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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

A Hidden Gem: A Profile on the Restaurant Taqueria Lenchita

It is often in large cities that we find the best food, but sometimes you have to look in spots least suspected to find hidden gems. The restaurant ‘Taqueria Lenchita’ is an example of just that.
Anthony Ortega
The front of Taqueria Lenchita shows the visible improvements of the restaurant made by Felix Lucero, in the less than five years since it opened.

It was an unusually hot Saturday when my mom suggested we go to a new restaurant that had been recommended to her. She hadn’t cooked that day and my father was ready to eat hours ago, and as long as there was orange Snapple, my little brother Adrian didn’t care if the restaurant was guarded by rabid dogs or had witches flying around it. He’d find a way in, as four year olds always do. My brother, Edwin, asked if we could use DoorDash, and my mother reprimanded him for even thinking of such a thing. 

The restaurant was only a mile away – no more than 25 minutes on foot – so we decided to walk. On the way, my brother and I noticed a brightly colored banner that read “Little Italy, The Bronx.” I would have asked my father what “Little Italy” is, but I was quickly distracted by the hospital nearby, St. Barnabas Hospital. The hospital looked different than I remembered. The bricks had grown those long streaks of brown and the air conditioners looked as though they were made out of moldy plastic rather than clean white metal. It was situated atop a hill with dying vines spreading onto the walls. From the angle we were looking at it, it really did look like an old prison. 

I overheard my mother and father talking about the restaurant while my brother and I were competing to find the best dandelion growing in between the sidewalk. It was a nice sidewalk, a nice, polished shade of cement gray. The intoxicating smell of tires filled the air since there was an autoshop just past the corner, and there was an unusually wide road, too. She mentioned to my dad that the restaurant we were going to was Mexican and then I heard my dad say that our grandparents would be waiting for us at the D’Auria-Murphy Triangle. 

It was a triangle-park that marked an intersection with no road lights, but luckily the roads were empty that day, so we had no trouble getting across. Since it was Spring, the trees surrounding the Cristopher Columbus statue located inside the park were growing to form a beautiful arch over the sidewalk. That cool, feel-good, spring breeze made the leaves rustle softly and you could begin to hear the birds chirping their song. The scattered shadows casted by the branches onto the sidewalk made avoiding imperfections in the sidewalk difficult. 

We went around the park and met up with my grandparents who scolded us with an expression that said, ‘what took you so long?’, playfully of course. For an old couple, they certainly walk fast. We walked up to a narrow one-way road, and another intersection. 

This intersection looked nothing like the one before; it had cracking roads, gloomy streets, and was narrow, too. It was the complete opposite of the park and open streets I saw earlier, and the washed-out color of the buildings made the lively blue skies of spring turn a melancholy gray. 

There was a laundromat on the same block that held two stores. Since the laundromat was incredibly long, there would be no way someone could have seen the other half of the block from afar.

As we walked closer, it turned out that the two stores I noticed weren’t two stores but actually one. I wondered why it looked like that: the building material was cleanly split to make space for two different stores yet they were one whole. 

And the store wasn’t even a store, as it was the restaurant we were going to. The whole front row of the right-side was glass with black-framing. There was a green and red hood that popped out of the wall. It stated “Tortilleria Taqueria Lenchita” on it.

We went through the entrance door, and I was amazed at the sight. The restaurant had a mural on its west wall. The mural was a mock-up of the Mexican desert clashing with the flourishing Sierra, with light blue skies, scarce clouds, thriving cacti, and the icons of the Mexican flag to the right, the eagle wrestling with a snake on a cactus. 

The wall opposite the mural was built using Spanish-colonial techniques: brownish-pink paint, white clay, and a brick base. Towards the end of the place was a bar built in the style of an outdoor patio with a wooden table top, a pillar made out of brown clay at each corner, and a clay tiled roof. The restaurant was a mix of modern and Spanish architecture, with it being modern on the outside but traditional inside. 

A waitress, no taller than myself, greeted us once we came in. Her uniform matched the color scheme of the restaurant. She greeted us in a very warm and welcoming manner that I haven’t seen much of before in the restaurant industry. There was a man working with her that day who looked considerably older than her. He had a gray mustache and a red cap with the restaurant’s logo on it. He was physically large, but was even shorter than the waitress attending to us. He, like the waitress, had a friendly face. He had an affable demeanor that suited his voice, which reminded me of how the older generations in Mexico would speak in their consoling tone.

My brothers and I sat next to the glass wall so that we could look out to the triangle park. The waitress sat us, then handed out the restaurant’s menu which was laminated with red cloth surrounding the edges of the menu, hugging it tightly. I glanced at the menu and decided I would order enchiladas de mole. 

