One after another, the exiles come in. They sit at the pale-green Formica counter with a newspaper and order a café con leche, which arrives steaming in a milk-shake glass. They are suave young men, sexy girls with long black ponytails and older émigrés who emit years of coolness, and they have come to Café Habana in downtown Manhattan to find the foods they grew up with in Mexico City: hotcakes with cajeta (a goat's milk caramel) flavored with vanilla and wine; jicama, citrus and watercress salad; quesadillas with huitlacoche (corn fungus), jalapeño and onion; and big bowls of posole in broth with pork, oregano, chile and lime.
"They call us Chilango Corner," owner Richard Ampudia says, "because this is where everybody from Mexico City runs into everybody else from there. People from Mexico City are nicknamed Chilangos because, like the chilango chile, they think they are so hot." Ampudia, 32, grew up in Mexico City with his American mother and Mexican father, in an affluent, bilingual household obsessed with food. "I was raised by four cooks," Ampudia says. "First there was the family cook. Then there was my mother, who is Jewish, and my Mexican grandmother, who would make me traditional dishes like cactus salad and chicken with pumpkin seeds. And then there was my grandmother in the Bronx, who is from the Ukraine. Whenever we visited New York, my grandparents would pick us up at the airport, and my grandmother would bring brisket, pastrami and tongue for the car ride home. Everyone on my mother's side of the family argued, but food was the way they expressed love." From his father, Ampudia learned elegant Mexican table manners: how to eat a mango without getting sticky fingers, how to debone a whole cooked fish with a knife and fork.
Ampudia worked in a variety of restaurants after his move to New York in 1986, including Lucky Strike and the Odeon, but he always wanted to own a place that served the simple foods he'd grown up with. Café Habana does just that. The staff is mostly Mexican, including the chef, Alfredo Teco, who, Ampudia says, "has a touch for Mexican home cooking, particularly the flavors of Oaxaca and Puebla." The café is loosely modeled after a Mexico City institution. "Fidel supposedly planned the revolution in the Café La Habana," Ampudia says. During the Forties the restaurant was a hangout for mambo musicians performing at a local radio station, XEW. Today, Mexico City's Café La Habana is housed in a classic Fifties-style luncheonette. Ampudia and his partners, Sam Martinez and Sean Meenan, found a similar luncheonette for their New York version, which opened last year. Chrome siding and toothpick holders on the tables give the space a retro look.
Ampudia travels to Mexico City every few months to visit his family and looks for ingredients, and he continues to import the flavors of his childhood to Manhattan. He returns with such recipes as aromatic iced hibiscus tea; grilled corn rolled in mayonnaise, chile powder and a pungent Romano-like cheese called cotija; Cuban sandwiches with pork, ham, cheese, pickles and chipotle mayonnaise; even his mother's cheese flan, inspired by New York-style cheesecake. This is Mexican comfort food, and it's why New York's Mexican expats call Café Habana their home away from home.
Eugenia Bone is a food writer who lives and works in New York City.