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LITTLE ONE’S BIG FLAVORS

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My sister and I took our mother to New Mexico to celebrate her 80th birthday. On our way to Santa Fe from the Albuquerque airport, we stopped in a funky little town called Madrid, population about 200. The town’s main drag is two blocks long and lined with a few galleries, small cafes and the kind of clothing stores where incense burns and the proprietor tie-dyes tunics in the rear of the shop.

Nothing has changed much in Madrid since the ’60s when the "hippies" moved in. Their homes, still standing on the little dirt paths off the town’s center, had no electricity or plumbing and were purchased for around $200, or so the story goes. If you glance at the houses, you can still see old stained glass pieces with peace symbols in a couple of windows.

We stopped for lunch at a cafe with a porch painted in wild colors, and a few tables inside where the waitresses called the locals Big Freddy and Little Mommy and a few tourists wore Mexican-style long skirts and turquoise jewelry.

The food was the kind of awful grub that no self-respecting diner cook in New York would serve: not-so-fresh hamburgers made from pre-formed patties and overcooked on the grill; unseasoned macaroni salad; weak coffee. When we mentioned to the waitress that we were in town for mom’s birthday, she brought over a slice of gummy lemon meringue pie with a candle and sang "Happy Birthday."

Everyone whistled.

Big Freddy gave mom the thumbs up.

I was reminded of that experience when I visited Pequena, a Mexican cafe in Fort Greene. Sitting on one of the neighborhood’s quieter, leafy side streets, the tiny eatery sports a porch painted in the same happy tones as the eatery in Madrid. Inside there were a few tables with diners drinking beer and margaritas. The only thing missing were Madrid’s regulars and the visitors wearing squash blossom necklaces - well, that and the awful food.

Two-year-old Pequena ("little one") serves up Mexican fare that rivals some of the better meals I enjoyed during the trip.

Chef Johannes Sanzin developed the menu. Before teaming up with co-owner Chelsea Altman, Sanzin was the executive chef at Bistro St. Mark’s, and still oversees the kitchen of their other venture, Maggie Brown, also in Fort Greene.

While Sanzin is German-born, his kitchen is staffed with a collective of cooks from the Pueblo section of Mexico.

Not everything that emerges from their kitchen is perfection - the guacamole was dull, and a fried fish taco had no discernable flavor - but when everything is in sync in the kitchen, what appears at the table is a delight.

Order the subtly sweet coconut-mango frozen margarita or the truly tart fresh raspberry, and they’ll cool you down quickly. But they’re potent, so sip slowly. With the cocktails, try the "side sampler" appetizer that can feed four: a platter of guacamole, refried black beans with a hint of spicy dried pepper, fresh pico de gallo (chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro) and fabulous slices of sweet, fried plantains. You’ve had better guacamole, but when you fill a warm tortilla with a bit of everything and top it with sour cream, it makes a fine prelude to the meal.

I doubt there’s a more satisfying starter than the big bowl of chicken tortilla soup. The clear chicken broth is rich; chunks of chicken, slices of ripe avocado and fresh tortilla chips (that soak up the liquid and stay chewy) crown the works. A squeeze of lime and fresh cilantro enliven the ingredients.

One dish that is a must-try is the stewed pork enchiladas. The pork is slow-cooked until the meat is sweet and moist, then rolled in soft tortillas, topped with a nose-tingling, spicy green salsa and baked. "Queso fresco," a mild, fresh goat’s milk cheese, melts over the top. It’s luscious.

The chiles relleno are almost as good. A mild poblano pepper is stuffed with a blend of three Oaxcan cheeses, a touch of sharp white cheddar (not authentic but it adds a pleasant sharpness) and the "queso fresco," dipped in a light batter, then fried. It’s the world’s best grilled-cheese sandwich with the pepper standing in for bread. Too bad the tomato sauce, billed as "spicy tomato salsa," was so smoothly textured and flat in flavor.

The only clunker in the meal was the fish taco. The fish was under-fried, leaving it limp, and the smear of chipotle-flavored mayonnaise didn’t have enough oomph to perk up this flaccid dish.

That lackluster entree was redeemed by dessert, particularly the key lime pie. (Sorry, Steve Tarpin, of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, a baker in Red Hook whose pies I’ve raved about for years; I have a new love.) Luz Maria Perez, the baker of Pequena’s key lime pie, nudged yours out of my heart for first place. Perez’s dessert is lushly creamy and veers more toward the tart than sweet. However, it’s her crust that shoots this confection into the stratosphere. Under the filling are decadently buttery, sweet pastry nubs, like you’d find atop a crumb cake, lightly pressed into a crisp layer. The play of smooth and crunchy textures makes eating the pie a blissful experience.

Her flan, with its slightly bitter sugar syrup, is just as good.

As I left Pequena, I edged past a couple drinking beer on the patio and carefully stepped over a tangle of dogs snoozing on the sidewalk. The scene was right out of Madrid.

Big Freddy would give it a thumbs up.

 

Pequena (86 South Portland at Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene) accepts cash only. Entrees: $6-$16. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available from 11:30 am to 4 pm on weekends. For reservations call (718) 643-0000.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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