Indigenous Food in the South Bronx

(c) La Morada 2015

Sometimes you eat something that’s blissfully unlike anything you’ve ever had before. For me, the mole blanco at La Morada in the South Bronx was one of those dishes that make you stop, get quiet, taste again, and search your senses, sniffing, almost listening for something, to comprehend the mystery.

Ladled over two huge chicken legs, the thick white sauce made of pine nuts and other items had a surprisingly warm, forceful stir of habaneros underneath the sauce’s slightly sweet blandness, made among other things of cashews, almonds, peanuts, coconut oil, and garlic ($15).

I kept wanting to taste it again and feel that warm, attractive spice calling to me from inside the deceptively homey, rather autumnal and vegetal blanket of mole. (The vegan sauce is made with 10 different kinds of nuts in total.) The dish came with a side of rice and black beans, but not just any beans: it was in fact the most distinctive, fresh-tasting, and well-spiced side dish of black beans I’ve ever had, as though someone actually cared to make the supposedly throwaway sides taste as good as entrées. If you’re from Mexico’s Oaxaca province, source of this restaurant’s cuisine, La Morada’s mole blanco may not be as much of a mystery to you, but then again, it might. The cooking at this inexpensive café run by an activist immigrant family is extraordinary, perhaps the finest Mexican cooking I’ve ever had in New York.

The five adult family members are Mixteca Indians from the overwhelmingly indigenous Oaxaca, whose cooking traditions are almost entirely unrepresented in this city. (Don’t let the name of the offensively bland, hipster chain Oaxaca Taqueria fool you. There’s nothing remotely Oaxacan about its unspiced chicken, pork, and potatoes.) There are six moles on the menu, all made entirely from scratch, a process taking many days. In New York, it’s usually possible to find only a too-sweet chocolate mole poblano.

Most restaurants don’t have a personal motto, but La Morada has one, written in Mixteca on its website and menu: “Kushi Vaa.” According to Yajaira Saavedra, one of the daughters, this means roughly, “We want everyone who eats here to be nourished, and to grow.” Saavedra says the motto reflects a Mixteca spiritual belief that those who cook put their emotional energy and attitudes into the food, and that cooks are therefore responsible to project an intense goodwill into their product. Eating an enchilada of hibiscus flowers and leaves, grilled cactus, and other vegetables, strewn with buttery quesillo cheese and a little tomatillo sauce ($14 with rice and beans), I felt something of that goodwill. The enchilada tasted exceedingly fresh, as if the vegetables had just been picked. (Strangely, a leftover even tasted fresh two days later, in my kitchen.) Perhaps it’s because La Morada sources most of its produce from local community gardens and local immigrant-run farms. Saavedra, a recent CUNY grad in her 20s, says some even provide fruits and vegetables to the restaurant for free, or allow La Morada to plant freely on their land. “Folks help us out as much as they can.” She says they do this in appreciation for the community space for food, activism, and even literature the Saavedras have created in the poorest neighborhood in the city.

(A lending library in the back of La Morada offers a terrific selection mostly in English, from “Bartleby the Scrivener” to W. E. B. De Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.”)

But here’s something even more notable than a locavore café in the South Bronx. All of the Saavedras (except the youngest, who was born here) are open about being undocumented, which makes eating here an interesting political experience. The food industry in this country is utterly dependent on the labor of undocumented Mexicans, who staff its most vital positions, from farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers to restaurant cooks, dishwashers, and bussers. Very few of them own restaurants, or can be open about their status. Most are paid ridiculously low wages.

Here, finally, is a restaurant where undocumented Mexicans come out from the back of the joint, own the place, and proudly and feelingly make their own food.

Mother Natalia Mendez is the chef, assisted by her daughter Carolina. On my first visit, an entrée of camarones (shrimp) a la diabla ($15) wearing little “devils’ horns” made of chilies came with a complex sauce of chipotle peppers and herbs that Mendez makes herself. The peppers in the sauce packed delicious fruit and, again, “vegetalness,” along with their smoke and heat. The shrimp themselves were delicate.

I wasn’t expecting to find a queer-friendly place in the South Bronx, but I did. On a recent visit, Karen and I were not the only visibly queer diners in the place; another group with funky haircuts and a gender backspace say that queer aspect was being hugged goodbye by Mendez and Yajaira. In an interview, the latter said, “The trans community is vitally involved in the immigration movement right now. We are very connected to anyone who is pro-gay rights and pro-LGBTQ, and besides, we understand that all struggles are interconnected.” According to Yajaira, “Lots of trans folks are being detained unjustly right now” by immigration authorities. She and Marco, who both came to this country as very young children, are highly active in the Dreamers movement (young undocumented Mexican-Americans who came here as children and are fighting for legal status and other benefits available to citizens, such as education benefits). Marco, a friendly, bespectacled, twentysomething poet and painter who is the restaurant’s main waiter, committed civil disobedience two years ago by returning to Mexico and then openly reentering this country as an undocumented person. He served three weeks in a detention center in Florida. Says Yajaira, “My mother has a rule now: only one of us is allowed to get arrested at any given time.”

After Marco and Yajaira became very public about their status, Mendez and father Antonio Saavedra followed their children out of the immigration closet.

I took a dessert home from my last dinner at La Morada, tres leches cake, the wildly popular Mexican dessert made of cake soaked in heavy cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk, and topped with coconut and whipped cream. It was luxurious and light at once, with a custardy bottom and a slight hint of vanilla and rum, and again, far more fresh-tasting than other versions I’ve had in this city. Some have tasted heavy and dead, but this was lively.

The restaurant is painted purple and decorated with a Bosch-like anti-globalization poster and many of Marco’s paintings, including one of Michael Brown’s family. If you search your Spanish dictionary, you may conclude La Morada was named from the word for purple, but it actually comes from a Bible verse Antonio thought had special resonance for immigrants, Yajaira says: “In the house of my Father, there are many dwelling places.…As I told you, I am going to prepare a place for you.” Thankfully, La Morada has become a dwelling place for many.

La Morada, 308 Willis Avenue near 140th Street, open daily 9 AM-9:30 PM except Sundays. (The restaurant may resume Sunday hours in the next several months.) The restaurant is wheelchair accessible, but the bathroom is narrow and lacks a handrail. Reservations accepted but not necessary.

This was originally published in Gay City News on October 30, 2015. You can view it here.

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