When Carnitas El Atoradero closed its doors last spring, the news inspired laments far beyond the pint-size storefront in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. Many a food blogger had documented their obsession with the authentic Mexican fare owner Denisse Lina Chavez had been serving, luring mole-lovers to a quarter of the Bronx that doesn’t usually get many visitors from other parts of the city.
El Atoradero started as a tiny temporary taco operation run out of the back of Chavez’ small Mexican grocery, and quickly expanded into a not-much-more expansive restaurant next door. The eatery continued to attract fans as Chavez whipped up mouthwatering Mexican dishes with imported ingredients that she sometimes risked life and limb to track down. A lease dispute led to its close last year, but Mott Haven’s loss is Prospect Heights’ gain. Brooklyn resident Noah Arenstein (a partner in Bushwick’s Arrogant Swine and a loyal fan of Chavez’ culinary creations), had the brilliant idea of reopening El Atoradero in a space he’d already been working on (formerly home to the short-lived Mason & Mug).
So just half a year later, the newest incarnation of El Atoradero is here, with Chavez trading in her hole-in-the-wall for a full-size restaurant that’s much larger than its four-table predecessor, and complete with upgrades like a custom masa machine for fresh tortillas made on-site, plus a few Brooklyn-style additions (think blood orange wheat ale and $4 Mexican coke). The new Atoradero features returning favorites like picadita rellena–a shallow boat of masa (corn dough), slightly thicker than a tortilla and filled to the brim with a meat of your choice, and quesadillas with squash blossoms or huitlacoche (a Mexican corn fungus).
Perhaps the most notable new addition is the fact that the new masa machine turns out exclusively blue-corn creations, which makes for hearty tortillas that stand up to Chavez’ very saucy meats, and sturdy blue-corn chips to dip into her delicious guacamole. The Mott Haven pricing did not come along for the ride (that would probably be too much to ask given Prospect Heights rents these days), and it’s perhaps safe to say that $15 cemita sandwiches and $20 plates of cochinita are unlikely to be luring many Bronxites down this way any time soon.
On my first bites last week I found everything from a chicken tinga burrito to chiles rellenos very flavorful, although I have to say I was a little underwhelmed given all the hype, and no single dish blew me away. Perhaps El Atoradero has just been unfairly burdened with sky-high expectations, but I didn’t taste anything that will make me abandon my favorite Brooklyn Mexican spot, Citrico, which happens to be only a couple feet away on the other side of Washington Avenue, in case you happen to be in the mood for a very-easy-on-the-feet taco crawl.
Only a few blocks further up Washington, this food-blessed neighborhood is also welcoming the best of another borough. In Elmhurst, Queens, Manadsanan Sutipayakul has very quickly attracted a following for her adventurous Thai street food, at the popular Plant Love House, which opened in 2014. Sutipayakul’s daughter Benjaporn Chua, one of the co-owners, says it was fervent fans from Brooklyn trekking up north who convinced them to add a spinoff restaurant in Prospect Heights.
The new LOOK By Plant Love House serves up some of the same street food faves as the original, like spicy zabb chicken wings, and the epic $25 family-style tray of papaya salad, topped with those spicy wings, sticky rice, vermicelli noodles, pork sausage, vegetables and boiled eggs (plus fermented fish and crab if you’re really looking for an authentic feast). This is a salad for the type of person (me) who visits those make-your-own salad bars with the intentions of eating a healthy lunch and comes out with a bacon-bits-blue-cheese-breaded-chicken, hold-the-lettuce concoction of unhealthy amazingness.
LOOK also serves up some of the same way-beyond-pad-Thai noodle dishes found at Red Hook’s exceptional duo Kao Soy and Chiang Mai. A server steered me toward what she billed as their most popular offering: num prik phow tom yum goong yai, an epic chili and rice-noodle soup bowl topped with a pork patty, jumbo head-on shrimp, a slightly-soft boiled egg, and even several strands of bacon. It may be something of a heart attack in a soup bowl, but the dynamic flavors are spot on, and it’s great to see serious Thai food proliferating at such a rapid pace round these parts. Mains here are mostly $10-$12 and there are tasty Thai iced teas and other soft drinks but no booze yet.
I can’t say that either El Atoradero or LOOK is a game-changing, run-here-from-anywhere-in-NYC destination, but both are solid additions to an already solid food-hood. And, you know, I can’t complain about this trend of taking New York’s most interesting restaurants and reopening them near my house.
708 Washington Avenue (near Prospect Place )
LOOK By Plant Love House
622 Washington Avenue (near Pacific Street)