Enchiladas are rolled up tortillas with your preferred meat inside engulfed in the hot sauce of your choosing. Mole is like melted, spicy, chocolate that is reminiscent of . It is made with chicken, sesame seeds, chocolate, and chilies. My mother hates making mole herself because she said it “is too much for only one night.” She referred to the long process of cooking mole, which depending on how it is prepared, can take almost half or more a day to make alongside its accompanying dish, which is normally rice. 

When the food arrived, it was clear that this was special. The mole was a rich, meaty, dark brown. The rice was golden, and the tortillas nearly rivaled my grandma’s. The aroma that emanated from the dish was enough to make you drool – it had sweet and spicy notes. It’s difficult to describe, but that’s really how it smelled, sweet yet spicy. The enchiladas themselves were topped with Mexican sour cream, cotija cheese, and lettuce. The rice was put to the left side of the oblong plate, along with the black beans it was cooked with. They too were topped with a flurry of cotija cheese that formed a soft pyramid on top of the beans. The dish was organized in such a way that made you eat what you smelled first. The cooks knew that their dish had a strong scent and so they had fun with guiding the soon-to-be regular customer on how to eat it. 

The next time I would return to the restaurant would be June to celebrate my little brother’s Pre-K graduation. Then we went again for my brother’s birthday, then for my grandma’s birthday, my father’s, mother’s, until we started going every other week. My cousins from Upstate New York got hooked on the food as well and so we had no other choice but to go; no one objected to the thought of going to a restaurant every other week, but that didn’t last very long. 

I went again to the restaurant to talk to Felix Lucero, the owner of the restaurant. He and his wife come from a small town bordering Ilamacingo in Puebla, Mexico which is surrounded by the Sierra Mixteca – a long and jagged mountain range extending from Oaxaca to Puebla. The location of the town is truly nowhere, or it seems that way because the mountains block any evidence of a horizon. 

The town is in the middle of a natural wonder. It is so concealed from the nearest city by the Sierra that the stars beam at you with blinding intensity, the clouds are so low it’s as though you can touch them, and in the Spring the mountains blossom into thriving forests leaving no trace of the desert. The fog spewed out by the mountains is akin to the fog of the Amazon. The town has great potential to become a major tourist attraction for its nature, but some things are better kept secret. 

The beauty of Mr. Lucero’s hometown is shown through the vibrant colors of the restaurant’s mural, framed by the white clay used to decorate the walls.

I like that nothing about the restaurant’s appearance has changed from the first time I visited. It’s always a familiar and welcoming sight walking in. Even on slow days, you always see at least a pair of people drinking coffee or talking with the staff. It’s a very serene place when it’s slow; the music is satisfyingly modest and the food tastes all the more delectable. 

As I walked, waiting for Mr. Lucero to arrive, there were two people sitting at the front of the table originally prepared for us. They were laughing and cheering at something inaudible, clearly enjoying themselves.

I was greeted almost instantly by the man who was assisting the waitress the first time we went to the restaurant. He offered me a drink – which I graciously accepted knowing it would be rude to decline, so I took the opportunity to try the restaurant’s café de olla. Café de olla is made with Mexican ground coffee, cinnamon, and raw dark sugar. Star anise and cloves can be added too but that is depending on your liking, the coffee’s essentials however are the first few ingredients mentioned. And it tasted like home. 

From left to right, the flavors are: pineapple and mango, cucumber and lime, horchata , watermelon and kiwi, strawberry and watermelon. Horchata is made by soaking white rice in water with cinnamon, then milk and vanilla. These are some of the other drinks worth trying made by the restaurant. (Anthony Ortega)

Then I saw a tall, light-skinned, robust man with splotchy hair. He had a beard finely cut on its edges giving his jawlines a sharp look. He looked as I imagined Mr. Lucero would..

I waited there for a few minutes until I was greeted by a man wearing a white apron, a black facemask, a cap in the same style as the waiter’s except in black, and wearing a uniform that was hidden by the white apron. It took me a while but then I realized this is Mr. Lucero. 

He was not a tall man in a dark suit, nor was he an intimidating businessman with a beard and robust build. He was a cook in his own restaurant. He did not care about his status as owner of the restaurant, he got his hands dirty alongside his staff. He was humble. I forgot that I was talking to the owner of arguably one of the best Mexican restaurants in the Bronx. He is a very friendly man, soft-spoken yet firm, like his handshake.

“Why did you open the restaurant?” I asked. It was a question that, although seemed simple, Mr. Lucero was hesitant to answer. 

