BUSHWICK — On the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and Stockholm Street in Bushwick, a new eatery celebrating Central Mexican food, Gordo’s Cantina, opened at the beginning of the year. It all started when co-owner, Paulina Loyo-Grigonis moved from León, a city in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, to New York 10 years ago and met her future husband, JR Savage, who is from Queens.
“Literally the day I met him, he said ‘I want to open a restaurant that’s called Gordo’s Cantina,’” Loyo-Grigonis told us, smiling. When they traveled to Mexico together, Loyo-Grigonis’ grandmother cooked for him, to get to know the cuisine better and introduce him to family staples.
Gordo’s Cantina started out as a pop-up at a Hell’s Kitchen bar called Bar9 in 2013, serving up their famed El Chapo – a bacon-wrapped hot-dog with pico de gallo, a popular after-club treat back in Mexico. When Bar9 was switching hands, the couple decided to move the operation into fairs and festivals, with just three items on the menu: guacamole, street corn, and the El Chapos.
They landed a space five years ago in Long Island City, in a former Chinese take-out joint. There, they hired their chef Reyna Morales from Mexico City, who focused on more authentic, homemade dishes packed with flavor, instead of just street food like tacos. Once their lease ended, they found their new space at 140 St Nicholas Avenue and kept the menu concept.
“We’re not just a taco stand anymore,” Loyo-Grigonis said. “The quality and the care that we put into this stuff is really really good.”
While Bushwick has a large Mexican population and plenty of taco options, Gordo’s Cantina stands out with its Central Mexican focus and complex entrees.
“Everything feels a little bit more naked, there’s not a lot of toppings,” Loyo-Grigonis speaks of the food inspired by her hometown. She elaborates that if the meat itself is well-seasoned, it doesn’t need the toppings stealing the show. Like their suadero bistek tacos ($22), with beer- and lime-marinated flank steak, pan-fried with caramelized onion to simple, yet mouthwatering perfection, served minimally with a salsa and lime wedge. Or their popular taco Gobernador ($16) with shrimp, menonita cheese and pico de gallo.
Their quesadillas are also open-faced style and not as big as the common variation of two tortillas sandwiched together with cheese and other fillings in the middle. Their signature quesadilla is rajas con queso ($12), roasted poblano peppers and corn, all with melted cheese.
The chilaquiles ($10) and tortilla soup ($12) are nostalgic for Loyo-Grigonis and serve as a comfort away from home. She says the chef was able to replicate the chilaquiles sauce almost to identical perfection of her family’s recipe.
“[Chef Morales] managed to nail the sauce almost exactly the way my mom and my grandma used to make it, it’s something super simple, but I’m happy I get to have my chilaquiles,” she said, chuckling.
Chef Morales told us she wants to highlight the spices and aromas of their Mexican ancestors and hopes people will feel the passion and love through her food. The slow and laborious, handmade way is a focus for her cooking, she says, that way the flavors meld and develop better. A testament to that are her amarillo and negro moles ($18), nut-based sauces with yellow peppers and cocoa and charred tortilla, respectively. The sauces are creamy, decadent, but not overpowering, with a hint of heat.
The menu also boasts many vegan and vegetarian options, like their vegan al pastor tacos ($18) with carrots, zucchini, and grilled pineapple, and vegetarian enchiladas ($18) stuffed with mushrooms, leeks, and fennel. Their breakfast burrito is only $5 on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, packed with refried beans and Chihuahua cheese.
While they wait for their liquor license, patrons can enjoy craft espresso beverages, Mexican hot chocolate, and sodas. But, once they can implement their bar program, the owners are going to keep it simple and high-quality with classic margaritas, fresh juices, and carajillo – a drink of hot espresso and Licor 43, a Spanish liquor with citrus, herbs, and vanilla, that made its way to Mexico during colonization.
Loyo-Grigonis hopes the customers feel at ease when they visit, like they’re visiting a friend’s or family’s house. The place is sun-soaked, dotted with plants and succulents, and family knick-knacks, like old photos of Loyo-Grigonis’ hometown and father.
“There’s a lot of crazy places [in Bushwick], where you can grab something, but can’t really sit down and eat and hang out,” Loyo-Grigonis said. “And Reyna cooks with a lot of love, and passion, I think that you can [feel] that in her food.”
You can visit Gordo’s Cantina at 140 St Nicholas Avenue, Thursday – Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday – Wednesday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.