La Morada in Mott Haven, South Bronx, is a restaurant specializing in Oaxacan food, a type of cuisine famous for its varied ingredients that are the result of the mountainous topography and the mixed climates of the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. In this article, Untapped Cities contributor Diego Robayo introduces us to Natalia Mendez, founder of La Morada. Robayo works for the Historic Districts Council, an advocate of New York City’s architectural and cultural heritage. Robayo regularly meets small business owners like Mendez who keep the unique spirit and flavor of New York City’s neighborhoods alive.
Natalia Mendez was born in northwest Oaxaca and she didn’t have experience in the food industry before she founded La Morada in 2009. However, growing up in Oaxaca was enough for her to master the different types of mole and other delicacies that she now serves in her restaurant.
In the winter of 1996, when Natalia arrived in New York City, she was received by extremely cold weather. At the time, The New York Times ran an article titled: “The Blizzard of 1996: The Overview; New York Shut by Worst Storm in 48 Years.” Despite the cold outside, she recalls that the smoke of home-cooked moles kept her and her family warm.
Natalia acclimated to New York City’s freezing weather, determined to give her children a good education — a dream that she now considers fulfilled. Her son, is a painter and poet-in-residence, her daughter is a chef that participated in the reality show Chopped, and another daughter is a software engineer. All of Natalia’s children help her in the restaurant.
Education has always been important to Natalia and she tries to infuse it into the neighborhood with a lending library in the back of the restaurant, and also with her political views. There is a big poster that says “No Deportations,” and it replaced two other posters that used to read “Mesoamerica Resiste” and “Boycott FreshDirect.”
Natalia rejects Fresh Direct because she prefers to buy her ingredients from small local vendors. She also thinks it is unfair that Fresh Direct bought a warehouse in an enormous lot in Mott Haven while small businesses are struggling to pay their rent. Her lease is due in 2020 and she expects it will double.
La Morada is one of the most popular restaurants in Mott Haven with over 300 reviews on Google and a score of 4.6, an uncommon achievement for a restaurant in The Bronx. There is a large menu, including Enfrijoladas with handmade tortillas, back bean sauce, pico de gallo and rice, but Natalia says that their signature dishes are moles with meat or veggies, rice, beans and tortillas. Businesses like La Morada are the heart and soul of New York City.