Volume 76, Number 39 | February 21 -27, 2007

Photo by Miriam Fogelson

Jose Marmolejo and Irma Marin at their restaurant, Puebla Mexican Food, on First Ave.

Family and a holy mole sauce is a winning recipe

By Barry Paddock

Recently, Jose Marmolejo, 25, forgot to order the tortillas for Puebla Mexican Food, the takeout and delivery restaurant on First Ave. in the East Village where he has worked with his mother since he was 14. The place consists of a few tables and chairs, a counter to order from and a small kitchen behind the cooler full of American and Mexican sodas. Marmolejo’s uncharacteristic forgetfulness toward ordering supplies caused a rare rift between mother and son. He made an emergency run to a tortilla factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to remedy the situation fast and win his mother’s forgiveness.

Marmolejo’s mother, Irma Marin, 43, was born into poverty in the town of Santana, in the central Mexican state of Puebla that their restaurant is named after. She was one of 12 children. In 1979, at age 15, she left her parents and the world she knew behind to cross illegally into the United States. It was a last-minute decision. An older sister had backed out after the family had paid $550 per person to a coyote (an expert — or profiteer — at smuggling people across the border). The money could not be refunded and Marin took her sister’s spot, traveling with another sister, that sister’s husband and his brother.

The coyote led them on a five-hour hike over a Tijuana mountain into Southern California, using his familiarity with the route to avoid authorities. Marin and her small party eventually made it to Los Angeles, where they boarded a cross-country bus to New York City. Her sister and brother-in-law rented a tenement apartment in the East Village, and Marin lived with them. Her childhood and her formal education were over.

“No one wanted to give me a job because I was only 15,” she recalled. She worked for six months as a live-in nanny for a Jewish family near Coney Island before finding work in a clothing factory in Brooklyn. She worked for the next decade at various factory jobs, becoming a legal resident in 1987 through a government amnesty program.

Marin fell in love with and eventually married her sister’s husband’s brother, who had crossed the border with them and had settled in the apartment building next door. At age 17 she gave birth to Jose (who has his father’s last name). She found an apartment for her fledgling family around the corner from her sister’s home, and went on to have two more children.

“My family always cooked,” Marmolejo recalled of his childhood. “Birthdays, marriages, baptisms — mole and pernil would always be there.”

In 1990, Marin’s sister and brother-in-law rented a storefront at 47 First Ave. and opened Downtown Bakery, serving Mexican food mostly to other neighborhood Latino immigrants. Marin, now 26, gave up her factory jobs to assist in the restaurant, joined by Marmolejo when he reached his teens. He eventually graduated high school and briefly gave up restaurant work to attend automotive school.

In 2000, Marin’s sister, suffering from a foot injury that made it difficult to stand for long hours, decided to sell the business. Marin took over the restaurant, paying her sister off in installments.

“No more ‘Do this and do that!’” she said, summing up the advantages of becoming her own boss. She tweaked the recipes and rechristened the business with its current name. “We worked harder,” her son said, “because this was for us now.” Marin’s sister and brother-in-law now run Downtown Bakery II at 69 First Ave., a spinoff of the original restaurant.

They witnessed the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification.

“Everyone was afraid to deliver to Avenue B,” Marmolejo laughed, recalling abandoned and stripped cars on First Ave. “Now we go all the way to the F.D.R. Drive. But with more white people in the neighborhood, the price of everything went up, from rent to milk. Our old customers are forced to move out. That’s why our prices aren’t too high, to keep attracting new ones.”

These newer patrons are often confused by the soft tortilla wrapping their taco, expecting a hard shell like at Taco Bell.

“A crispy shell, to us that’s a quesadilla,” Marmolejo said dismissively. “In Mexico, tacos have soft shells and that’s how we serve them.” They’ve kept authenticity as their calling card, expanding the menu to include more regional specialties, though they now more often serve hot sauce on the side. Their dark-brown, velvety mole poblano sauce has converted many customers into regulars. Some restaurants buy it premade in tubs or buy powders and add water. At Puebla they make the notoriously difficult-to-prepare sauce from scratch. When asked the ingredients, Marmolejo listed chocolate, ground tortillas, almonds, raisins and cinnamon, then clammed up. “I can’t tell you the rest or everyone will copy us,” he said.

Through positive newspaper reviews and word-of-mouth, Puebla has built a reputation as an exemplary neighborhood standby. They boast of being patronized by celebrities including actress Drew Barrymore, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and basketball great John Starks. Some loyal customers order delivery five times a week or more.

Clientele have played transformative roles in both mother and son’s lives. After his own son started walking, Marmolejo found the apartment he shared with his mother too small. A regular cab-driving patron who doubles as a small-time landlord agreed to rent Marmolejo the apartment in Ridgewood where he now lives.

Another regular customer, Theseus Williams, 31, who boasts of having tried every item on Puebla’s menu, is responsible for the store’s recent renovations. A native Texan and recent Manhattan transplant, Williams attends culinary school in hopes of opening his own restaurant. He is also a talented and creative amateur carpenter. He has worked out a barter system with Puebla where he is not only fed but learns firsthand from Marin and Marmolejo the ins-and-outs of city permits, ordering from wholesalers, recordkeeping and book balancing. In return, he is slowly transforming their small eat-in area, adding a handsome wooden bar at the window where customers sit on his stools, and replacing the fluorescent overhead lighting with decorative ceiling-fan fixtures. The garbage can he designed and created is strikingly attractive, made of dark wood and rugged black bolts, with a mouth shaped like a sunburst. Of Marin, Williams says, “She has become my second mom.”

A few elements of the décor have been left untouched, like the large Mexican flag that hangs between two mirrors. On Marmolejo’s left shoulder is a tattoo of the flag’s emblem, an eagle gripping a snake in its beak. Over the last few years, he has been accumulating tattoos. The word “Chicano” is spelled down the inside of his right arm. On his left arm he has his mother and father’s family names crossed with his son’s first name, Angel. He pulls down the neck of his shirt to reveal a message on his chest: “Love to my unborn child.” His wife miscarried during the fifth month of her first pregnancy.

Despite marrying a Mexican-American woman, Marmolejo has never been to Mexico himself. He’s never been out of the United States or taken a vacation. His wife works full time at Puebla, as well, but takes weekends off to care for their child. When asked what he does when not at Puebla, Marmolejo mentions “walking around” and “just relaxing.” Sometimes he drives his mother to Brooklyn or New Jersey malls. They avoid Mexican food when away from work.

“Chinese food — chicken and broccoli — that’s what I eat,” he said with a smile, appreciating the irony. His mom can never resist a good tuna fish sandwich.

Both mother and son work seven days a week in overlapping shifts, and the restaurant only closes for Christmas and New Year’s Day. So to pass the time, they play Spanish pop radio all day, avidly keeping up with the new singers.

Reflecting on her good fortune, Marin gazes raptly at Marmolejo and his 22-year-old brother who has stopped by the restaurant, and who still lives with her. Her 16-year-old daughter is in high school.

“Sometimes I look at them and I can’t believe it,” she said. “My children, having my job, they are everything to me. Their father…” she throws a hand in the air dismissively and shakes her head.

After separating from her husband last year, she is now filing for divorce. She is slowly starting to take advantage of her new freedom. A few months back, a friend took her out to a large West Village Mexican restaurant with Latin music and dancing upstairs. Now she dances there a few nights a week, after closing up Puebla around midnight.

“I get to take all the stress out,” she said, gesturing vibrantly into the air.

Puebla Mexican Food & Coffee Shop, 47 First Ave., between Second and Third Sts., 212-473-6643.

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