Inside the Mexican Pantry of New York's Top Pueblan Restaurant

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[Photographs: Clay Williams]

Like a kid rambling on about his crush, I love Denisse Chavez's Carnitas El Atoradero in the South Bronx for more reasons than you care to hear. A devoted fan since the days when she ran an ace carnitas operation out of a skinny bodega, I once described her food as "the home-style cooking, way beyond the taco, that New York needs."

Not that you can't find tacos, but the heart of her menu is devoted to fantastic takes on brooding mole poblano, tortitas made funky with dried shrimp, and tender egg-stuffed meatballs swimming in smoky chipotle broth. This is the Pueblan food that's won her universal acclaim, and since January of last year, Carnitas El Atoradero has gotten stamped with a New York Times' Critic's Pick, snagged the 17th spot on New York's 101 Cheap Eats list, and was included in the Village Voice's Choice Eats festival.

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I'd attributed much of Chavez's success to an uncompromising, fanatical devotion to base ingredients. She's willing to literally risk her life procuring spices and herbs in Mexico to bring back to the Bronx, and those fresh, real-deal flavors make their way everything she cooks.

Her pantry puts the rest of New York's Mexican kitchens to shame. While the city is home to the largest concentration of Poblanos outside Puebla, it's still difficult to find fresh, quality chilies, herbs, and spices. Sure, our Mexican restaurants are certainly improving, but how many New York taqueria chefs devote three days to making mole?

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Chavez does. And if you're curious what those death-defying ingredients are that she uses every day, take a look around her pantry.

Chipotle Two Ways: Meco and Morita

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Chipotles are one of the more popular chilies in the Poblano arsenal. Stateside, we mostly see the flush, ruby-red chipotle morita or the canned versions in thick, vinegary adobo sauce. But in Mexico, chipotle meco is the most popular for its deep smokiness—so much so that almost none of it escapes the country.

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The ones Chavez uses have the tannish color of worn leather and lend their deep smokiness to simmering pots of adobo and pollo con chipotle. The more pliable morita, made with fully ripened jalapenos, finds its way into her mole poblano.

Other Chilies

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Mexico is home to an embarrassment of chilies. Chavez uses a handful of peppers, not all pictured here. Grassy jalapeno, serrano, and fresh arbol go into her trademark salsa molcahete. Dark, raisin-like mulato and pasilla go into her smokey mole poblano. You'll also find dried anaheim, ancho, and guajillo chilies in her dishes.

Carnitas Herbs

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Mexican oregano, laurel (Mexican bay leaf), and Mexican or Spanish thyme are just three of the many ingredients that go into Chavez's carnitas, but they are essential enough that she's willing to drive thousands of miles for them. Why not just use the more common varieties available locally? The flavor is totally different. Mexican oregano is less bitter than the European kind, more akin to marjoram. Laurel is more mellow than the Turkish and California bay leaves we typically use, and her thyme is more intensely fragrant.

Tomates

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Ask for tomates at Chavez's bodega—right next door to the restaurant—and you might not get what you were looking for. In central Mexico, tomates refers to what we typically call tomatillos (or jamberry—why don't we call them jamberry more often?), which developed in Mexico. Tomatoes proper are called jitomates, though those come from South America.

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Anyways, there are many varieties of tomate in Mexico, of which tomatillos are but one particularly small variety. At El Atoradero, they use two varieties. The larger tomate verde brings its puckering tartness exclusively to salsas (try this salsa verde), while the tiny tomate de arbol is more widely deployed in stewed dishes.

Hibiscus Flowers

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What would a neighborhood Mexican restaurant be without a few aguas frescas for sipping? At El Atoradero, you'll regularly find jamaica, the Spanish word for both hibiscus flowers and the iced tea made from them. The tart, astringent flowers are quite versatile; in addition to making an agua fresca of your own you can try them in cocktails, cakes, and other desserts.

Hoja Santa

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Also known as yerba santa, this tropical leaf native to Mesoamerica has a strong, peppery flavor reminiscent of root beer. It has many uses: wrapping tamales for more aromatic masa, getting chopped up into soup, and an herbal tea. Chavez seasons her pipian verde, an ancient creamy sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds, with the dried leaf.

Hoya de Aguacate

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Decent avocado leaves hard to come by in New York. Typically what you find is brittle, musty, and wan. But Chavez uses avocado criollo leaves picked from trees that dot her sister's farm in Atlixco, Puebla. The minty, licorice-like leaves are roasted with goat for barbacoa and season pork and chicken for mixiotes, similar roasts of marinated meat cooked in bundles of dried leaves or corn husks.

Papalo

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If you've ever scarfed down a proper cemita, you know papalo as the pungent flavor that wouldn't you can't—or can't—get out of your mouth for hours. In Puebla, the herb, which is like an especially fragrant cilantro with a medicinal kick, is so essential that you'll find it waiting for you at the table along with pipecha, another cilantro-like herb. Poblanos, Chavez's son tells me, simply tear leaves off and munch on them as they eat.

Verdolagas

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A type of quileutes, or wild green, verdolagas are beloved in Puebla and a regular component of the local diet. They're nothing special—a grassy weed—but they mark a watershed moment for Mexican food in New York. Their arrival signals that restaurants here are evolving beyond the staid taqueria standards and are doing more home cooking.

Chavez's verdolagas are plump but tender and taste a little like a stronger spinach. You'll most often find them cooked with pork ribs in salsa verde, both here and elsewhere.

Guaje

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"Guaje is very famous in the old towns," Chavez tells me. It's a type of pod fruit with an edible seed that is dried and often eaten as a snack. Its flavor is typically described as garlicky and sharp, with grassy undertones and a mineral bite. In the Mixteca regions of Puebla and Oaxaca, Mexicans use the seeds for a traditional mole called huaxmole, which has a bolder pungency than its mellow green creaminess would suggest. When making hers, Chavez blends the seeds and only adds them at the very end, for about three minutes, "because the flavor is so strong."

Camarones Seco

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Dried shrimp figure heavily into Mexico's Lenten cannon, their briny, heady flavor offering cooks a shortcut to umami on meatless Fridays. But they're not all piety. Chavez's son recommends dousing them in lime and hot sauce for a classically tart, spicy, and salty bar snack. At El Atordero, Chavez uses them in a couple classic Lenten dishes. There's the more common caldo de camaron seco, here made with dried shrimp, roasted shrimp shells, and mussels. Then there's the aforementioned tortitas: earthy, oblong patties made of dried shrimp and chickpeas that are fried and served with cactus paddles and broth.

Nopales

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Chavez has confided to me that she wishes restaurants and home cooks didn't rely as much on meat, and if you get her going, she'll wax poetic about her love of mushrooms from the mountains back home. Another meat stand-in she loves is nopal—cactus paddle. Cook it poorly and it's pedestrian and slimy. But cook it fast with lots of heat or gently to a soft braise, and its mild string beany flavor is a nice complement to boldly seasoned sauces.