Last time we checked in with Lina Chavez, the El Atoradero (800 East 149th Street) bodega owner who fashions some of the city’s best carnitas, she was still dragging a cauldron into the center of the room every weekend to cook. Now, she has a proper restaurant right next door: She took over the Mexicocina lease and opened late last month. The space has remained the same with a galley kitchen in front with a narrow passageway to four small tables in back. The lighting is much better, and she’s retained some of the handpainted ceramic plate ware. But while the cuisine at Mexicocina was nothing to scoff at, El Atoradero’s food is even better.
Chavez does most of the cooking herself. The menu highlights her carnitas — cubes of slowly rendered pork shoulder, belly, and butt, which form a jumble of meltingly tender, well-seasoned, crisp, and caramelized porcine bits. They are a crown on any antojito, especially the picaditas rellenas ($4.75), ovals of masa with a slip of black bean puree inside. The pork can also ride on tostadas ($6 for three), tacos ($2.50), sopes ($5), huaraches ($5.50), and quesadillas ($5).
The printed menu is all about masa, but come weekend — or when Chavez has an extra hour or three — there are a half dozen specials available ($9): pork ribs in salsa verde; meatballs ensconced in a chipotle broth, quail eggs hidden at their centers; and a mole poblano that should be lionized on every “Best of” list of 2014. The horchata, a gossamer blend of rice, cow, and sweetened condensed milks is exceptional. The sweet corn tamales de elote contain flavor that belies their simplicity. A basic plate of rice and beans is a veritable lunch. This caliber of homestyle cooking may make you reconsider your childhood sustenance. Chavez’s daughters are lucky kids.
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.