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Restaurant Review: A journey that began in Oaxaca continues in the Bronx at Tobalá

Sometimes it takes me a full meal before I know if I want to write about a new restaurant. In Tobaláan eight-month-old Mexican place in Riverdale in the Bronx, he 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 with ice. The carajillo was invented in Spain and became even more popular in Mexico, but is eclipsed in New York by the espresso martinis. This is very bad. The espresso martini is a decent cocktail, but a well made carajillo is excellent. A concoction of ink under a luxurious layer of foam, it is a union of opposites, bitter and sweet, caffeine and alcohol, liquid and foam, darkness and sun.

Despite its simplicity, or because of it, the carajillo is not easy to carry out. Tobalá makes one of the best I’ve had, here or in Mexico. After a couple of drinks, I found myself hoping this wasn’t a fluke, that the cooks were paying as close attention to detail as the bartenders. A taste of the duck enmoladas told me yes.

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

Riverdale isn’t the first corner of the Bronx where you’d go for good Mexican food, let alone Oaxaca’s intricate, slow-moving moles. More Mexicans live in the South Bronx, where immigrants from that country have founded The purple, Taqueria Tlaxcalli, The Mexican Fonda Cave 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 Lopezes, who live in Riverdale, used to work together at another neighborhood Mexican restaurant. When they left, they decided to stay close by and focus on Oaxaca, where they have been going annually since they celebrated their wedding anniversary there several years ago.

Her new dining room is stone-colored and soothing, filled with Oaxacan pottery, wooden tables, woven-straw seats, and shelves of mezcal. While it was under construction, Mr. López returned to Oaxaca for several months, learning to grind gourd seeds into mole verde and to mix the bright, tangy green taco sauce he now serves in Tobalá with a few brittle blades of the wild herb called pipicha. .

It was also in Oaxaca that Mr. López became acquainted with chicatanas. A species of edible ant that can be caught just once a year when it comes out from under the ground to feast on tree leaves, chicatanas have a nutty flavor with an undertone of fungus. In Tobalá, ants season an aioli that is mixed with corn kernels in corners — essentially corn on the cob, sprinkled, like corn, with Cotija cheese and tajine dust. Tobalá esquites are creamy and spicy 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 sauce. At times I would have sworn it was a Spanish recipe, if it weren’t for the sweet, insistent flavor of the guajillo chiles and another flavor, hard to place until I remembered that Mr. Lopez calls the sauce “chicatana sauce.”

However, not everything is edible ants.

Roast beef, made with a thick New York strip, is pretty straightforward. It’s served over chileatole, a corn soup that was strangely bland in this version, and not very good for meat. Much more useful for meat were a few tablespoons of dark, crisp macha sauceone of three house sauces.

There’s a very respectable grilled branzino, shaped like a butterfly and dusted with fresh and ground chiles, ready to be crumbled and folded into a steaming tortilla. These are pressed and grilled overnight by a dedicated tortilla maker, and are one of the reasons Tobalá tacos are so good. The barbacoa tacos in particular are little wonders, filled with juicy strips of lamb that taste of fire and oranges.

The citrus juice runs through the excellent little pig, the achiote-smeared pork packages 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 accounts that López ate in the Oaxacan coastal town of Puerto Escondido. Shrimp marinated with onion and dried chiles are submerged in a pool of juice from cucumbers and green chiles blended with pepicha.

Green and white polka dots appear from time to time. I haven’t managed to nab either yet, but I had a velvety red sauce, its brooding intensity an ideal complement to the tender, creamy meat of the roast Cornish hen.

Tobalá is not the place to go if you are looking for an encyclopedic education in Oaxacan cuisine. (Most of those places are in Oaxaca.) The region’s repertoire is more deeply represented at La Morada. It is handled with more carefree inventiveness in ClearChef TJ Steele’s restaurant near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

But the Lopezes have created a compelling package on Riverdale. The menu looks in unexpected places; the service is warm and outgoing, and the bar takes its mezcal and cocktails very seriously. The restaurant tries to stay true to Mexico without becoming prized for it, an attitude reflected in 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 bundles of dough piled high steamed in banana leaves, Oaxacan style.

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