MOTT HAVEN — From sushi to oxtail stew to Jennifer Lopez-themed cocktails, Mott Haven serves up a wide range of culinary fare from a slew of eateries — and many are just a few blocks apart.
Diners in the mood for Mexican can check out La Morada at 308 Willis Ave. The restaurant has a traditional guacamole recipe and emphasizes making its menu healthy for children and inclusive to vegetarians, leading to frequent use of ingredients such as cacti and mushrooms.
"You can use those to replace almost any meat option," said Marco Saavedra, a waiter and manager at La Morada.
The family-owned-and-operated restaurant also tries to serve as a space for the community and has hosted open mics, movie showings and neighborhood meetings.
It aims to showcase traditional Oaxacan cuisine, the region of Mexico where chef Natalie Mendez is from.
Calientito, a Puerto Rican and Dominican restaurant at 141 Lincoln Ave., also opened with the idea of making sure these native heritages remain strong. Co-owner Eva Diaz, who is from Puerto Rico, said she was surprised by the lack of cultural awareness she encountered when coming to New York.
"To see the absence of culture and bilingualism in the family per se, in the second and third generation, it was a little shocking," she said.
The restaurant tries to keep its Puerto Rican and Dominican cultures alive not just through the dishes that it serves but also through the ambience of the restaurant, which features Caribbean music and paintings from Diaz's father, who still lives in Puerto Rico.
William Crespo, 55, said he comes to Calientito about three times a week. He singled out the oxtail for praise, describing it as tender and comparable to his mother's cooking, but stressed that the entire menu was delicious.
"Everything here is good," he said. "But the oxtail takes the cake."
The Bruckner Bar & Grill, which reopened at 1 Bruckner Blvd. in November after being closed for more than a year due to Hurricane Sandy and a legal dispute over repairs, now has customers coming from Brooklyn, Westchester and Connecticut to try its lamb burger, according to manager Joseph Diaz.
He saw this as evidence that the bad reputation of the South Bronx was starting to break down but acknowledged that it was still challenging to get customers to come to the restaurant at night.
Diaz described the eatery as a place where they get to know customers' names and who they are. Matt Nolen, who works nearby and said he comes to the grill about once a week, agreed that it had a friendly vibe.
"It feels like a neighborhood center, like where people gather," he said.
Those looking for Asian cuisine can head to Ceetay, a sushi bar at 129 Alexander Ave. that opened about two years ago. Waitress and manager Anastasia Gincul said people generally do not expect to see sushi in the Bronx, but customers tend to come back after trying the food.
"They are surprised," she said. "When they come, they are very surprised. It's very difficult to trust sushi in the Bronx, but everybody is satisfied."
Like the Bruckner Grill, Ceetay tries to be friendly with its customers, which Gincul said has contributed to its reputation.
"That's why people like us," she said. "Not only the food but also the service."
Manager Sam Toosi of Charlie's Bar & Kitchen, at 112 Lincoln Ave., hopes his restaurant ushers in a rehabilitation of the South Bronx, which has suffered from a reputation for poverty and crime. Every neighborhood that has undergone a rebirth has had a restaurant to help lead the way, he said, citing Zum Schneider in Alphabet City as an example.
Shrimp and grits are one of the eatery's most popular menu items, according to Toosi. The bar also serves Bronx-themed cocktails like Henny From The Block, a reference to Bronx native Jennifer Lopez that is a mixture of Hennessy, bitters, agave, lime juice and ginger beer.
Toosi was confident that the South Bronx would eventually become another revitalized section of New York.
"We're kind of the last frontier."
We've put together a map of great places to eat in Mott Haven. If we missed your favorite spot, let us know in the comments.