Restaurant Review: A Trip That Began in Oaxaca Continues in the Bronx at Tobalá

A chef and his wife fell in love with the region on a vacation. Now they showcase its cuisine, from mezcal to edible ants.

Tobalá explores Mexico with moles, salsas and tortillas made by a dedicated cook.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

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By Pete Wells

Sometimes it takes an entire meal before I know whether I want to write about a new restaurant. At Tobalá, an eight-month-old Mexican place in Riverdale in the 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 is eclipsed in New York by the espresso martini. This is too bad. The espresso martini is a decent cocktail, but a well-made carajillo is a great one. An inky brew under a plush cap of foam, it is a union of opposites, bitter and sweet, caffeine and alcohol, liquid and froth, darkness and sunshine.

Despite its simplicity, or because of it, the carajillo is not easy to pull off. Tobalá makes one of the best I’ve ever tasted, here or in Mexico. After a swallow or two I found myself hoping this wasn’t a fluke, that the cooks were paying attention to details as closely as the bartenders. One taste of the duck enmoladas told me they did.

The star of the enmoladas is mole negro, a transfixing midnight-dark Oaxacan sauce made from fruit, roasted nuts, chocolate, spices and dried chiles that are blasted with heat until they are as thickly encrusted with black ash as a burned marshmallow. Tobalá’s mole negro is started at least two weeks before it is finally poured over corn tortillas filled with shredded duck. The mole has a slow-burning intensity but it’s also smooth, like the smoky mezcal from which Tobalá borrowed its name.

Riverdale is not the first corner of the Bronx where you’d go to hunt for good Mexican food, let alone the intricate, slow-brewed moles of Oaxaca. More Mexicans live in the South Bronx, where immigrants from that country have founded La Morada, Taqueria Tlaxcalli, La Cueva Fonda Mexicana and other restaurants.

Tobalá was founded by its 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 in the neighborhood. When they left, they decided to stay nearby and focus on Oaxaca, where they have been going annually since spending a wedding anniversary there several years ago.

Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

Their new dining room is stone-colored and soothing, filled with Oaxacan ceramics, wood tables, seats of woven straw and shelves of mezcal. While it was under construction, Mr. López went back to Oaxaca for several months, learning to grind guaje seeds into mole verde and to blend the bright, tart salsa verde taquera he now serves at Tobalá with a few fragile blades of the wild herb called pipicha.

It was in Oaxaca, too, that Mr. López became familiar with chicatanas. An edible species of ant that can be caught just once a year when it comes up from under the ground to feast on tree leaves, chicatanas have a nutty flavor with an undertone of mushrooms. 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 tangy and should become even more flavorful when corn is in season locally.

Pulpo de puerto is a stew of octopus and potatoes simmered in a thick, rust-colored salsa. At moments I would have sworn it was a Spanish recipe, if not for the sweetly insistent taste of guajillo chiles and another flavor, hard to place until I remembered that Mr. López calls the salsa “chicatana sauce.”

It’s not all edible ants, though.

Carne asada, made with a thick New York strip, is straightforward enough. It is served over chileatole, a corn soup that was oddly bland in this rendition, and not much of an asset to the beef. Much more helpful to the meat were a few spoonfuls of dark and crunchy salsa macha, one of three house salsas.

There is a very respectable grilled branzino, butterflied and sprinkled with fresh and ground chiles, ready to be flaked and folded into a steaming-hot tortilla. These are pressed and griddled throughout the night by a dedicated tortilla cook, and they are one reason Tobalá’s tacos are so good. The tacos de barbacoa in particular are little marvels, packed with juicy shreds of lamb that taste of fire and oranges.

Citrus juice runs through the excellent cochinita, the annatto-stained 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 has roots in and around Sinaloa, is based on versions Mr. López ate in the Oaxacan beach town of Puerto Escondido. Shrimp marinated with onions and dried chiles are plunged into a pool of juiced cucumbers and green chiles blended with pepicha.

Green and white moles appear from time to time. I haven’t managed to catch either one yet, but I had a velvety salsa roja, its brooding intensity an ideal complement for the tender, creamy flesh of roast Cornish hen.

Tobalá is not the spot to go if you are seeking an encyclopedic education in Oaxacan cuisine. (Most of those spots are in Oaxaca.) The region’s repertory is represented more deeply at La Morada. It is handled with more freewheeling inventiveness at Claro, the chef T.J. Steele’s restaurant near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

But the Lópezes have put together an alluring package in Riverdale. The menu looks into 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 getting precious about it, an attitude that carries through to the sweet tamales offered for dessert. One is chocolate with chocolate sauce and reduced milk; another is pineapple with fresh coconut and pineapple compote. Both are mounded parcels of masa steamed in banana leaves, in the Oaxacan style.

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