty crumbles of chorizo, weeping a scarlet oil that collects in pools on the plate and inciting a burn that rivals the warm, oily spice of good Sichuan cuisine. Dribbled with even more red salsa, it is a greasy, spicy sedative done just the way it should be.
How can you argue with that?
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.