A family-run Mexican restaurant offers refuge in the Bronx

March 31st, 2016  |  Published in Melting Pot

A native of Puebla, Mexico, Susan Mata prepares food reminiscent of her native land. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz.

A native of Puebla, Mexico, Susana Mata prepares food reminiscent of her native land. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz.

The phone starts ringing as evening orders come in. Jordanna Mata repeats them in rapid Spanish: “Molotes! Carne enchilada! Ceviche! ”

A petite linguistics student at Rutgers University, Jordanna, 29, has an important oral exam in two days. But tonight, instead of studying, she chose to help at their family restaurant, Xochimilco (so-chee-mil-co), on 653 Melrose Avenue in South Bronx. They are booked for a big Mexican party later in the evening.

Once a predominantly Irish neighborhood, the South Bronx was transformed by the arrival of blacks and Puerto Ricans 60 years ago, followed by a wave of Mexican immigrants in the ‘80s, most of them from the rural and agrarian parts of the state of Puebla. A 2010 census by the Mexican government showed that a third of the population of Zapotitlán Salinas, the main region in Puebla, had immigrated to the US in the last 25 years.

Rafael Mata Sr., 52, owner of Xochimilco and patriarch of Mata clan, is an imposing man with the contrasting sweet voice of a 10-year-old. When economic hardship hit in 1984, he quit his engineering studies and arrived in New York City with his young wife, Susana, and their one-year-old son, Rafael Jr.

Sangria prepared by Rafael Mata, Sr. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz.

Sangria prepared by Rafael Mata, Sr. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz.

His first job was as a bus boy at the French pastry shop Les Elise des Delices on E. 89th and Madison Ave. “Michael Douglas used to buy his morning coffee there,” he says. When it closed, he found a job at a French restaurant, La Côte Basque, during the day and took a bartending course at Columbia while working at the university’s Faculty House in the evenings.

La Côte Basque closed in 2004, which led to a waiter’s job at Rosa Mexicano, a mid-priced Mexican restaurant on E. 58th and 1st Avenue. Mata worked long hours there as a waiter while bringing up a growing family. At one point, they all went back to Mexico, hoping to own a business there – but in six months, they were back in New York.

He and Susana, 53, a shy and serene woman, dream of returning one day. “I miss the freedom and security of living in my own culture,” says Susana, through Mata’s translation.

About nine years ago, Mata heard that Xochimilco, which means “place of the flower sown land” in Nahuatl, was up for sale; he bought it immediately. He paid $70,000 for the lease and the equipment, depending solely on his 23 years’ savings.

The handmade quality of Xochimilco’s food is well-known in the Bronx. Of the recently-opened Chipotle nearby, Mata’s son Gio, who manages the business, says, “They make refrigerated food; we make fresh food.”

“This is my baby,” Mata says as he attends to every detail of his restaurant  — except the actual cooking, which his wife, Susana, is in charge of. Their sons and daughter help to make go of this mom-and-pop restaurant in a culturally and racially mixed neighborhood.

A recent New York Times article listed the 40th Precinct as the neighborhood with New York’s highest crime rate. But Mata sees improvements over what he remembers from 30 years ago: “A lot of graffiti and abandoned buildings; it was really bad. Fifteen years ago they started rebuilding,” he says, pointing toward a neat line of two-story family houses across the road. Two-thirds of Melrose-Mott Haven residents are Hispanic, making the Bronx the borough with the highest concentration of Hispanics in the city. In the past 20 years, the Mexican population here has tripled.

The menu at Xochimilco is a tribute to Southern Mexican cuisine: Mole Poblano (a thick, rich sauce that includes chocolate, fruit and spices) with squash blossoms, pambazo (a “low-end” sandwich of light bread filled with Mexican sausage and potatoes soaked in red sauce), and barbacua de chivo (steamed baby goat’s meat) – a Pueblan homestyle specialty originally cooked in a pit lined with agave leaves and served for special events like the quinceañera, a girl’s fifteenth birthday celebration.

Mixiotes is a specialty served at Mexican parties. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz

Mixiotes is a specialty served at Mexican parties. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz.

Recipes were handed down to Susana from her Mexican grandmother who taught her to cook. She prepares everything in a tiny 13 by 20-foot kitchen with the help from two cooks: Doña Mari, a short woman in a black apron, her hair pulled back in a bun and held in a hair net, and “Güero” or “Light Skin,” a young man whose nickname describes his appearance.

Sandwiched between Extilo Unico Barber Shop and El Bodegon Deli Grocery, Xochimilco is open seven days a week from 10:30 a.m. until midnight and seats 32 people. Its bright interior is accentuated by slight Mexican touches like sombreros, and blue and red checkered curtains and matching napkins.  “I didn’t want to change decor except the linoleum floors,” says Mata. Spanish-language Univision is always on.

Xochimilco’s clientele change with the time of the day. At lunch time, it’s mostly “white culture people” like judges and lawyers from Bronx County Court nearby, tax officials, and cops “who double park, but don’t get a ticket,” laughs Gio. A trained Cessna pilot, Gio chose food over flying, because, he says, “I like being an owner.”

From 6 p.m. on, the customers are Mexican. “A lot of our regulars don’t have a family here,” says Jordanna.

Hector Salas, a 32-year-old waiter at an Upper East Side Mexican restaurant, moved to the Bronx three years ago from Tenango de las Flores in Puebla, but his family has since returned. This hard-core regular comes to Xochimilco every day before his shift. “You feel comfortable here; like you are with your family,” he says at lunch time, while enjoying his favorite food: carne de puerco con verdolagas en salsa verde, which is pork with purslane in green sauce.


Xochimilco is frequented by Mexicans looking for a taste of home. Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz.

Recently, he and his friends threw a party to celebrate another friend’s thirty-second birthday. The guest list reflected a surge in interest in Mexican food: Four of his friends work at Mexican restaurants in Manhattan.

Mata mixed sangria for the group. “I’m showing off!” he laughs as he layers the pitcher with orange juice, wine, brandy, apple and other fruits. The food included crispy-fried tacos dorados and molotes, or fried quesadillas, for starters. The main dish was mixiotes, chicken marinated in aromatic chiles and herbs, wrapped in parchment and steamed for hours.

From her kitchen, Susana throws a glance at the party guests. Remembering her cousins she used to cook for, “just like back at home,” she says, smiling.

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