The Interview

Mezcal, Music, Mole: Meet the First-Time Restaurateurs Bringing Mexico City to Williamsburg

by California Chaney
Aldama co-founders Christopher Reyes and Chef Gerardo Alcaraz. All photos courtesy of Aldama.

WILLIAMSBURG, NY — Powered by mezcal margaritas and truffle-topped vegan mole, Aldama is breaking restaurant records in Brooklyn. The restaurant, which opened during Covid, survived and is celebrating its first anniversary. It's packed every night, with several of its dishes selling out before 9 p.m. reservations. Aldama is the independent breakout success story of Christopher Reyes, a long-time bartender (previously of Employees Only, Cosme, Maison Premiere) and first-time restaurateur, along with chef and partner Gerardo Alcaraz, formerly of the three-Michelin-starred Martín Berasategui in San Sebastián, Spain. Their mission is to bring Mexico to New York, not only through their dishes — inspired by late-night bar snacks and ceviches from Mexico City, Tijuana, and Alcaraz's hometown of León — but in the music, mezcal, and welcoming atmosphere. The space, a subterranean cocktail bar with a serene outdoor patio, is decorated entirely in textiles and ceramics from Mexico. The mezcal, the tortillas, the spices — all from Mexico. But it's the pair's passion — not just physical imports — that make the space feel extraordinary.

Following their success, Alcaraz and Reyes are expanding this summer, heading up to Greenpoint, as Reyes recently became co-owner of Ponyboy and enlisted Alcaraz to bring his elevated bar snacks (poblano-pepper hummus, cochinita pibil bao buns, and carne-asada tacos) to the late-night, dance-party fueled neighborhood watering hole. Reyes is also beefing up the cocktail menu with turmeric-infused mezcal, Aperol margaritas, and frozen sippers for summer Friday happy hours.

The pair clearly has a secret sauce that's spreading across Brooklyn and beyond. I sat down with them to discuss why it's important to them to bring Mexican food to New York, what the key to success is in making it in the cutthroat restaurant world in NYC, and why music is a key ingredient in their cuisine.

How did you both meet?

Gerardo [Alcaraz] and I met seven years ago when Gerardo was a line cook at the Black Ant in the East Village. I was moving up in the bar world. I did my time at Employees Only, Cosme, Maison Premiere, the Nomad Bar. Soon, Gerardo became the executive chef of Black Ant, where we met. Then, of course, the pandemic came. At that point, I was already the general manager of Ponyboy and was working on making cocktails to go and sell burritos and tacos, to make the best of it. Ponyboy was booming out the window — Gerardo joined to make tacos and burritos. We never stopped working, day and night. We then decided we should be doing this for ourselves.

How was Aldama born?

The idea was to open a small taqueria where we would pay two or three thousand in rent. That’s how naive we were about prices in New York — that was never going to happen. I was rolling around this neighborhood on a bicycle and I stopped right here. The landlord was closing and I asked if it was for rent. He said, "Come see it, bring me money, and I’ll give it to you." He gave me 15 or 20 minutes. I called Gerardo and said, "This is a chance of a lifetime." It was more than we could afford, but we said we’d take it. It was a fake-it-until-you-make-it scenario. It took us a long time for planning, with many losses, I could go on and on. We almost didn’t open twice. We were sitting right here and just said, "Forget it." It became too big for us. Sometimes things work out for a certain reason.

What was the inspiration for Aldama?

I went to León one time, where Gerardo is from and was living at the time. We love ceviche and we always talked about opening a restaurant — we’d want it to be like the seafood restaurant we went to together. That’s how the idea of Aldama came about. We wanted to have something casual, professional, and non-pretentious. I come from working in cool cocktail bars and Gerardo at some of the best restaurants in Europe. We were thinking we can do something really cool the way we want to do it. We can play a playlist of the music we listen to when we drink or eat. We don't want anybody to dictate what we want to do. Gerardo likes to eat street food and hangover-cure food — everything spicy, fried, seafood. We catered to what we wanted at the very beginning. We had the tools we needed, and wanted to make it beautiful, but make sure anybody can come to this restaurant. I care that people can eat what we serve and enjoy. Opinions how to run the place, that’s something we’ve never cared about. We stand by what we want to do. We spend so much time together, we know what each other wants from the place.

Tell me about a signature dish at Aldama.

