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Torta Reform

Amid the new crop of Brooklyn bistros and Manhattan spinoffs, a modest Mexican café makes a spicy name for itself with home cooking and red-hot tamales.

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In the pink: Café Mexicano's Maria Zumba.  

Much has been made of the exodus of Manhattan chefs and aspiring restaurateurs to the greener pastures and cheaper rents of Brooklyn. Smith Street and Fifth Avenue are overrun with conquering culinary heroes intent on carving out a piece of the outer-borough dining pie. But for every Brooklyn Blue Ribbon—so well-received it’s already been joined by an adjacent Blue Ribbon Sushi, with heated speculation about an eventual BR Bakery—there’s an unsung homegrown dynasty like Los Pollitos, an Ecuadoran-Mexican hybrid that got its rotisserie-chicken start in Sunset Park and expanded northward to Park Slope, leaving a trail of signature green salsa in its wake. Powered by that addictive condiment, the “Los Pollitos Group” now operates four Brooklyn restaurants, including Café Mexicano, a three-month-old snack shop that offers a cheap, delicious, and entirely welcome antidote to the increasingly lofty competition.

Strictly speaking, Café Mexicano is less a café than a nook. Five stools are tucked under a narrow ledge; opposite them, a minuscule kitchen runs on little more than a sandwich press, a pint-size convection oven, and a molcajete. Despite the constrained circumstances, that humblest of kitchens turns out enough scrumptious antojitos, or snacks, to prove why Mexican-food maven Diana Kennedy considers the residents of her adopted country “the most persistent noshers in the world.”

A sign on the window reads SOMEBODY SAID TAMALES, as well somebody should, with these corn-husked bundles emerging from the countertop steamers so fresh and perfectly textured, the soft corn masa adorned with strips of chicken and a dab or two of mole poblano or black beans and cheese. At $2 a pop, they’re hard to resist—and with a cup of café con leche or cinnamon-spiced Mexican chocolate, an excellent takeout breakfast en route to the subway.

You don’t encounter tlacoyos on many local Mexican menus. That’s unfortunate. The deep-fried turnover-shaped corn cakes come two per order drizzled with sour cream, sprinkled with cheese, and stuffed with either chipotle-tinged chicken or spinach, rajas poblanos, and mild, mozzarella-like Oaxaca cheese—a souped-up spinach pie. More familiar and uncommonly good is the chilaquiles verdes, a wonderful intermingling of sharp, fetalike cotija cheese, sour cream, shredded chicken, and a puckery salsa verde ladled over chewy-crisp tortilla strips.

On weekends, the menu’s augmented with specials like fragrant tamales oaxaqueños wrapped in banana leaves, and chiles rellenos variously stuffed with cheese, rice, or picadillo—a savory blend of chicken, nuts, and fruit—served in a pool of earthy tomato sauce. Weekend visitors are also likely to encounter soothing, savory tortilla soup and memelas, another toothsome take on the corn-masa theme.

“Hot hoggies” are presumably Café Mexicano’s multiculti answer to the American hoagie, the Cuban sandwich, and the ubiquitous pressed Italian panino. Served on excellent baguettes and flattened in a sandwich press, a hoggie is a Mexican torta with an identity crisis. The Union hoggie, for example, unites prosciutto and crumbly, salty queso añejo, and sweetens the deal with a little balsamic vinaigrette. Ecuador meets Mexico in the Polly hoggie, a succulent pairing of Los Pollitos rotisserie chicken with Oaxaca cheese and chipotle mayo. The more-traditional sandwich of roast pork with black beans is even better.

Despite its beyond-modest setting, Café Mexicano is suffused with a gracious spirit and an authentic soul. If you eat in, your order arrives on colorful ceramic plates, your spice-infused café de olla in the traditional earthenware mug. On the crowded counter sit pitchers of ice-cold horchata (a milky, cinnamon-scented rice drink), Jamaica (from hibiscus), and fresh lemonade—traditional antojitos thirst-quenchers. Don’t miss the green sauce—it’s made from avocado and tomatillo, and like its counterpart at Los Pollitos, it’s destined to play a crucial role in the latest Park Slope success story.

Café Mexicano
671 Union Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn
(718-623-6754).
Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sandwiches and entrées, $3.50 to $6.50. All major credit cards.


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