Gordo’s Cantina, a brand new restaurant on the eastern border of Bushwick, offers something rare for New York: skillfully executed, authentic Mexican food without a solid fine-dining price tag (dinner for two at Enrique Olivera’s Cosme can easily set you back $300), set before diners in a low key, friendly space by people possessed of similar qualities.
Reyna Morales is the executive chef at Gordo’s. She is not, a marquis name along the lines of Chef’s Table star Olivera. What she is, however, judging from the generous tasting I was treated to one afternoon by her and owners JR Savage and Paulina Loyo-Grigoris, is a chef whose early culinary training in CDMX and 25+ years in the restaurant industry have finally found a megaphone.
Loyo-Grigonis, a Guanajuato, Mexico native, and Queens-born-and-raised Savage first met Morales several years ago when they were up to their elbows in Bar Nine, the couple’s maiden safari on the notoriously treacherous sands of the NYC hospitality industry, located in Hell’s Kitchen. She stayed on when, in 2015, they opened Gordo’s first iteration in Long Island City (LIC), where she was officially anointed “chef.”
“LIC wasn’t ready for us,” observed Savage from behind his restaurant’s small L-shaped counter, where customers can sit, graze and gaze through floor-to-ceiling windows upon the briskly moving past. “The area wasn’t much besides hookers, strip clubs and truck drivers out there.”
“It seemed to make sense at the time, but it wasn’t as strong as we thought,” agreed Loyo-Grigonis to my left. “We did stay there for four years, but it was never consistent. Here in Bushwick everyone is so much more interested in local businesses.”
Savage suddenly pivoted and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a second later with the first of several miniaturized dishes (scaled down so as not to rupture this writer’s delicate digestive tract), a tiger shrimp cocktail whose toothsome maritime constituents swam in a mixture of clamato and pico de gallo, seasoned subtly with chipotle and lemon.
A man whose Italian heritage inculcated in him a general comfort with food and cooking, Savage became enamored of Mexican food after high school, when he lived in the Cancun area for three years, working with a family friend throwing parties.
“Cancun is kind of like Miami, in that people go to work there seasonally and then return to their own cities,” explained Savage. “So I became friends with all these people I worked with. And I met my wife in New York vis-a-vis one of these friendships formed in Mexico.”
Between closing Bar Nine in Hell’s Kitchen and opening the first Gordo’s in 2015, Savage and Loyo-Grigonis, who married in 2012, ran a catering business that serviced a variety of different festivals, including the HBO Film Festival in Bryant Park and the Hester St. Fair. Until Gordo’s in LIC opened its doors, the couple had very limited prep space and so kept their festival offerings modest: street corn, guacamole and El Chapo, aka bacon-wrapped hotdog.
El Chapo is one of the remainders from the Gordo team’s itinerant days on the new restaurant’s menu (the street corn is there, too); a miniature version was set before me on a small metal tray, nestled snug in a potato bread bun and bathed in pico de gallo and a discreet drizzle of crema. The item is, in effect, a shout-out to Loyo-Grigonis’ club-goeing days in her native Leon, the largest city in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. I ate it in two bites, and while ingesting bacon-wrapped dogs is always best shit-faced, it still rang all the right bells on its journey to my stomach.
Following close on the heels of El Chapo was something I had never encountered before: a “gobernador,” unusual for its combining shrimp and cheese (which sit, along with a helping of the ubiquitous pico de gallo, in a thick, yellow corn tortilla).
“[The Gobernador] is from Monterrey, in the north of Mexico,” said Loyo-Grigonis, before observing that “people have weird opinions about putting shrimp and cheese together, but they change their minds pretty quick.”
“I was one of those people,” smiled Savage. “I had never tasted anything like that before.”
Fine-dining establishments like Cosme and Casa Enrique aside, New York has yet to become a dependable market for Mexican food that doesn’t in some way acquiesce to the public-at-large’s expectations for the country’s cuisine, which rarely align with what’s actually eaten in Mexico. Almost every other “ethnic” enclave has had to do a similar waltz with gringo taste buds; American Chinese food is particularly renown for dishes that bear little resemblance to the cuisine of the motherland.
So it’s completely natural that Gordo’s, which doesn’t yet have Chef Olivera’s luxury to serve only what tickles his fancy and nothing else, serve their own version of Kung Pao Chicken – that is to say, a big, tumescent breakfast burrito, served every morning for 5 dollars from 10 am to 3 pm. But for every breakfast burrito – which, by the way, if judging by the small banquet to which I was treated is likely a substantial cut above your everyday breakfast wrap – there are many more dishes that put real Mexican food front and center.
Like the rajas quesadilla, among the best things I tried. Unusually, this quesadilla was splayed out rather than folded, crispy caramelized chihuahua cheese, rajas (strips of nopal cactus), crema and corn displayed in all their glistening glory – like a dissected frog, but even more seductive and inviting.
The rajas quesadilla is one of Gordo’s most popular items, according to Loyo-Grigonis. It’s a particular favorite of vegetarians, who have a good deal to be happy about, including a Chile Relleno entree and a platter of enchiladas featuring crimini mushrooms, leeks, fennel and tomatillo salsa. Most remarkably, Morales has concocted a vegan take on that timeless taco classic, al pastor. It’s reportedly a hit among Bushwegans.
And then there were the moles, which constituted the tasting’s finale. No bullshit: I was blind-sided by how good they were, one brown, the other yellow, lying there majestically, pooled and glistening in the slanting light of late afternoon sans their accompanying menu items for maximum appreciation for their depth of flavor. Finally, a plancha-crisped carnitas enchilada was placed before me drenched in more yellow mole (the yellow mole is normally served on the menu with a white fish), with brown mole ladled over a single enchilada.
They are flat out ravishing, the moles, even if the addition of a very modest amount of crema may raise the eyebrows of some purists.
As I readied myself to leave, Mr. Savage re-emphasized how central the collaboration between he and and his wife and chef Morales is to Gordo’s raison d’etre.
“That was the important thing,” said Savage with careful emphasis. “That she get acknowledged. I can put together this place and, you know, create a vibe – but the food is her.”
P.S.: Fans of Mexican breakfast (it is peerless) will rejoice in the knowledge that Gordo’s offers brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 4pm (they know their demographic). Also, at the moment, sodas, coffee and homemade horchata are the only beverages being served, but never fear, a liquor license is in Gordo’s immediate future; you’ll soon be able to toast Morales’ food with a glass of mescal or cold beer.
Cover Image Courtesy of Alec Meeker
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