We designed our menu to introduce people to the lesser-known regional recipes from Mexico City. There are two dishes that we’re very proud of. The cecina is very thinly sliced beef jerky, a casual bar food found in Mexico City. It’s also very typical of the city that Gerardo is from. It’s a dish that we fought about. It took me a long time to realize, holy sh*t, this is amazing. It’s thinly sliced meat, dehydrated and deep fried with a bean and sunchoke puree with citrus on top. It’s what Gerardo grew up eating and I don't think there’s any other restaurant in New York that serves it. Then the taco de trompo. He makes his own mix of meats — flank steak and pork belly. The original recipe in Mexico is just pork meat. All the chefs that we brought from Mexico don’t understand why he did it with that meat. Now once or twice a month, we have people calling us for the recipe who want to make it for their friends. There's not one day during the week, seven days a week that the cecina doesn’t sell out by 9 p.m.

Why is it important to you to bring Mexican food to New York?

There are very few places that serve what you can truly call Mexican food in New York. We always battled with this when we went to eat with friends and they said, "I’m going to take you to this great Mexican place!" and we always say, "This isn’t Mexican food; this is American food." That’s the only message we wanted to send to people. This is real Mexican food. If you taste it, it tastes like Mexican food. Of course, with a modern twist. From the music we play here to the food we serve, the way people act when they serve you, is how they would act in Mexico.

What’re the challenges in opening a Mexican restaurant in New York?

Mexican cuisine has been in the U.S. forever. And we’ve made our own interpretation of what Mexican food is. You go to California and eat burritos and you aren’t eating Mexican, you're eating Californian food. Here in New York, we have a large population of people from Puebla and Oaxaca, so the only interpretation of Mexican food that we would have here is from those two places. There wasn’t really food that you can get that was food from Mexico City.

You've just made it over the hardest hurdle for a NYC restaurant: surviving one year. Why is it so difficult to be successful in the restaurant business in New York?

We had heard not to ever get into the restaurant industry. It’s the biggest gamble. Out of every ten restaurants that open, 9.5 go bankrupt before the first year. We've been in positions where we’ve owed people. We're definitely not perfect or the Cinderella story of restaurants, but we believed in what we were doing. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we're here for the long run, even if we have to sleep in the basement of the restaurant in order to save it. We are not going to give up. I think a lot of people aren’t willing to make those sacrifices and that’s the difference between making it and not making it. We always had this thing in our mind of sacrificing our personal lifestyles or our weekly expenses outside of the restaurant. We’ve never had a problem in sacrificing. I wake up everyday knowing that 37 people depend on us.

Where do you think the restaurant industry is post-Covid?

I think right now is a great time if people are willing to put in the work. I don’t recommend anyone getting involved or investing in the food industry unless you know what it is. I see the restaurant business booming right now. There are more people that have had it harder than us, as ours is such a small place. There are places that lose a million dollars in a month if they don’t do well. The restaurant business is booming for people who know what they’re doing. You need to know how to negotiate your lease, your food purveyors, your liquor purveyors. You need to know how to run your cash flow. Some people go crazy and order all this inventory and then you’re sitting on it and go broke. If you know what you’re doing, do it. If not, wait a while.

The music at Aldama is amazing. Why is it important to mix music and food?

When we used to live together, we would sit down and have beers and listen to music. We have very similar tastes — I like hip-hop, that’s the only thing he doesn’t like that I like. But we have similar tastes in Spanish music or the things that we grew up on because we're almost the same age. Right before we opened, we didn’t have any furniture yet, and we were so stressed out that we were missing a few things like glasses, etc. We got so drunk that night and we just started playing music, and going, "OMG, do you remember this song?! OMG this is crazy. Play this one, that one, that’s going on the playlist too!" That’s the playlist we’ve played since day one. I grew up listening to this guy called Nek, an Italian singer that sings in Spanish. It was very famous in the early 2000s and that's on there. Gerardo likes Joaquin Sabina. When people come from Mexico City, they go, "Oh sh*t, man I haven’t heard this song in years!" And so that’s what we were going for, to bring people to Mexico. I'm from Jamaica, Queens, and so I grew up with hip-hop. You can hear Nas, you can hear Biggie, different things too.

What’re you hopeful for in the next year ahead?

Gerardo and I are teaming up with Mariscos el Submarino, a small shack in Queens that sells ceviches and aguachiles straight from Mexico. That’s somewhere we go all the time, even before we built our own restaurant. So that’s the next step. Gerardo has some ideas, I have some ideas. There's nothing set in stone for the next ten years. Only the universe knows.

Aldama is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Ponyboy is open Tuesday to Sunday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

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