“Bueno,” after a short pause, “pues lo hice por el amor de mi mama.” I did it for the love of my mother. “Because of her, I built this place with my three brothers. We worked together to make this restaurant in her memory and name. That’s why I named the restaurant ‘Lenchita.’ It’s after my mother. I’ve missed her a lot since she died…19 years.” 

“Wait so she died when she or you were 19? Or 19 years ago?” 

“Oh no, she died 19 years ago when I was 20.” For a 39 year old man, Mr. Lucero did not look his age. In fact he looked younger, like a man in his late-20s to early-30s. His hair gave him that appearance. It was not slicked back, balding, receding, or damaged. He had very full, and youthful wavy hair, concealed by his cap. 

“I loved my mother and she loved the kitchen too. When I rented out the first location [the kitchen area now], it was pretty small and we didn’t have a lot of people. People ate behind the kitchen. Most of the space was taken up by the kitchen but we have two floors now. The basement is where we cook larger orders. I rented this location with my 3 brothers and with help from the people working as the chefs. I know each of the chefs as friends and we treat each other with respect. They’re like family to me.”

“Didn’t you ever feel discouraged by your dream? I mean with the competition too, in a neighborhood like this, any business could struggle to compete against the incredibly popular Italian and Albanian businesses.” Little Italy, the Bronx was well known for its superb European cuisine, especially Italian and lately Albanian. The old Italian soul of the neighborhood resonates strongly with the people, but the resurgence of Mexican and Albanian cuisine dares to challenge Italian’s iron reign

“Oh, no-no. I don’t think we’re competing with anyone. They do their own thing and I do mine. I don’t want to cause problems. I have faith in God that everything goes well. I put my trust in God to help me go through the troubles of opening a restaurant in a country I just arrived in. We do do events though for our customers. Every holiday we have a surprise for the guests who walk in and the people really enjoy them.” What Mr. Lucero is referencing are Lenchita’s holiday celebrations. On Valentines, Halloween, Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s day, the restaurant has a DJ or band play music for the customers and the staff decorate the place in paper cut-outs, streamers, and icons. During Christmas, they place tubular lights inside and outside the restaurant. There is a small tree growing outside the restaurant’s door, so the staff place yellow globe lights as if the tree were a Christmas tree. The restaurant celebrates Cinco de Mayo, since the owner and his family are from Puebla, Mexico. 

The music that booms from the speakers is not anything mainstream. It’s more regional Mexican music with the occasional large pop stars. Most of the songs that play during the holiday events are dancing songs, so you can never expect to have a silent meal during those special days, but in a good way. The restaurant blooms to life in a fierce explosion; people laughing hearty laughs, brothers getting along, couples dancing at the center, the restaurant becomes a small ballroom for a moment. At one end of the restaurant, you can see mothers celebrating their first child. At the other, you see old men in canes making amends, laying down old grudges. 

“We opened the restaurant in October 2019, 5 months before the pandemic…We never struggled with customers though. We’ve always had loyal patrons buy from us. We managed to survive off of mobile orders and as soon as restrictions were lifted people came back to the restaurant and ate here. During the pandemic I had the idea to make a donation to the hospital nearby – St. Barnabas. We gave food to the hospital and the people were really grateful for it. I’ve liked giving to people since I was young because it made me feel good. I grew up in poverty and everyone around me was struggling in everything. My mother would sell sweets and I’d help her to make enough money to have something to eat that isn’t lollipops or ice cream. I guess you could say I was influenced by my childhood, seeing all the suffering that I did as a kid.”  The poverty that Mr. Lucero speaks of is the disastrous situation in Mexico during the 1990s. Puebla is one of the poorest states in Mexico today, with only 11% of the population being labeled as non-vulnerable to poverty, and 50% living in moderate poverty. It would be hard to imagine how even more dreadful the living standards were in Mexico 30 years ago, when in 1996, 63% of the population made less than it costs to buy chicken breast. 

“I wasn’t born here so when I first came to America, I didn’t know how to open a restaurant, so my 3 brothers came to an agreement to make it together. I arrived in Texas and came to New York to settle and I happened to find this spot by chance. I called the landlord to rent out the location, but I wanted to do something different with the design. I wanted to bring a piece of Mexico with me. That’s why I chose the design styles you see. It brings back memories from my childhood and maybe other people could relate too.” Then spoke Mr. Lucero’s wife, Erendida, who had just arrived wearing casual street clothes.  

“He [my husband] wanted to do something different than all the others. He wanted to stand out and be unique from everyone else around. He traveled here with a tortilleria–” 

“Wait, seriously?” I accidentally cut her off mid-sentence, but what she said blew my mind. I apologized and let her continue.

