Sometimes it takes a whole meal before I know if I want to write about a new restaurant. At Tobalá, an eight-month-old Mexican restaurant in Riverdale, Bronx, I was pretty sure after one drink.
The drink was a carajillo, a cocktail made with two ingredients, espresso and the Spanish liqueur Licor 43, shaken over ice. The carajillo was invented in Spain and became even more popular in Mexico, but has been eclipsed by the espresso martini in New York. This is a pity. The espresso martini is a decent cocktail, but a well-made carajillo is great. An inky brew under a plush cap of foam, it is a union of opposites, bitter and sweet, caffeine and alcohol, liquid and foam, darkness and sunshine.
Despite its simplicity, or precisely because of it, the carajillo is not easy to pull. Tobalá makes one of the best I’ve ever tasted, here or in Mexico. After a few swallows, I found myself hoping this wasn’t a fluke, that the chefs pay as much attention to detail as the bartenders. A taste of the duck enmoladas told me they did.
The star of the enmoladas is mole negro, a gripping midnight-dark Oaxacan sauce made from fruits, roasted nuts, chocolate, spices, and dried chiles that are blasted with heat until they’re as thickly covered in black ash as a burnt marshmallow. Tobalá’s mole negro is started for at least two weeks before finally being poured over corn tortillas filled with shredded duck. The mole has a slow-burning intensity but is also soft, like the smoky mezcal from which Tobalá got its name.
Riverdale isn’t the first corner of the Bronx where you’ll look for good Mexican food, let alone Oaxaca’s intricate, slow-brewed moles. More Mexicans live in the South Bronx, where immigrants from that country have established La Morada, Taqueria Tlaxcalli, La Cueva Fonda Mexicana, and other restaurants.
Tobalá was founded by the chef, Moisés López, and his wife, Eluisania, both born in the Dominican Republic, in partnership with Mr. López’s sister and her husband. The Lópezes, who live in Riverdale, used to work together at another Mexican restaurant nearby. When they left, they decided to stay nearby and focus on Oaxaca, where they have been going annually since they spent a wedding anniversary there several years ago.
Their new dining room is stone-colored and soothing, filled with Oaxacan ceramics, wooden tables, woven-straw chairs, and shelves of mezcal. While it was under construction, Mr. López went back to Oaxaca for several months, where he learned how to grind guaje seeds into mole verde and mix the clear, sharp salsa verde taquera he now serves in Tobalá with a few fragile blades of the wild herb called picha.
It was also in Oaxaca that Mr. López got to know chicatanas. Chicatanas, an edible ant species that can only be caught once a year when they emerge from underground to feast on tree leaves, have a nutty flavor with a mushroom undertone. At Tobalá, the ants season an aioli that is stirred with corn kernels in esquites — essentially elotes off the cob, sprinkled, like elotes, with Cotija cheese and Tajín powder. Tobalá’s esquites are creamy and spicy and should get even more flavorful when the corn is in season locally.
Pulpo de puerto is an octopus and potato stew simmered in a thick, rust-colored salsa. Sometimes I would have sworn it was a Spanish recipe were it not for the sweetly pungent taste of guajillo chiles and another flavor that was hard to place, until I remembered Mr. López calling the salsa “chicatana sauce.”
However, not all ants are edible.
Carne asada, made with a thick New York strip, is simple enough. It’s served with chileatole, a corn chowder that was oddly bland in this rendition, not much of an asset to the beef. Much more useful to the meat were a few spoonfuls of dark and crunchy salsa macha, one of the three house salsas.
There’s a very respectable grilled branzino, butterflied and sprinkled with fresh and ground chiles, ready to be flaked and folded into a steaming tortilla. These are pressed and baked all night long by a dedicated tortilla chef, which is one of the reasons Tobalá’s tacos are so good. The tacos de barbacoa in particular are little miracles, packed with succulent chunks of lamb that taste like fire and oranges.
Citrus juice runs through the excellent cochinita, the annatto-colored bundles of pork steamed, Yucatecan-style, in banana leaves—one of the few items on the menu with no apparent link to Oaxaca. Even the shrimp aguachile, which originated in and around Sinaloa, is based on versions Mr. López ate in the Oaxaca beach town of Puerto Escondido. Shrimps marinated with onions and dried chili peppers are dipped in one pool of squeezed cucumbers and green chillies mixed with pepicha.
Green and white moles appear from time to time. I haven’t managed to catch one yet, but I had a velvety salsa roja, whose brooding intensity ideally complements the soft, creamy flesh of Cornish roast chicken.
Tobalá is not the place to go if you’re looking for an encyclopedic education in Oaxacan cuisine. (Most of those spots are in Oaxaca.) The region’s repertoire is more deeply represented in La Morada. At Claro, chef TJ Steele’s restaurant near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, it’s treated with greater ingenuity.
But the Lópezes have put together an attractive package in Riverdale. The menu looks at unexpected places; the service is warm and outgoing, and the bar takes its mezcal and cocktails seriously. The restaurant tries to stay true to Mexico without becoming expensive, an attitude that carries over into the sweet tamales offered for dessert. One is chocolate with chocolate sauce and less milk; another is pineapple with fresh coconut and pineapple compote. Both are heaped masa packets steamed in banana leaves, Oaxacan style.
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