The beanie-wearing Brooklynite has barely touched his pig ears. He’s seated next to me; the undisturbed pork bits spill out from a heftily packed blue-corn tortilla. Would he like a box? the waitress wants to know. “No, thanks,” he replies, quietly. “I guess I’m just not used to the texture.”
Denisse Lina Chavez, Pueblan champion of central-Mexican cooking at El Atoradero (708 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn;718-399-8226), is definitely not in the South Bronx anymore. Having been forced to close Carnitas El Atoradero last summer following a rent spike, the intrepid chef reopened her flagship along Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights in December. Now she’s tasked with ingratiating herself to a new community, betting that the relocation will pay off in an equal return of love in a different borough. Meanwhile, her Bronx bodega, which inspired the original restaurant, is still open; her husband remains in charge there. With the grocery in good hands, other family members are pitching in at the new spot. “My son and daughter have been helping, especially in training some of the new staff,” Chavez relayed to the Voice shortly after launching.
Along with the extra support and a larger prep kitchen, she’s expanded her menu for Kings County and imported a custom grinder to make what are easily some of the best tortillas in town. The fragrant discs start out as blue-corn hominy, which Chavez soaks in an alkaline solution, nixtamalizing the grain. She then grinds and presses the dough to form imperfect, dark-purple rounds; these get griddled to a mottled golden-brown, with an intense corn perfume that wafts from every dish and table on which they appear.
The tortillas make for jaw-dropping tacos — and yes, that includes the version featuring those pig’s ears, which Chavez chops into crunchy, cartilaginous fried squares that pop with a trio of salsas (verde, roja, or a chunky, mashed tomato molcajete). The condiments jazz up other simply seasoned fillings like chopped steak and a Brooklyn-friendly mix of mushrooms, cactus, and purslane, a succulent herb with the mildness of spinach.
The chef’s chorizos, however, hardly need the additional spice — particularly the green one, a central-Mexican specialty that buzzes with cilantro. If it’s available, don’t skip the cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan pork shoulder taco. The kitchen saturates the meat with sour citrus and achiote, which colors the roast porcine shreds a brilliant shade of sunset orange. Antojitos, a selection of small street-food appetizers, also make the masa sing. Chavez forms the dough into flat, wide picaditas brimming with toppings, like her signature carnitas (stewed in Fanta, Coca-Cola, beer, citrus, and mezcal), and curls it into flautas arranged like spokes around an axle of guacamole. Even her nachos are standouts, hitting the table with an intricate lattice of crema on top. And, not surprisingly, incredible tortillas make for superlative chips.
The Brooklyn reincarnation of El Atoradero was born of a partnership with three millennials — Noah Arenstein, Josh Kaplan (of Dassara Ramen), and barman Jared DeLine — who helped Chavez create this hip successor. Arenstein, a restaurateur and lawyer, frequently indulged in Chavez’s flawless home-style cooking when working in the Bronx courts. After learning of her real estate predicament, he reached out and set things in motion (in exchange, of course, for partial ownership).
Together, they’ve outfitted the deep, slightly narrow dining room with a combination of whitewashed and exposed brick offset with splashes of green and yellow. Chavez hasn’t put up her canvas of the Aztec warrior Popocatépetl yet, but her love of pineapples is everywhere evident. A real one sits atop a vertical trompo rotisserie (its juices drip onto pork shoulder for al pastor), and representations decorate the wall behind the L-shaped, white-tile-topped bar as well as the window, where a colorful neon display hints at the electric cooking taking place within.
Longtime fans may miss the old location’s cozy charm, not to mention its ample legroom. Carnitas El Atoradero was tiny but hardly felt cramped. In Brooklyn, there’s more real estate but somehow less space to stretch out — the tables in the back are packed tight, forcing servers to angle themselves sideways in order to deliver plates.
But oh, what plates they are: fall-apart-tender pork ribs or beef tongue in salsa verde; juicy chicken coated in a wonderfully dusky mole poblano bitter with cacao; quail-egg-stuffed pork meatballs adrift in a rust-colored pool of chipotle sauce. Regulars will likely pine for some of Chavez’s more esoteric offerings — the stuffed pork trotters haven’t made their way to Brooklyn yet, and those ears might continue to be a tough sell in this zip code. But tripe, in the form of tacos and the piquant soup menudo, made an appearance recently. So did goat and the broccoli-rabe-like vegetable huauzontle, which Chavez fries like chiles rellenos. DeLine’s doing his part, too, adding pulque — the low-alcohol, milky-hued, fermented cousin of mezcal — to the drinks list, which also includes a tangy, bouillon-spiked michelada. I’d encourage you to try all of it, so long as you save room for the delectably fluffy tequila-soaked flan.