“It’s the machine that makes tortillas, from San Louis Potosi, to really be authentic.” Tortilleria, not to be confused with the tiny masa-presses, or the store itself, are large machines. You insert the masa, which can be a traditional-style of corn flour, and the machine does all the rest of the flipping and creation of the tortillas by itself. All that needs to be done is heat the tortillas. This method of making tortillas is very common in Mexico, but the idea alone of Mr. Lucero bringing with him from central Mexico a machine that can be larger than 3 meters astounds me. 

“My wife likes to help me in the basement cooking too. Some of the menu items like Tablita Lenchita, Molcajete Lenchita, are a tribute to my mother’s own recipes. I was scared a bit at first but my brothers and father had my back, but my father isn’t around anymore to see everything I do.” 

I noticed however that the restaurant was getting packed fast, so I wrapped everything up and bid farewell to Mr. Lucero. He went straight into the kitchen and then down to the basement to begin cooking again. He is a very good person and he didn’t strike me badly either. Mr. Lucero was not overly regal with his status nor intimidating. A waiter soon came over to me and asked, “What would you like to eat?” 

I was a bit hungry, so I asked for their huarache de carne enchilada. A huarache is a large fluffy tortilla with beans covering its surface, then meat, sour cream, cotija cheese, and lettuce. Carne enchilada, literally translated, is spiced meat, usually beef. It has a unique taste, starting with a mouth-watering scent and then a kick to punish your tongue for having its guard down on the spice. The meat is chopped into small bits to be able to decorate the huarache, which got its name because its shape resembles the outline of a sandal. The word, “huarache,” comes from the indigenous Purepecha tribal language from Michoacán, Mexico.

Once the order came I asked how much it was in total. This time the waiter was taller than me by a good amount, and he was wearing the same uniform as the waiter who greeted me when I walked in. He shared the same wavy hair and facial features as his father, except looked even younger.  

“How much is it?” I asked him for the total but I had an idea of what was coming next. That age-old custom of Mexican hospitality was going to strike and I could feel it. 

“No charge, it’s on us.” He insisted. It would be rude to just leave without giving anything so I tried to tip him while also paying for the food at the same time, which was no more than $11.00.  

“No, me regañan.” meaning  if he took the money from me as payment, he’d get in trouble. 

It took a bit more wrangling but I finally conceded, thanked him, and carried on packing my stuff to leave the restaurant, while saying goodbye to the old man who attended me from the beginning and to the waiter, who later introduced himself to me as Mr. Lucero’s son, Randy. As I walked out the restaurant I noticed that the feel-good spring breeze was blowing, except it was now the end of winter. The days are still short, but it was only around mid-noon so the sun was as bright as ever. I could hear the small brown birds tweeting lightly, but no leaves were rustling because they’re all on the ground or in the dirt being eaten by worms and bugs. There were more cars by the light-less intersection so I had to be more careful walking through the crossroads. I tried looking back at the restaurant but the cars and triangle park gates completely blurred the restaurant from sight, yet I could still see the blur of another family walking in through the glass doors. 

Tortilleria y Taqueria Lenchita is a restaurant without equal. The story embedded within its walls brings the restaurant to life and makes the cracked street euphoric with energy bursting at the seams. In the shadows of the Italian giants surrounding the restaurant, this small sphere of Mexico welcomes all who enjoy Mexican cuisine without having to drain the bank. You have to always expect seconds. Every bite of food is made with such tender care and attention it is even fit for a newborn, although I wouldn’t recommend giving them salsa. 

It’s a place where any of your worries or fears leave to sit on the bench for an hour or two, finally letting you relax. Even if it is by yourself, going there will never be a regret, unless you order the camarones a la diabla, deviled shrimp, which will make you feel sorry for yourself for having a low spice tolerance. If you’ve had deviled shrimp before, you have not the slightest idea of what Lenchita’s shrimp is like. You’ll regret not being able to finish such a savory meal.

Tortilleria y Taqueria Lenchita is a restaurant without equal. The story embedded within its walls brings the restaurant to life and makes the cracked street euphoric with energy bursting at the seams.

About the Contributor
Anthony Ortega, Staff Reporter
Anthony Ortega is a Staff Reporter for ‘The Science Survey.’ He sees journalism as a way to get a message across to a wider audience and tell a story that may be hidden from view. He believes journalism is a path to get to know people you may not have known before and explore the world around you. Being an avid traveler, Anthony likes to explore new ideas he might pick up along the way and capture the essence of these new places through photography. He enjoys photography because of how well it can capture the atmosphere of any place or thing and tell a story through a single image.