In 1992, Natalia Mendez and Antonio Saavedra left their village of San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán in the Mixteca region of northwestern Oaxaca. The pair of married farmers crossed the Sonoran Desert, bound for New York City. They imagined they’d head home a year later, but when the day came, Saavedra returned alone. He gathered their children, who’d learned to speak Mixtec before Spanish, and brought them to New York.
In 2009, the housing market crash gave rise to opportunity. The family opened La Morada, a Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven. There, in a single room furnished with a dozen or so tables, indigenous Mexican cuisine has offered culinary revelation to diners from all walks of life.
Natalia Mendez, La Morada’s matriarch and head chef, hand-picks ingredients from local farmers’ markets. An article in The New Yorker cites her “rainbow of moles” as cause for the restaurant’s many fans. In addition to green, black, and red, Mendez makes the rare mole blanco, a rich, white sauce that blends chicken broth, garlic, and onions with chiles and four kinds of nuts. Her daughter Carolina makes tacos, tlayudas, and stews alongside her, and competed on Chopped in 2017, hoping to put the prize money into the local community.
The family is open about their undocumented status and works to educate others about immigrant rights. In addition to an exceptional lineup of rare Oaxacan offerings, La Morada operates as a community activism center geared toward immigration advocacy, events, lectures, and more. In back, a library stocks Mesopotamian mythology, George Orwell, and Boethius. Banners, books, and art cover the purple walls almost as liberally as silky sauces blanket chiles rellenos, shredded chicken, and tamales.
Marco Saavedra, Mendez’s son, hosts, serves, paints, and writes poetry. After graduating from Kenyon College, he wrote a book about undocumented youth like himself, which sits on La Morada’s shelves. In 2013, he entered Mexico for the first time since age three—an act of civil disobedience—and asked for asylum upon return to the United States. He continues to work at the family’s restaurant today.
Over the last decade, La Morada has racked up critical acclaim, but has also received some unwanted attention. In January of 2019, Yajaira Saavedra, the family’s eldest daughter, was arrested without warrant, then released without charges later that day. The family alleges they were targeted for supporting movements such as Black Lives Matter and pro-immigration efforts, which—in addition to preparing homestyle Oaxacan fare for a community of adoring supporters—they continue to do.