The stretch of Brooklyn’s Church Avenue between Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue may not feel exactly like Mexico — especially not with vehicles honking in line at a Hollywood Car Wash that’s just up the street from the Brooklyn Islamic Center. However, there are some south-of-the-border notes a keen observer might pick up on: The scent of pan dulces wafts from a bakery that also sells pints of excellent house-made mole, while on a side street, a fairly new restaurant does a brisk taco delivery business. Adding to the low-key but burgeoning scene is La Loba (709 Church Ave, Brooklyn; 347-295-1141), a new cantina with a focus on mezcal and casual bites from Oaxaca that’s hoping to become a staple for locals and a destination for anyone searching for a relaxing place to sip a drink with friends.
“We weren’t sold on Church Avenue when we first moved here,” says Jeff James, who co-owns La Loba with his wife, Meredith Sheehy. The couple had been living on the Lower East Side before moving to Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, which they did because, as he says, “We were sick of people puking outside of our front door.”
James and Sheehy didn’t know much about their new area, but they quickly grew to love it. Neither has a professional food background, but they share a love of Oaxacan food and drink. When the couple decided it was time to find a space for their first restaurant, they found it more appealing to take a chance on a sleepy block in their backyard than to build their passion project in a far-flung neighborhood.
“Every other neighborhood…it didn’t feel like the right fit, and we like being out here,” says Sheehy. “At first, though, we didn’t think anyone would come in. We thought we’d open the business and people would be like, ‘Who are these weirdos, what is mezcal?’ But we love that there’s already a big Latino community established here. We realized maybe it’s a better fit than we thought.”
Part of embracing the community included hiring local staff with some Mexican-cooking chops. Miriam Yanez, who also runs a flower shop down the street, is one of two local women who have helped the kitchen grow. Yanez’s Oaxacan tamales — packages of silky smooth, slightly sweet corn masa wrapped in a banana leaf — were so popular that they have ended up as a sort of permanent special, even though Sheehy and James hadn’t originally intended to put tamales on the regular menu.
“It sounds cheesy, but I like to think we’re more collaborative than other places,” says Sheehy. “Miriam brings to the table a different set of skills and experiences, for instance. This couldn’t be done without these amazingly talented people who have worked with us in the kitchen from the start.”
The dishes on the regular menu are just as special as Yanez’s tamales. Sheehy drives from Sunset Park to Bushwick to source herbs, cheeses, and more from various small purveyors to serve up authentic Oaxacan dishes like tlayuda (a popular street snack that’s often referred to as Mexican pizza) and tetelas (fresh masa from Queens’s Tortilleria Nixtamal is grilled and folded around smooth pureed black beans, queso fresco, and crema.) Though more of a Yucatán specialty, the panuchos at La Loba are a standout, featuring a smaller masa tortilla piled high with shredded pork that’s stewed in a rich sauce with a good kick. That sauce is too much for some diners, apparently, as Sheehy says she had to add the word “spicy” to the menu, for those who might be sensitive to a little heat.
The one thing you definitely won’t find on La Loba’s menu? Tacos.
“We’re both from California; we love tacos,” says Sheehy. “But people need to get over that that is the only medium for masa.”
The use of fresh masa means the tortillas are pressed to order — which also means food can be slow to leave the kitchen. People who come to the space with a cantina frame of mind may not notice or care. Sheehy explains that while they carefully considered each item on the menu, the food is almost secondary, just as it is in Oaxaca. The goal is to get customers to sip on one of more than thirty types of mezcal currently available on a revolving list.
“It’s a different drinking experience altogether,” she explains. “It’s less cocktail-focused, less get-in-get-out. It’s more of a relaxed drinking culture where people sit down and enjoy mezcal or a beer for what it is. It’s really more of a social experience. And then if they’re hungry, they get food.”
The focus on mezcal is rooted in the co-owners’ love of Oaxaca. Sheehy’s first encounter with the spirit was on a trip that, by chance, led her to a palenque, a distillery that produces mezcal. She was so charmed by the spirit that she brought a bottle home to New York. A week later, she shared it with James on their first date, at which point he, too, was convinced this was something more than just a trendy ingredient for cocktails.
“I was instantly hooked,” he said. “I knew it was a different spirit, something to be sipped.”
While La Loba does have a cocktail menu, which includes drinks like a mezcal mule and tequila-based margaritas, this cantina is all about sipping. The mezcals at La Loba are so varied that they’re getting bottles from about ten different distributors. There’s raicilla, which tastes like blue cheese. Mezcal nerds are after the mezcalero Tio Rey. Fidencio’s Pechuga is distilled with a raw chicken breast hanging from the cap of the still. Fidencio Clásico, the company’s mezcal, is one well drink that’s easy to savor straight.
“We love serving margaritas, but we really love serving mezcal,” says Sheehy. “This is a beautiful spirit that’s best enjoyed straight, and the more people who do, the more they realize it’s not an intimidating spirit. We want to be the place where you drink it straight.”
Mezcal fans from other parts of the city will find La Loba is like a vacation mere blocks from the Prospect Expressway. Pull up a stool at the bar next to nearby residents and after-hours crews from neighboring restaurants who’ve already discovered it’s what they’ve been seeking in a local hangout.
“Even though this feels like an untested area out here, we were here,” says Sheehy. “And if we’re here, there are other people here who are also going to be into what we’re into.”
La Loba Cantina
709 Church Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-855-4193
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 21, 2016