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Tiny Mexican Deli Serves Up Big Flavors in East Village

By Patrick Hedlund | January 20, 2011 7:14am | Updated on January 20, 2011 9:53am

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

EAST VILLAGE — Among the myriad bars and restaurants that have sprouted at the northern end of Avenue A, one decade-old sliver of a storefront serving up authentic Mexican fare has remained a popular destination for the neighborhood's newcomers and old-timers alike.

Zaragoza Mexican Deli and Grocery, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it eatery near East 13th Street, has been drawing crowds that come to feast on its cheap tacos, tamales and enchiladas since opening in 2000.

The neighborhood's recent demographic shift has only benefited the family-run establishment, which has transitioned from serving mostly immigrant workers to the area's new arrivals.

"Now it's more white people than Spanish," acknowledged Zaragoza owner Pompeyo Martinez, 55, who last year carved out a dining area in the back of his diminutive store to accommodate more customers.

"The carnitas is the number one [seller]," he added of the deli's most popular dish, which consists of homemade braised pork chunks served on a taco for the recession-friendly price of $2.50.

Other highlights include the $3.50 quesadillas stuffed with corn-based huitlacoche, squash blossoms and pumpkin flower; and the $5 torta, a sandwich heaped with meat, black beans, avocado, lettuce and tomato, and topped with cheese, sour cream and hot sauce.

Despite the store's nondescript awning, which makes it look more like a bodega, lines snake out the door on weekend nights, with patrons looking for an inexpensive late-night bite.

"I just moved in a month ago across the street, and I've come here probably once a week," said Stefan DiLeo, 23, who came to the neighborhood from Westchester. "Late at night it gets really packed — they all come here for the munchies."

But for all its popularity, Martinez explained that Zaragoza started as a place that mostly fed workers from a former cleaning factory located nearby.

He moved to New York City from Chicago in the late '90s after growing up in Puebla, Mexico, and soon earned a reputation for serving up traditional Mexican cuisine sometimes hard to come by in Manhattan.

For example, patrons will find a wide variety of classic meats — from chipotle chicken to chorizo to goat — not readily available at more mainstream Mexican restaurants.

Martinez's wife prepares the food each day at the family's other eatery in Brooklyn, and they serve customers until midnight on weeknights and past 4 a.m. on weekends — if they don't run out of food before then.

There's barely enough to turn around at the cashier counter-cum-kitchen without knocking over the bottles of imported Mexican hot sauce or bagged tostadas that line the walls, but that doesn't seem to deter anyone.

"It definitely seems more authentic," said Dipesh Mehta, 20, and NYU student who lives on Second Avenue and often forsakes the Mexican restaurant located below his apartment for the flavors at Zaragoza.

"My roommate last year went to this place on whim," he added of how he discovered the deli. "I didn't trust him because he's not a picky eater, but I am."

Mehta has been coming back regularly ever since.

Zaragoza's recent expansion — it managed to fit a trio of two-seat tables in the back and even hire a waitress — has also turned the space into somewhat of a social club for locals, complete with a jukebox and license to serve beer.

"A lot of people that come in here are regulars, and everybody knows each other," said Eclair Morton, who started as a server last March, of the best part of working at Zaragoza. "And the food — I eat half my weight in food."

Martinez said he's not worried about rising rents in the area pushing him out, partly because his space is so small. He also likes the mix of old and new customers, white and Hispanic, who have found common ground at his restaurant.

"We're happy to service all the community," he said. "I like it here. Everybody respects each other."